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The solo circumnavigation was a breeze after the drama of this life at sea

2010 December 29

I think I was 13 when I read Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World for the first time.

I was a boy in the thrall of sailing adventure stories, and I devoured the book in a blur of rapidly turned pages. I loved the story, yet I conjured an image of Slocum that was less than heroic. I thought of him as a benign codger, a retiree who had time in his dotage to go on a very long sailing voyage alone and was lucky to get home alive.
Like many first impressions, this one was dead wrong. Maybe I was misled by the photos of Slocum I'd seen. In most of them he was wearing a suit, tie and hat, even when photographed aboard boats, and he had one of those severe 19th century faces that seem to always look old. But in fact, he was only 51 when he set off on his historic circumnavigation in 1895, and there was nothing passive or retiring about this tough-minded and tough-bodied sailor, then or ever.

I am now reminded by a fine new biography that Joshua Slocum was an authentic force of nature, a man whose life was so full of incident, adventure, success, failure, tragedy and triumph that it was worthy of a book, or several of them, even before the feat for which history remembers him.

Slocum was accomplished in every facet of sailing, physically strong, driven to succeed, courageous, well read and smart, most of all smart. He was a savant who mastered celestial navigation in its most difficult form-lunar observations requiring complex calculations using geometry, algebra and trigonometry-with only a third-grade education.
Just as he was a self-taught navigator, he was a self-taught writer who, though unlettered, created flowing, richly descriptive prose. I have never forgiven Howard I. Chapelle, the influential Smithsonian curator and Slocum doubter, for describing Slocum as "hardly literate" and asserting that Sailing Alone Around the World was the work of a ghost writer "who took liberties with the story to dress it up." The claim doesn't stand against the fact that Slocum wrote thousands of words for publication before his signature book and that, while the spelling and syntax sometimes reflected his lack of schooling in grammar, the writing is exemplary.
The author of the just-published Slocum biography, The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum, harbors no such mean spirits about his subject. Geoffrey Wolff writes that when he read Sailing Alone nearly 50 years ago, "I wasn't at the end of the first paragraph before I was astonished by the music of Slocum's prose."
There is a great deal more that is astonishing about Slocum, and Wolff, a heavy literary hitter praised for his biography of John O'Hara and a slew of other books, wraps all of it up in a genial, admiring portrait of a remarkable seafaring life.

Slocum left his home in Nova Scotia to go to sea at 16. While still a teenager he rose quickly through the ranks of ship's officers, becoming a first mate at the age of 19. He was only 25 when he got his first command, a 75-foot coasting schooner out of San Francisco. He would go on to sail as captain on a succession of sailing ships, schooners and square riggers, some of which he owned wholly or in part.

He was a formidable ship's captain, a tough-as-nails disciplinarian who was said to have "a big fist" and was not averse to using it to keep wayward crewmen, some the dregs of seafaring society in the last years of the age of sail, in line. Slocum denied being a martinet, but added, "I have an idea about how to run a ship." He once shot a mutineer dead.

His life at sea was more complicated than merely running a ship and managing a crew. Driven to succeed and prosper, he was a risk-taking capitalist who would do whatever it took to make a voyage profitable, including venturing to Alaska and the Okhotsk Sea bounded by China and Russia to fill his ships' holds with salmon or cod to be sold in the U.S.

Slocum and his bride Virginia spent their honeymoon on the 110-foot bark he captained fishing for chinook salmon near Kodiak Island. It was the start of another book-worthy chapter in Slocum's eventful life. He and Virginia lived for 14 years until her death at age 34 on Slocum's ships, raising a family (seven children were born on the ships, only three of whom survived) while crossing oceans and calling at ports around the globe. An educated woman and accomplished musician, the captain's wife schooled the children, entertained them (and sometimes the crew) with music (there was usually a piano on board) and encouraged them to explore the large library assembled by the "hardly literate" captain, who was a prodigious reader of literature, natural history and science.

One of their homes was the Northern Light, a 233-foot, 2,000-ton square-rigger described by Wolff as a "three-skysailyard windjammer" that was gorgeous to behold from a distance but shoddily built and, at the time Slocum acquired a one-third interest, falling apart. Blind to her blemishes, he wrote that she was "the finest American sailing vessel afloat." Wolff, perceptively for a non-sailor, sums up the situation perfectly with an observation that is as valid today as it was in Slocum's time: "It is certain that hardheaded prudence often enjoys a holiday when sailboats are being considered."

For a seaman of surpassing skill, Slocum seemed to have a knack of getting in trouble at sea. His life story is replete with groundings, shipwrecks and narrow escapes. Hubris may have been at work. Slocum was, after all, a self-made professional sailor confident in his abilities. He rarely ducked a sailing challenge, even if it meant, as was the case in a near-fatal passage on his 138-foot schooner Aquidneck with his family on board, foolishly leaving a safe harbor during a ferocious storm and nearly paying a terrible price offshore.

When you consider the whole of Slocum's life, the voyage that made him the first person to sail alone around the world seems more like a coda to a life of incredible drama than a crowning achievement. I suspect that sailing 46,000 miles alone in the forgiving Spray was easier for Slocum than much of what he faced as master of mighty sailing ships crewed by scores of tars.

The voyage lasted three years. It might have been better for Slocum that it never ended. After his celebrity as the history-making circumnavigator faded, he was miserable on shore. His remedy was to go sailing again. In November 1909 he shaped a course for Grand Cayman. Neither he nor Spray were ever seen again.

In a 1995 column prompted by the 100th anniversary of the first solo circumnavigation, I wrote, "The disappearance of Joshua Slocum was a mystery but not a tragedy. Slocum, at the age of 65, died sailing. A tragedy would have been for this magnificent sailor to have died any other way."

I'll leave the last word for Geoffrey Wolff, who told an interviewer that what surprised him most about Slocum was "the steady sweetness of his affection for the sea. He never felt betrayed by it, even when it seemed most perversely cruel."