In 1895, a man named Joshua Slocum decided to be the first man to ever sail around the world alone.
Slocum was 51 years old. His formal education ended in 3rd grade, and he didn’t even know how to swim. His ship was a rotting shell of an oyster boat named The Spray. He left Massachusetts with almost no money and no navigational equipment.
Three years later, Joshua Slocum defied all odds by sailing into Rhode Island bay and achieving his goal, having traveled over 46,000 miles. Several years later, he would document his adventures in an incredible travelogue simply titled Sailing Alone Around The World.
I came across Sailing Alone Around The World a few years ago totally by chance. Barnes and Noble was having one of those 3-for-2 Classics deals, and I was desperately searching book #3. I found Sailing, thought it sounded interesting, and checked out. Little did I know that of three books I purchased that day, Slocum’s would be the one I’d never forget.
Sailing Alone Around The World is one of those perfect travel books that will make you want to drop whatever you’re doing, pack your bags, and set on a great adventure…which is exactly what Slocum does. In 1892, a friend gives him a ship for free. “But,” he adds, “she needs some repairs.”
This turns out to be an understatement. His ship, The Spray, “proved to be a very antiquated sloop…which the neighbors declared had been built in the year 1.” Everyone expects Slocum to chop it up for parts, but he instead spends the next 13 months rebuilding it by hand.
Despite all the doomsayers, the newly refurbished Spray sails like a breeze, and Slocum sets out on his voyage to traverse the globe. In fact, The Spray proved so seaworthy that Slocum was able to travel thousands of miles with the helm lashed in place.
As described in his book, over the course of 46,000 miles, Slocum fought off pirates, dined with royalty, explored strange new lands, survived dangerous storms, defended against bloodthirsty natives, and even had a severe bout of food poisoning that left him hallucinating that a Spanish seaman from Columbus’ Pinta was aboard his vessel.
Sailing Alone Around the World is one of the best works of travel writing I have ever come across, in large part due to the wonderfully simple, matter-of-fact prose Slocum uses to describe these incredible adventures.
Sailing was also written in a time when the world beckoned travelers with an air of mystery and unknown, and this sense of discovery and excitement is imbibed in every page.
Accompanying the text are wonderful drawings by artist Thomas Fogarty, depicting the many peoples…
…Slocum encountered on his journey. Simple yet effective, Fogarty’s line drawings are what we all wish we could decorate our travel diaries with.
One of my favorites – a drawing of a tree in the Strait of Borgia Bay, with placards from past vessels that had passed through. Slocum added The Spray’s name, and I’d love to know if it’s still there.
Though Slocum gained some fame following publication, it was not the financial bestseller that he hoped, and years later, he found himself once again poor. In 1909, Slocum boarded the now decaying Spray and set off for sea.
Neither the Spray nor Slocum were ever seen again.
Sailing Alone Around The World is a masterpiece of travel writing written by a true adventurer. If you’re looking for a good summer read, Sailing will not disappoint, but I warn you…You might find yourself staring out your office window dreaming of an adventure of your own. In fact, since the book’s publication, hundreds of people have built replicas of The Spray and retraced its journey.
But Slocum was, and will always be, the first to ever sail alone around the world.
PS – Prior to his most famous journey, Slocum was an active working captain, and sailed the seas with his wife Virginia. Virginia was a beloved traveling companion, and gave birth to Slocum’s seven children at sea. She died of illness in 1884 aboard his ship, a tragedy that devastated Slocum.
Years later, in his book The Voyage of the Liberdade documenting his journeys from Brazil to the US, Slocum wrote the following:
One day, coming to an island, one that was inhabited only by birds, we came to a stand, as if it were impossible to go farther on the voyage; a spell seemed to hang over us.
I recognized the place as one that I knew well; a very dear friend had stood by me on deck, looking at this island, some years before. It was the last land that my friend ever saw.
The dear friend he is referring to is his wife Virginia. These two sentences are among the most moving I think I’ve ever read.