"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.