Fairhaven and Captain Slocum

Across the Acushnet River from New Bedford is Fairhaven, where Joshua Slocum rebuilt and launched the sloop Spray before he became the first man to sail alone around the world. Continue reading Fairhaven and Captain Slocum


Sailing Alone around the World was the only book of all the maritime literature I read that involved navigating the Straits of Magellan. In all the other ones the ships sailed around Cape Horn. Richard Henry Dana almost went back to Boston via the Straits, but the squalls—or williwaws, as Captain Slocum calls them—are too bad.

The Straits seem much more easily navigated by a little sloop, even with just one man for a crew, than by a full-rigged ship. Slocum has to make his way slowly, and amazingly he sails out into the Pacific only to be turned around by a gale and actually driven back into another part of the Straits, farther south. He’s forced to double back to the east before heading out west again and successfully reaching the open ocean.

The williwaws make the Straits dangerous, but they aren’t the only thing. The Fuegians were apparently known for raiding ships, even for successfully doing away with entire crews. Slocum is advised to be extremely careful and given a sack of carpet tacks.

I protested that I had no use for carpet-tacks on board. Samblich smiled at my want of experience, and maintained stoutly that I would have use for them. “You must use them with discretion,” he said; “that is to say, don’t step on them yourself.”

One of his encounters with the Fuegians really does consist in their boarding at night and stepping on the carpet tacks, an especially valuable security alarm considering Slocum is alone. But he also ends up trading with them, for tallow. “Yammerschooner” is the word they shout when approaching in a canoe, indicating they wish to trade (or beg).
Fuegians have mostly disappeared now, and they are a people I wish I knew more about. Two isolated languages, along with another related to languages spoken on the Patagonian mainland, were the principle ones spoken on the Grande Isla. Only one remains. And just over 100 years ago they were harrying shipping in their canoes.

Sailing around the world, alone

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.
Captain Slocum Reading

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.

Joshua Slocum and his Spray

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.

Shark on the deck of the SpraySlocum 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.