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Joshua Slocum wrote ‘Sailing Alone round the World’ in 1900

Posted in Adventure, America, Boats, Bravery, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, Travel on Friday, 30 March 2012

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This edited article about Joshua Slocum originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 680 published on 25 January 1975.

Joshua Slocum, picture, image, illustration

In 1895 Joshua Slocum claimed to have seen a spectre on board his sloop, ‘Spray’, by Graham Coton

The sailing sloop Spray was only 36 feet long, and the weather off the coast of Patagonia could hardly have been worse. Under short sail the little vessel rode it out as best she could, rising to the crest of each tremendous wave before dropping like a stone into the trough, while her timbers groaned in protest. Suddenly the Spray’s captain glanced behind him to see a wave of unbelievable size bearing down on him. He knew instinctively that there would be no riding this one. Without a moment’s hesitation he abandoned the wheel and leaped for the rigging, scrambling up as high as he could go.

From the top of the mast the man looked down in time to see the whole of his vessel vanish beneath countless tons of water. Clinging desperately to the rigging, he waited to see if the deck would appear again or not. Somewhat to his surprise it did, water cascading from it as the sloop shook herself like a dog. Totally unperturbed, the captain slid down from his perch and regained the cockpit. Perhaps if he had had some companion he might have made some half joking remark. But there was none. In that January of 1896, Captain Joshua Slocum was engaged on an enterprise that had never been attempted before.

Single handed, he was sailing round the world.

What was to become one of the great epics of seamanship had begun four years earlier, on a winter’s day in Boston, Massachusetts, when Slocum had met his old friend, Captain Pierce. There was no need to explain that times were hard, for everyone who had sailed from the eastern seaboard knew Slocum’s story. Once owner of his own ship, he had been respected and successful until his wife, who always sailed at his side, had died off Buenos Aires. After that, everything seemed to have gone wrong. Mutinies, smallpox epidemics and, finally, the wreck of his treasured vessel had ruined Joshua Slocum, and when Pierce met him, the one-time prosperous ship’s master was down and out.

“Come to my home, in Fairhaven and I’ll give you a ship,” Pierce told his old friend. Then he’d added, “But she’ll need some repairs.”

Scarcely able to believe his good luck, Joshua Slocum had headed for the little New England port, and there he saw for the first time the ship he had been promised: a 36 foot oyster sloop called the Spray, propped up and rotting in a field where she had been for the last seven years. According to legend, the hulk was a hundred years old and the local fishing folk were at a loss to understand the gratitude and delight that flooded the face of the gaunt, bearded newcomer as he studied the Spray. Old and broken down she might be, but she was a boat, just the same. All she needed was a little time and work.

As it turned out, the sloop needed more than just a few repairs. Most of her timbers were rotten and had to be replaced from planks cut in the nearby woods. Slocum took his time. He lived with Captain Pierce, and when he needed money he did odd jobs in the local shipyard. By the time the Spray was seaworthy again virtually every inch of wood had been replaced, yet her new owner had spent only $553, just over £100, on new materials.

The people of Fairhaven looked at the trim, freshly painted 13 tonner with new respect.

“What are you goin’ to use her for, cap’t?”

“Well now, I don’t rightly know, Fishing, maybe.”

Slocum’s indecision was real enough. Until this moment he had been so absorbed with the task of bringing the old sloop to life again that he had never stopped to think of what use he would put her to. Yet the Spray provided ample room in which to live, and so Joshua Slocum made the vessel his home. It was while he was arranging the cabin to his satisfaction that the idea came to him. If he was to live on the Spray why do so at anchor? Why not go somewhere? Come to that, why not do something no man had ever done before: sail single handed round the world!

It is a feat that has been repeated since, but in Slocum’s day there was no ship-to-shore radio, no radar or other navigational aids or highly developed self-steering equipment. Neither, for that matter, were there such things as auxiliary motors, electricity, bottled gas or specially compressed foods. If the voyage was to be undertaken, then it would be with the same simple equipment that sailors had used down the centuries, with the captain of the Spray living mainly on a diet of ship’s biscuits and salt cod. It was an idea that filled Slocum with excitement, but could he afford to pay for such a trip? Fortunately a group of newspapers were willing to pay for reports on his progress, and once the public got to know of the project, well wishers were eager to supply Slocum with stores. Now nothing could stop him, and on 25th April, 1895 a crowd gathered at Boston to see the adventurer off.

“Where I shall next be heard from I cannot tell,” he announced as he climbed aboard. Then he hoisted sail and set out on a journey that was to last for three long years.

The voyage started badly. Slocum fell desperately ill on his way to Gibraltar, and had no sooner recovered than he was chased by Moorish pirates. He escaped, recrossed the Atlantic and headed down the coast of South America, only to go aground off Uraguay, nearly drowning in his efforts to refloat the Spray. Then came the storm off Patagonia. Somehow the sloop rode it out, and following the course first sailed by Magellan, Slocum rounded the southern-most tip of South America. The weather improved, but he was by no means out of trouble. Near Chile he was attacked by a number of natives in war canoes, whom he fought off with rifle fire after having dressed up a piece of wood to look like another man, so as not to reveal the fact that the sloop had only a crew of one.

As master of a big trading vessel, Slocum had been round the world many times, but he had never been able to visit the lands and people that attracted him most. Now he could do as he liked, so he made a point of visiting such places as the “Robinson Crusoe Island” of Juan Fernandez, and Samoa, where he met the widow of his idol, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

After a year and a half had passed the news of this amazing single handed effort had spread round the world, and Slocum’s arrival at a port usually became an occasion for civic welcomes and speeches. The captain had no objection to this, and in fact seems to have grown rather fond of public appearances. He also found it gave him a chance to make money from lectures, and money was usually needed. Never at any time did the Spray’s stores include either binoculars or a chronometer. After all, as Slocum observed, who wanted a chronometer? He’d always navigated perfectly well with the aid of a cheap alarm clock.

Australia, New Zealand, Africa. One after another the countries loomed up over the far horizon, were visited, then sank behind the Spray’s wake. In Pretoria, Slocum was honoured by a meeting with President Kruger, with whom he discussed navigation only to discover that the Boer leader was firmly convinced that the earth was flat.

“You are not sailing round the world, Captain Slocum,” ‘Oom Paul’ insisted. “You are sailing in it.”

At St Helena, someone suggested that a goat would make the voyage less lonely, and Slocum reluctantly agreed to a four footed companion. It was a decision he bitterly regretted when the goat settled down to eat everything in sight, including ropes and a full set of charts of the West Indies. In spite of its vigorous protests, the animal was dumped ashore at the next port of call.

Joshua Slocum brought the Spray home to Newport on 27th June, 1898, having been away three years, two months and two days and with his log recording a voyage of 46,000 miles. His reception in his own land was disappointing, for everyone was too concerned with the Spanish-American War to have much time for a round the world traveller. Determined to see at least some return for his achievement, Slocum settled down and wrote Sailing Alone Round the World, a straightforward record of the Spray’s voyage that was destined to become one of the great sea books of all time. The captain had the satisfaction of seeing it appear in no less than five editions, and bringing well-deserved fame.

Joshua Slocum lived to be sixty five. After his great voyage he bought a small house in New England, but never settled down. He wandered from place to place, lecturing, writing and growing more remote and more difficult to deal with, as though his three years of solitude were taking their toll. In 1909 he began to plan a great voyage of exploration up the great rivers of South America – a voyage from which he never returned.

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