Alone At Sea
Joshua Slocum (February 20, 1844 - 1909?) was a Canadian seaman and adventurer.
Born in Wilmot, Nova Scotia, the 5th of 11 children, he ran away from home at the age of twelve and earned a living as a cabin boy among the fishermen of the Bay of Fundy. At sixteen he shipped "before the mast" (crew). He rose to his first command nine years later at the age of 25.
He became the captain and part owner of Northern Lights, a full rigged tall ship. After several years, he sold his interest in that ship and purchased the bark Aquidneck. The Aquidneck was lost and Slocum lost his life savings in Brazil when the ship ran aground. He paid off his crew. Penniless and in the jungle he built a small boat (Liberdade), much like a long canoe, and sailed his wife and children home.
Slocum's wife Virginia died in 1884. From the time of their marriage she had sailed with him. She was not only an excellent navigator at sea, she was his life navigator, his anchor. The loss of his wife, no money, the replacement of sailing vessels by steamships all took a toll and his life began to fall apart. He could not relate to steam vessels. Slocum, like many older captains, could not find work that satisfied him.
He remarried in 1886 but it seems as though this was a marriage of convenience.
Eventually, an opportunity surfaced.
"Come to Fairhaven and I'll give you a ship, but she wants some repairs" said his old friend Captain Eben Pierce when they met in Boston one day in March 1892.
Instead of a command and a ship, however, Slocum found in Fairhaven an antiquated, decayed, derelict sloop propped up in a field some distance from the sea. The boat, Spray, was an old oyster sloop and had been "laid up" in the field for 7 years. Despite her condition, Spray gave Slocum a chance to rebuild his life. Spray was destined to become the most famous small sloop in history.
When Slocum began work on Spray, local residents assumed that he was, "Breaking her up, I s'pose?" to which he replied, "No." He immediately set about repairing and rebuilding the antiquated sloop. Working alone, but not without extensive advice from passers-by, some of whom were shipbuilders of vast experience in whaling-shipyards, he installed new timber: keel, frames, deck, bulwarks and all. He rebuilt the Spray plank-by-plank. "It was hard upon March when I began work in earnest; the weather was cold; still, there were plenty of inspectors to back me with advice. When a whaling-captain hove in sight I just rested on my adz awhile and 'gammed' with him." Much of the lumber needed for Spray's keel and frames came from an oak tree nearby that Slocum cut down.
When the rebuild was finished in 1883, Slocum decided to keep the name Spray. She was 36 feet, nine inches length over all, including the bowsprit and 14 feet, two inches wide. Spray was different than all other seagoing vessels, she had neither a center board or a keel. Captain Slocum had invested $553.62 for materials and 13 months of his labor. "Whaling-captains came from far to survey it. With one voice they pronounced it 'A-1' and in their opinion 'fit to smash ice'." Her seaworthiness was to be proved in the first solo circumnavigation, a voyage that began in Boston two years later.
He spent several months after the completion of Spray, working as a shipwright in New Bedford.
Slocum's goal was to be the first man to sail around the world single handed. On April 24, 1895, at the age of 51, he departed Boston in Spray on a journey that would take three years and cover 46,000 miles. He had no private funding, no modern navigational equipment, no self steering device, no refrigeration, and his only chronometer was a damaged tin clock. Many said a solo circumnavigation was impossible. However, he was aided by the remarkably well balanced design of Spray which allowed her to remain true to course with the wheel lashed.
Slocum first crossed the Atlantic and had intended a route past Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean, and through the Suez Canal. However, after being chased by and very narrowly escaping capture by Moorish pirates, he turned around, and decided to re-cross the Atlantic, taking a safer westerly route. He headed down and around the coast of South America, through the Straight of Magellan. During the Atlantic crossing, Slocum experienced hallucinations which he blamed on a meal of plums and white cheese.
It took him almost two months and seven attempts to get through the Straight. He fought off numerous storms, high winds and on several occasions hostile aboriginals. He was forced to adopt such tricks as going down one hatch, changing clothes and emerging out the other to make it look like several people were on board. His precaution of covering the deck with carpet tacks at night saved him once when natives stealthily slipped aboard while he was asleep.
From the Straight he crossed the Pacific to Samoa. This leg of the journey took seventy two days without seeing land. In Samoa he met the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson.
From Samoa he sailed to Australia. He waited out the summer hurricane season in Melbourne. From Australia he worked his way west stopping briefly at Tasmania, and a number of islands. Slocum rounded the Cape of Good Hope in December 1897. He arrived in Cape Town. South Africa in January 1898. He stayed in Cape Town for three months completing repairs on Spray, traveling and giving several lectures. From Cape Town, Slocum sailed across the South Atlantic stopping at St Helena and Ascension Islands.
On May 8th, 1898 Slocum crossed his outward bound track. He made several brief stops in the Caribbean.
On July 3rd, 1898 he arrived back at Fairhaven, his starting point. The journey had taken 3 years and 2 months.
Following the completion of his voyage, Slocum wrote Sailing Alone Around the World. The book sold well, has been translated into many languages and is still in print today. It is well written in the idiom of the times. Slocum, of course, uses nautical terminology which can be confusing for someone not familiar with that jargon.
Following his voyage, Slocum annually sailed with his family to the Caribbean. Although he enjoyed fame after his circumnavigation, his life declined. He was not happy. Many have said that he was never able to recover from the death of his first wife.
In November 1909 he set sail in Spray for South America and the Orinoco River. He disappeared and was never heard from again. It was assumed he was run down by a steamer or struck by a whale, the Spray was too sound a craft and Slocum too experienced a mariner for any other cause to be considered. In 1924 his wife requested that the court declare him dead which it did.
Joshua Slocum has become an icon in the sailing world. A 100th anniversary celebration of his voyage was held in Massachusetts in 1998. The design of Spray has been the subject of hundreds of articles.