“I gained anchorage at twelve o’clock that night, under the lee of a little island, and then prepared myself a cup of coffee, of which I was sorely in need; for, to tell the truth, hard beating in the heavy squalls and against the current had told on my strength. Finding that the anchorage held, I drank my beverage, and named the place Coffee Island.”
Both were a little shabby, and neither were expected to sail again. He was a seasoned sailor, more at home on the water but now returned to his native Nova Scotia. She was a sloop, slowly falling apart in a field of cattle. But when Captain Joshua Slocum was gifted the Spray, he decided it was time for a second chance and a new challenge—he would repair the tiny boat, and sail her solo around the world. I’m not sure why I let this little book—Sailing Alone Around the World, first printed in 1900—sit unread on my shelf for so long. But when I finally picked it up at the start of this year, I found an educational and engaging story, a book of discovery and danger. There are pictures of nature and humanity, some poetic and charming, others blunt and disturbing. But best of all, the story is true.
“Then was the time to uncover my head, for I sailed alone with God. The vast ocean was again around me, and the horizon was unbroken by land. A few days later the Spray was under full sail, and I saw her for the first time with a jigger spread. This was indeed a small incident, but it was the incident following a triumph. The wind was still southwest, but it was moderated, and roaring seas had turned into gossiping waves that rippled and pattered against her sides as she rolled among them, delighted with their story.”
Slocum’s narrative varies from leisurely poetic musings on creation and communication, to adventurous escapes from enemies. He writes about phosphorescence, and he writes about storms. He writes about pirates, and kindly kings (he even writes about a friendly ghost and angry flat-earthers). Slocum even dabbles in a bit of science and history, as he tells us of the places he visits. Some descriptions are archaic, with now outdated information or politically incorrect opinions. But for the most part Slocum’s view of the world and its diverse habits and inhabitants is one of respect and fascination. My main difficulty was the lack of a glossary, as I am no sailor (I didn’t understand this ‘reefing’ he spoke of, and had to look it up online.) A map would also have been nice, to help track the journey.
“At lonely stations like this hearts grow responsive and sympathetic, and even poetic. This feeling was shown towards the Spray along many a rugged coast, and reading many a kind signal thrown out to her gave one a grateful feeling for all the world.”
In addition to the book, I looked up the newspaper archives to see what contemporary press had to say about Slocum. It was fascinating. I found that before his journey with the Spray, Slocum had another big adventure when he had a shipwreck in South America. He built a new boat from scratch, and sailed home with only his family (wife and two young boys) as crew. In tracking the Spray’s voyage, the news matches up to the book—with the exception of one odd thing. The St. Louis Dispatch, on Dec 13 1896, recounts a tale of the little sloop being towed by sharks. The book had no such story. I read further, and found that just before WWI, Captain Slocum took the Spray out for another journey. It was their last. Neither boat nor man were ever seen again. It was a sad ending—but I couldn’t help but wonder if Slocum would have wanted it that way, dying as he had lived: adventurously.
“A further report, never substantiated, was that he had been seen tolling up the Amazon.”—Possibly the last sighting of Captain Slocum, as reported by the Oregon Daily Journal, January 13 1917