Over a century ago in Fairhaven, Joshua Slocum set sail for the first time from the American city of Boston, Massachusetts, and succeeded in what many before and after him dreamed of, sailing around the world.
Slocum was born in February 20 1844 in Annapolis County to a loving mother and a father whose toughness may have verged on cruelty. He was a “Bluenose” Nova Scotian, a race whose self-reliance, hardiness and versatility are legendary. Sharing a humble existence with his 10 siblings, Slocum dreamed of leaving home for a life on the water. He came from a long line of sailors, yet somehow his father and mother preferred land. Slocum never felt quite right about it. He knew exactly what he wanted out of life by the time he was 12 years old. That was the first time he ran away to crew on a ship as a cabin boy and kitchen hand. Against his hope, that first time at sea delivered him right back to his home in Nova Scotia, on the Bay of Fundy. But life on land didn’t last long. In 1860, he ran away once again to the ocean. This time, it was for good. At 16, he was old enough to be hired as a full-time seaman on a merchant ship. In two short years, he sailed to Ireland, England, China, Jakarta, the Maluka Islands, Manila, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He rounded Cape Horn twice in that short yet eventful era and eventually landed in San Francisco. After securing a solid, recurring gig on a Britain-San Francisco cargo route at 18 years old, he passed his second mate exam, a critical step to taking on more leadership and responsibility aboard ship. Soon thereafter, he was promoted to first mate on the route. Very little is written about this time in Slocum’s life, so it’s tempting to assume that he was living a young sailor’s dream of a girl in every port. He may have been. But his quick ascension through the ranks also indicates that he was driven and focused on learning about seamanship and boats. Before he was twenty-seven he was captain of The Washington, a magnificent square- rigged ship, in which he sailed to Sydney, Australia, where he met and married his wife Virginia. Together they sailed the seven seas and enjoyed many years of adventure, he as a master of some of the finest vessels afloat, until sail began to be replaced by steam and Slocum found himself redundant; as he said, cast up on the beach.
In 1892, at loose ends, Slocum pondered seeking a new command, which were few and far between, or working at the shipyard, which required a steep association fee. An old acquaintance solved his dilemma by offering him a boat, which wanted repairing. The boat was an old sloop, only 12 m long, called the Spray. People were amazed that Slocum was rebuilding it. His work on the boat was punctuated by the pithy observations and dire warnings of many a seasoned sailor. Slocum ignored the Spray’s detractors. He had found a new love in the decrepit craft.
Joshua Slocum’s epic solo voyage around the world in 1895 at the age of 51, in the Spray stands as one of the greatest sea adventures of all time. It remains one of the major feats of singlehanded voyaging, and has since been the inspiration for the many that have gone to sea in small boats. Starting from Boston in 1895, by the time he dropped anchor in Newport, Rhode Island over three years after his journey began, he had cruised some 46,000 miles entirely by sail and entirely alone. Slocum normally sailed the Spray without touching the helm. Due to the length of the sail plan relative to the hull, and the long keel, the Spray was capable of self-steering (unlike faster modern craft), and he balanced it stably on any course relative to the wind by adjusting or reefing the sails and by lashing the helm fast. He sailed 2,000 miles (3,200 km) west across the Pacific without once touching the helm”. He navigated without a chronometer, instead relying on the traditional method of dead reckoning for longitude, which required only a cheap tin clock for approximate time, and noon-sun sights for latitude. On one long passage in the Pacific, Slocum also famously shot a lunar distance observation, decades after these observations had ceased to be commonly employed, which allowed him to check his longitude independently. However, Slocum’s primary method for finding longitude was still dead reckoning; he recorded only one lunar observation during the entire circumnavigation. During the course of his journey, Slocum was chased by pirates and accosted by hostile natives, buffeted by giant waves and blown about by fearsome gales and blinding rain and snow. He also visited with a King and dined on a Pacific island with the widow of famed Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.
More than three years later, on June 27, 1898, he arrived in Newport, having circumnavigated the world, a distance of more than 46,000 miles. Slocum’s return went almost unnoticed. The Spanish–American War, which had begun two months earlier, dominated the headlines. After the end of major hostilities, many American newspapers published articles describing Slocum’s amazing adventure.
Joshua Slocum loved adventure. He was a free spirit, a risk-taker, a dreamer. He was also a builder. He designed, constructed, sailed, bought, and sold ships. He was a wealth-creator and a trader and enjoyed every minute of it. He was a “celebrated sailor and adventurer” whose fame came first following the publication of a book Voyage of the Liberdade. The book told of the shipwreck of Slocum’s ship Aquidneck and his building of the 35-foot Liberdade, in which he and his family sailed from Brazil back to America. Following the publication of the book, Slocum toured with the Liberdade, visiting Harris’ boat stage near the foot of Washington Street in Fairhaven in August of 1890. It was at this time that Slocum met Capt. Eben Pierce, a retired seaman who resided at Poverty Point. Capt. Pierce was an uncle of Slocum’s friend Capt. John Drew, a marine writer who may have inspired Slocum to publish the stories of his own voyages. In 1900, two years after his return, he published a best-selling book. Titled Sailing Alone Around the World, it chronicled his world-famous expedition. It is regarded more than a century later as an enduring classic of travel literature, acclaimed as an unequalled masterpiece of vital yet disciplined prose.
Joshua Slocum’s worldwide fame soared after Sailing was published. He earned a comfortable living through speaking and writing and showing up at public events. In 1901, he even hauled the Spray through the Erie Canal to Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition. He bought a small farm on Martha’s Vineyard but never grew accustomed to living on the land. On November 14, 1909, restless at the age of 65, he and his beloved Spray embarked on yet another voyage. He set sail for the West Indies on one of his usual winter voyages. He had also expressed interest in starting his next adventure, exploring the Orinoco, Rio Negro and Amazon Rivers. Slocum was never heard from again. In July 1910, his wife informed the newspapers that she believed he was lost at sea. In 1924, Joshua Slocum was declared legally dead.
A monument to Slocum exists on Brier Island, Nova Scotia, not far from his family’s boot shop. Slocum is commemorated in museum exhibits at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Mount Hanley Schoolhouse Museum near his birthplace. Several biographies about Slocum are also published.