I am so impressed with Joshua Slocum as a person. Born “in the fair land of Nova Scotia, a maritime province,” he spent only a few years in school before beginning work to help his family, and worked on ships from the time he was a boy. He moved up steadily, becoming a captain, a part-owner, an owner, etc. And after decades captaining ships, his fortunes began to turn, because of the end of the age of sail and a string of unfortunate occurrences, until he was left with almost nothing.
At that point, a friendly captain makes him a present of a battered old sloop, the Spray. So old and battered, in fact, that Slocum finds it sitting in a field. He decides to rebuild it, and spends over a year ripping it apart and putting it back together, top to bottom. Since “it is a law in Lloyd’s that the Jane repaired all out of the old until she is entirely new is still the Jane,” the Spray is still the Spray, too, and this sloop will carry Slocum on a really amazing adventure—the first solo circumnavigation of the world, beginning in 1895.
Slocum says everyone wants to know if such a trip “will pay,” but he never cares about that. He’s discovered the Spray is self-steering (with the helm lashed), and that she’s a fine vessel in her rebuilt condition, and all he cares about is going to sea, being a sailor. He does find ways to make the trip pay, though, else he wouldn’t be able to continue it. He trades a bit, and he also gives lectures to the public at his various ports of call. This experience, along with the two previous book the uneducated and unedited Slocum had written, help him form the account that becomes Sailing Alone around the World, originally serialized in Century Magazine. Thomas Philbrick captures Slocum’s tone exactly in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition.
…[I]nstead of heightening the action and magnifying the actor, Slocum minimizes the anxiety, exhaustion, and terror of the voyage, returning us again and again from the fury of the sea to the pleasures of a well-cooked meal in the cabin or a friendly visit in port. Although it was written in an age of strenuous self-assertion, its characteristic tone conveys a quiet nonchalance. In the immensity of the ocean, the perspective is always human: vulnerable, hopeful, and infused with wry humor. Slocum’s lecturing taught him, he said, that audiences “wanted to laugh—not cry.” But the final cheerfulness of Sailing Alone is not a rhetorical device; it is the vital expression of the indomitable man who wrote it, as he celebrated the one unalloyed triumph of a life so often darkened by loss and humiliation.
There could not be a more appropriate word than “indomitable”; Slocum is the most relentlessly charming, cheerful, and optimistic person I would want to read about. Not a fool in any way, not naïve, definitely not annoying. Just happy: happy with the Spray, happy on the sea, happy to meet all the wonderful and interesting people he finds along the way. And happy through his own very hard and impressive work.
At each stop he makes he meets someone important, as everyone recognizes the excitement of his voyage. Governors, kings, the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson. Captains in the Royal Navy. Yacht clubs. Missionaries. Natives, children, bureaucrats. So many people offer him money, goods, free use of ports, food, hospitality—it’s very affirming. Mrs. Stevenson even gives him some of her husband’s sailing directories for the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. How magical is that, almost in the twentieth century?
Slocum’s spirit really comes through on every page, and the fabulous illustrations by Thomas Fogarty and George Varian should not be missed (so be sure to find an illustrated edition, like the Penguin Classics). Tomorrow: more on sailing alone, and Slocum’s great sense of humor.