While I was taking sailing lessons in the San Francisco Bay, I mentioned to the Captain that I was reading Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. The captain’s eyes lit up with excitement, and, for the sake of the other passengers, launched into a rousing tale about Joshua Slocum. The man is a legend in the sailing world.
Joshua Slocum had sailed and captained sailing ships his entire life until, in the era of steamships, he found himself a sort of relic of his time: unemployed and broke, an old sailor who was ‘born in the breezes’. Through a sort of joke, he acquired a ‘ship’—a very antiquated sloop called the Spray that had been rotting on shore for seven years.
Slocum rebuilt her to his liking, and discovering that he had no talent for fishing, decided (I’m still not exactly clear what prompted this) to sail around the world… alone, or what is known as single-handed sailing. On April 24, 1895, at the age of fifty-one, Slocum set sail from Boston, Massachusetts. More than three years later, on June 27, 1898, he returned to Newport, Rhode Island after a journey around the world that covered more than 46,000 miles. His account is worth the read, and I do believe he is a master of understatement.
Slocum did not use a chronometer, but relied on the traditional method of dead reckoning for longitude, using a battered tin clock with a broken minute hand and the sun. The man was a master seaman and nearly always hit his navigational mark except for when a storm threw him off course.
At one point he states, “I found myself once more sailing a lonely sea and in a solitude supreme all around. When I slept I dreamed that I was alone. This feeling never left me; but, sleeping or waking, I seemed always to know the position of the sloop, and I saw my vessel moving across the chart, which became a picture before me.” Speaking of sleeping, you may ask, when did he sleep?
During his three year journey around the world, Slocum spent very little time at the helm. Once the Spray was on her course, night or day, he would lash the helm and go about his duties, or read and sleep below deck. This reminded me of a story I’ve heard about an RV driver who put his vehicle on cruise control while he fetched a beer from the back. But unlike the disastrous RV driver, the sloop’s design was so well built that she kept her course with amazing accuracy.
‘Howard (an old friend who sailed an afternoon with Slocum) sat near the binnacle and watched the compass while the sloop held her course so steadily that one would have declared that the card was nailed fast. Not a quarter of a point did she deviate from her course.’
Slocum sailed through squalls and hurricanes, was attacked by pirates, fended off natives, dealt with a bout of sickness and a mystery rescuer who helped him through a storm, and proclaimed that a goat put on his ship by an evil American was ‘the worst pirate I met on the whole voyage.’
Quotes from Sailing Alone Around the World:
‘I once knew a writer who, after saying beautiful things about the sea, passed through a Pacific hurricane, and he became a changed man. But where, after all, would be the poetry of the sea were there no wild waves?’
‘To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over.’
(Part 3 of 3)