On April 24, 1895, Captain Joshua Slocum sailed from Boston in a thirty-nine foot sloop, the Spray. He was alone, without even a cat, and alone he proceeded to sail right around the world, arriving in Providence, RI in June of 1898. He did this to make a fool of "an expert" who said it couldn't be done. This was the first time anybody had circumnavigated the world by himself, or at least the first time that anybody knows about. After arriving home, he wrote a book called Sailing Alone Around the World.

Slocum was born in 1844 and went to sea with the Bay of Fundy fishing fleet twelve years later. In 1860 he became a sailor on merchant ships and got his first command in 1871. His fortunes rose and fell, and in 1892 he found himself in Boston without a ship. An friend gave him "a very antiquated sloop... affectionately propped up in a field". He rebuilt her to keep himself busy, and the whole thing got out of hand.

The trip was well-enough publicized, and over the three years that it lasted Captain Slocum and the Spray became, as they say, "celebrated". Okay, it's a travelogue. Slocum writes pleasantly and amusingly and he keeps things moving along. He sails to the Azores, then to Gibraltar, then down the east coast of South America to the Strait of Magellan, which is how you avoid Cape Horn if you're small enough to get through. Cape Horn is a very stormy and grim place. The Strait of Magellan has its charms, as well. The Tierra del Fuegians think Slocum looks like easy pickings. He fires a few warning shots, and spreads carpet tacks on the deck at night to good effect. In the Pacific, he stops off at Juan Fernandez, Robinson Crusoe's island, visits Robert Louis Stevenson's intrepid widow in Samoa, and moves on to Australia. From there, the Keeling Cocos Islands, Mauritius, and South Africa. By the time he hits South Africa, he's quite famous and he gets to meet Oom Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal. Kruger is convinced that the Earth is flat. Neither man is persuaded of the wisdom of the other's views. On the last leg, he visits St. Helena, Ascension Island, Devil's Island, Grenada, Trinidad, and the Sargasso Sea.

For two hundred and eighty pages, the author alternates between sailing on the sea -- navigation, storms, and various threats -- and tourism on land as an ever-famouser celebrity. He makes friends everywhere he goes, pokes his nose into everything, loves all of it, and has a grand old time. It's fun. There's even a chatty and informative appendix on "The Lines and Sail-Plan of the Spray".

Sailing Alone Around the World is one of the niftier little curios of American letters.

Slocum retired on royalties from the book, and kept active by sailing the Spray to the West Indies for his winter vacations. He made the trip three times. The fourth time, in 1909, he never arrived and hasn't been seen since.

"I will only say that I have endeavored to tell just the story of the adventure itself." - Joshua Slocum


Reading Sailing Alone Around the World was a bit difficult for me because everything seemed so foreign. I couldn't pilot a boat or hold my own at sea, and reefed sails and flying jibs were unfortunately not present in my vocabulary. For a while, I couldn't get over this; I was worried that without an intuitive feel for the terms to match Slocum's, I was missing so much of the book.

But then, as I was looking up another set of oft used phrases, I was struck by how simple or really essential to sailing they were. In most cases, for example, you'd reef a sail (that is, reduce the size of it via tucking and rolling) to adapt to heavier winds. That seemed like a direct cause and effect relationship: when A do B. So why had Slocum mentioned the act so frequently? In a narrative about sailing, wouldn't this have been a given, something akin to an involuntary reaction? About there I started to enjoy the work because, simply, this isn't a book about sailing.

Joshua Slocum died about nine years after his autobiographical account was first published. At the time he was writing, at the time he setting out in the Spray, his first wife was dead, he had grown children, and his career had peaked over a decade ago. In the split between past and potential experiences, his life was leaning heavily towards the former. I think Sailing Alone Around the World tries to transmit what comes with that state.

Any given person can only be proficient at a dispairingly limited amount of things, and it just gets worse if you want to be the best. Realizing your boundaries and having to choose is a reminder your own mortality. Slocum, however, seemed not to care, trying to portray this forced specialization in a less malignant light. In so many passages thick with nautical jargon -- "I hauled the sloop to the wind, repaired the windlass, and hove the anchor to the hawse" -- he tries to impress and convey how, with an apparently total command on some discernible whole of knowledge, the type borne from a lifetime of experience, one can't help but feel like a magician.

This, I think, is a reassuring message. A questioning of purpose or identity or at least the need to take an irreversible step forward in life isn't the lightest of feelings. You're so far from complete, yes, but maybe it doesn't have to feel that way.

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