Summer Reading List! Sailing Alone Around The World

In 1895, a man named Joshua Slocum decided to be the first man to ever sail around the world alone.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Accompanying the text are wonderful drawings by artist Thomas Fogarty, depicting the many peoples…

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…and places…

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…Slocum encountered on his journey. Simple yet effective, Fogarty’s line drawings are what we all wish we could decorate our travel diaries with.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pick up a copy at any Barnes and Noble, here on Amazon, or the free text version (including for Kindles!) here.

-SCOUT

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.

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29 comments

  1. Sounds like an amazing story! Would love to find it somewhere.

    Just a not though… the title on the picture says Sailing alone around the world and you are saying Sailing around the world alone… not sure which is right?

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! I think you would really enjoy Norman Lewis’ travel journals – i particulalry enjoyed the ones to do with Vietnam and Asia as he was travelling there in the 1950/60 era before the war.

    Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meaning [Paperback] by Raban, Jonathan is another excellent sailing one that follows the west coast of Canada that the first explorers did which i recommend :)

  3. Thank you for pointing this book out. Pre-World War II travelogues can be fantastic, and for every one that has been republished like this one there are probably ten forgotten titles out there just waiting to be rediscovered.

  4. Great Post. I will definitely pick it up. I love sailing adventures.

    You might enjoy reading Tristan Jones books about his single handed sailing adventures around the world. I was so taken by his books that I named one of my sons Tristan. Worth a read.

  5. If you love sailing stories, be sure to read Bernard Moitessier’s books. ‘The Long Way’ and ‘Tamata and the Alliance’ are brilliant.

  6. Aye, not a bad piece of writing yourself laddie.

  7. Good stuff…I sail the Hudson out of Piermont… I will look for a copy…I love anything associated with the water from fishing to sailing.

  8. I wonder why i cant find anything on a Strait of Borgia Bay ??

  9. I would also recommend Unsinkable, by Abby Sunderland, about her attempt to be the youngest person to sail around the world solo. Here’s a link: http://dld.bz/YRZE

    • See, Abby’s trip actually sort of disappointed me, like she was going for a record instead of the journey. From Wikipedia: “her solar panels, wind generators, and diesel fuel were not meeting the energy needs of her boat.”

      Compare to Slocum, who had no GPS, no communication devices of any kind, and no one to rescue him if things went wrong. That’s not to say Abby isn’t a talented explorer, but at the same time, it’s a different sort of achievement she’s trying for, and one that doesn’t particularly impress me.

      • Is a bit of an assumption that he did actually make it though. These days you can be totally sure. Who is to say he didn’t just bumble round South America for a couple of years. It’s happened more than once before.

  10. Hey Scout, i got hooked on Four Years Before The Mast last summer. Definately worth checking out. Oh, and The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl

  11. Tim Severin’s Brendan Voyage and Sindbad Voyage are outstanding. For classic maritime lit you can’t beat the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy (Nordhoff and Hall) and for a modern take of traveling the US by row boat Nathaniel Stone’s On the Water is excellent.

  12. follow it up with a Voyage for Madmen, and the disturbing film, Deep Water, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePAfjxI4rws

  13. Also, those interested in Slocum’s fascinating and eventful life (even outside of his solo-circumnavigation), which spans the Great Age of Sail to the steam-ship era, should read this excellent, recently published biography:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hard-Way-Around-Passages-Joshua/dp/1400043425

  14. Sean P. Fodera

    Great post, and great story. I just downloaded the book to my Palm for reading when I finish my current book.

    It’s nice for a New Yorker to hear the words “Slocum” and “sailing” together in a happy context. The 107th anniversary of the General Slocum disaster is coming up in a couple of weeks on June 15th.

  15. Sounds fascinating. But I think you mean “imbued” rather than “imbibed.”

  16. You can definitely see your enthusiasm within the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

  17. You will definitely want to read The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier. He named his boat Joshua (after Slocum) and did the first single handed sail around the world without stopping on land.

    And The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst who was in the same race as Moitessier but was an incompetent sailer and faked his coordinates during the race.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Long-Way-Bernard-Moitessier/dp/0924486848

    http://www.amazon.com/Strange-Last-Voyage-Donald-Crowhurst/dp/0071414290

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