What is it like to be at sea alone? Is it lonely? Is it boring? This was one of my main concerns in reading Sailing Alone, especially because so many other sea stories are so tied up in not being alone—in either being part of or ruling over a crew. What was Captain Slocum’s time like all by himself?
Most surprising to me was that when he said the Spray was self-steering, he really meant it. He seems to have spent most of his time on board cooking, eating, reading, and sleeping. There are stormy points where he has to steer for 30 hours straight, and lots of time spent in the rigging as well, and I’m sure he didn’t get in a lot of books around the Straits of Magellan. But a lot of time is passed with such diversions.
As to loneliness, Captain Slocum does feel it at first, but before reaching the Azores,
The acute pain of solitude experienced at first never returned. I had penetrated a mystery, and, by the way, I had sailed through a fog. I had met Neptune in his wrath, but he found that I had not treated him with contempt, and so he suffered me to go on and explore.
Thenceforth, most of his discussions of solitude are jokes: “But the turtle-steak was good. I found no fault with the cook, and it was the rule of the voyage that the cook found no fault with me. There was never a ship’s crew so well agreed.” No chance of mutiny, &tc.
In a few times of danger, the loneliness becomes a bit more of a problem. Off Morocco, Slocum is chased by pirates, and after getting away, “I was once more alone with myself in the realization that I was on the mighty sea and in the hands of the elements. But I was happy, and was becoming more and more interested in the voyage.” Later, off Tierra del Fuego, he does his best to make it appear that he is in fact not alone on the ship, as he would be in greater danger from the natives if they knew.
Still, it is hard to leave melancholy completely behind, even in such a happy tale, and even when Slocum is so good at making the best of it. “I had already found that it was not good to be alone, and so I made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.” Porpoises and dolphins make good friends too. “There was no end of companionship; the very coral reefs kept me company, or gave me no time to feel lonely, which is the same thing….” “I was destined to sail once more into the depths of solitude, but these experiences had no bad effect on me; on the contrary, a spirit of charity and even benevolence grew stronger in my nature through the meditations of these supreme hours on the sea.”
Captain Slocum rejects animal companionship, considering it too difficult to keep a dog at sea and cats too unsociable. He has a goat with him for a bit, but it eats his charts (and all the ropes he uses to tie it). A couple of spiders are the only others who make it pretty much the whole trip. Still, he finds that spending so long alone, the only life around, he is loath to take a life. He does kill some approaching sharks, and he eats the flying fish that land on the deck of the Spray, but he is revolted by the idea of keeping chickens on board to butcher and eat later. And between long stretches at sea, the captain spends quite a lot of time ashore as well, most of which is spent socializing. That must make things more bearable.
His only other companion is a ghostly one. Somewhere between the Azores and Gibraltar, after eating many plums and a white cheese, Slocum becomes quite ill and begins to hallucinate in the night. He sees the pilot of the Pinta, at the helm of the Spray, during an overnight storm: “I thought what a very devil he was to carry sail.” Ha! The pilot, for his part, tells the captain, “You did wrong, captain, to mix cheese with plums. White cheese is never safe unless you know whence it comes. Quien sabe, it may have been from leche de Capra and becoming capricious—” when he is cut off by a peevish “Avast, there!” Slocum goes on to tell his apparition, now singing a sea chanty, “I detest your jingle. Your Azore should be at roost, and would have been were it a respectable bird!”
Good humor in sickness, good humor in solitude. And really very funny all over the place. How much is real, and how much of it is, like Slocum said, people wanting to laugh rather than cry? Was he writing like this so I would have a joyful story to read, or because he had a joyful story to tell? I’m pretty cynical, but I’m going to have to go with the latter. It’s just too good.