We live in times when crossing oceans and cruising the world have become almost ordinary undertakings. Each year, more and more people flood the Internet with stories and videos about their challenging voyages. Some of these are by conscious, well trained, seasoned sailors, while others are simply from naïve beginners who take excessive risks. However, there will always be a glorious merit in being the first. And this is the very difference between other sailing narratives and Joshua Slocum’s account, Sailing Alone Around the World. This is the story of the first man to circumnavigate the globe alone and under sail. And he did it in the 1890’s on his 36-ft engineless sloop, the Spray, a boat that Slocum rebuilt completely from an abandoned hull that he was given.
Slocum departed alone from Boston in April 1895 to cross the Atlantic, with the initial plan of sailing through the Mediterranean and then the Suez Canal (then only 26 years from first opening). But after a creepy incident off the coast of Gibraltar, he decided to change his circumnavigation. Instead of heading east, he crossed the Atlantic once again, this time reaching Brazil. After sailing south and through the Strait of Magellan, Slocum continued west across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Cape of Good Hope. From there he finally sailed across the Atlantic for the third time on his way back home. He reached Rhode Island more than three years after his departure, in June 1898. The account of this fantastic journey, Sailing Alone Around the World, was published in 1899 and received widespread acclaim by reviewers throughout the English-speaking world.
It is fascinating to look at the ingredients that made this pioneering voyage possible. From the technical side, one of them was Slocum’s realisation that the Spray would hold its course with the helm lashed. Yet simple, this observation not only made his voyage possible but opened a new episode of maritime history. One may even argue that this was one of the precursors of the first self-steering systems that emerged in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He cruised 2,000 miles across the Pacific without touching the helm! On the personal front, Slocum was the perfect man for the voyage. A confident man who had the skills, nerves and more importantly the love for adventure that are needed for such a feat. As for his reasons, as he describes it in his own words, he did it ‘for the love of adventure’ and because he had ‘nothing else to do’. Indeed, Slocum’s life prior to this voyage was no less adventurous or interesting than the solo circumnavigation, so Sailing Alone Around the World is nothing but another special chapter of this man’s fantastic life.
Slocum was born on 20 February 1844 in Nova Scotia, Canada. His journey to become a ship commander started at the age of fourteen when he joined a fishing schooner to escape from the demanding work regime in his father’s the boot-making business. From that point, Slocum rapidly worked his way up and became the commander of a number of vessels. In 1874, he worked in ship building in the Philippines, where he became the owner of his first boat, the Pato (‘duck’ in Spanish). After that, the Slocum family acquired and sold a few other boats. Their fourth boat, the Aquidneck, was wrecked in Brazil in 1887. As an example of Slocum’s resilience, he recovered from the loss by building a new boat, the Liberdade (‘freedom’ in Portuguese) using local materials and workers. Launched on 13 May 1888, the same day when Brazil abolished slavery, the 35-ft long Liberdade sailed the Slocum family for over 5,500 miles from Brazil to the United States. Financially ruined but now a celebrity, Slocum wrote his first book, Voyage of the Liberdade. But the book was not as successful as the voyage. In 1891 a whaling master offered the Spray (or the ruins of it) to Slocum, an offer that would change the history of modern sailing. Slocum clung to the opportunity and worked during 13 months to turn the rotten hull into a fast and seaworthy sloop. The Spray was finally launched in 1893.
On his way around the globe, Slocum visited some of the remotest corners of the world and met the full breadth of cultures of his time. His journey was sprinkled with a number of tough episodes, including encounters with pirates off the coast of Gibraltar and with unfriendly Fuegians in Tierra del Fuego. To add to this prowess, the first man to sail the world alone --like many others of his time-- did not know how to swim! Yet, his narrative is simple and unassuming. Slocum’s unpretentious writing style even gives the impression that he had an easy ride. But let’s not be fooled by Slocum’s modesty. His feat has often been compared to those of the greatest adventurers in the history of mankind. More than fifty years after Slocum’s death, the renowned French sailor Bernard Moitessier named his 39-ft ketch ‘Joshua’, in honour of Slocum.
Enjoy reading this epic story written by the man who, more than a century later, keeps reminding us that the impossible is a construct waiting to be shattered. Or as he put it in his own words, after a group of ladies wished to know how one could sail around the world alone he said:
“It will come to that yet if we men-folk keep saying we ‘can’t’”.