Sailing Alone Around the World
By Joshua Slocum
(Reviewed by Daniel B. MacNaughton)
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This book is about the first single-handed voyage around the world, and is written by the man who made that voyage.
For the purpose of writing this review, I read Sailing Alone Around the World for a third time, and I was glad I did. A third reading made it clear to me that the book is one of those classic tales that can appeal to readers of different ages, for different reasons. As a teenager, I read it as an adventure story. As a young man I read it as inspiration for performing feats similar to those of its author (not that I actually have). And as a middle-aged man I found a great deal in it about how one deals with middle age, and how one can make fresh starts.
Joshua Slocum, an accomplished merchant ship captain, finds himself in his fifties without a fortune or a career, having been made professionally obsolete by the advent of steam propulsion. He could have decided his days of adventure were over, but instead took a friend’s joking gift of a deteriorating oyster smack as a departure for the defining episode of his life.
Books about cruises and voyages are a genre unto themselves, and in most cases there is no plot other than the voyage. Sometimes authors overlay another plot onto the voyage, such as an inner voyage of discovery, and sometimes it works while other times it doesn’t. Slocum manages to have it both ways, because, while there is no other story told in his book besides that of the voyage, there is another that can be read in it, and that is the portrait that is painted of Slocum himself.
Unlike many of his world-circling successors, Slocum was a seasoned voyager who had already sailed big vessels on many of the routes he later sailed in the Spray. He was an excellent navigator and had seen his share of heavy weather and the other perils of the sea long before his most famous voyage. He was an accomplished boatbuilder who had in fact built the vessel in which he sailed, thus understanding her every plank and fastening in a way no one else could. Sailing singlehanded was no great challenge to Slocum, and in fact he several times mentions how relaxing it was that there was little dissent among the crew of the Spray. He plainly states the nature of the difficulties he faced during his voyage, and at times they were life-threatening, but he tells the tale with a great calmness, self-possession, and good humor that seems to have set the tone for many later voyagers’ writing about their own adventures.
While he was eventually financially ruined through the loss of his last large command, Slocum was a respected and successful merchant sea captain during the last of the age of sail. For me, that description suggests a hard-bitten, tough, and gruff individual, but Slocum reveals himself to be a man surprisingly different from that description. Throughout this book he rejoices in the beauty of the world around which he sails, and speaks tenderly of the people and creatures he encounters in every climate and locality.
It’s no surprise that a lifelong sailorman would turn out to be a good storyteller, but Slocum’s proficiency as a writer is startling. He writes with ease and self-assurance in a clean and timeless style, as though he’d studied the art and been at it for years. The book’s long and informative introduction offers no clue as to Slocum’s education or how he learned to write so well, and it would appear that if these things were known, they would have been described. I suspect there are other interesting tales to tell of Joshua Slocum’s life than appear in his books.
Slocum’s writing style is one of the reasons the book appeals to younger readers. It is perfectly modern and conversational in tone, unlike the writing of many of his contemporaries, who were apt to unnecessarily ornament their stories. Only the descriptions of places and things we know have changed forever, and usually for the worse, date the book from an earlier time. Likewise the book is suffused with a tone of respect that is unfortunately rare today. It sounds like a natural part of Slocum’s nature to respect nearly everyone he meets, the creatures he encounters, nature, his ship, and himself. There is no whining even about his most serious ordeals. Combined with the wholesomeness of the story that is told, Slocum’s way of looking at things is a good reason to recommend this book for young people, who are bombarded daily by just the opposite kind of thing.
It is pleasing to encounter the affection with which Slocum writes about native peoples. He is quite critical of European inroads into native cultures, especially missionary efforts, and there is practically no hint of the condescending racial attitudes that were so much the norm of his time. Likewise, Slocum is very respectful of the women he encounters on his voyage, and predicts future voyages under female command. He sees no need to pretend he was not deeply touched by a sudden gift of flowers from an Argentine boy he had just observed to be as profane and blasphemous as any person he had yet encountered.
Slocum tells us his voyage brought him into a closer sense of kinship with the birds, animals, and fish that he encountered as he went along, and soon, he says, he no longer wished to take any of their lives for his own gain. Which is not to say he became a vegetarian, for he did not, but his was the day of hunting for killing’s sake, and for him to expel such an idea from his nature just adds to the list of reasons why this refugee from the late age of sail seems like the model of a modern man.
Some have accused Slocum of spinning yarns in parts of his book, but I think the book is a truthful tale. The instances referred to are so few, the drama of the vast majority of the tale is so understated, and Slocum is so loathe to paint himself as a dramatic character, that I think he simply told it like it was.
The closest Slocum came to death in the voyage was the result of an accidental grounding and a subsequent rapid chain of misadventures that will not surprise any cruising person. Having brought us to the instant when he expected to die, he tells us, “…the moment was the most serene of my life”. Like many a lover of nature and people and the sea, serenity seems to have been at Slocum’s core, and that is the kind of man you want to know.
It’s interesting to compare Slocum’s voyage to the many that came after. The most obvious similarity is the hospitality with which he was met, nearly everywhere he went. While it has naturally declined somewhat due to the sheer numbers of yachts making long-distance voyages today, and the misbehavior of a small minority of their crews, by most accounts unexpected hospitality continues to be experienced by cruisers and voyagers nearly everywhere they go. Few find frequent sightings of lofty merchant sailing vessels to be the norm, however.
Yachts have changed, and equipment has changed. Spray, a former inshore fishing boat, was only a yacht by virtue of her use, and few yachts of her day would have been up to the job she did. Spray served an experienced master well due to her superb course-keeping ability and her overall strength and durability. Both are attributes sadly lacking from many yachts used offshore today. But others have been designed specifically for the type of voyage Spray undertook, and many of them would be faster, safer, and easier to handle than Spray. Self-steering gears were one of the first major advances that came after Slocum, and remote-reefing sails, auxiliary engines, and electronic navigation have made it into a somewhat easier game. Yet the fundamentals are ever the same, and woe unto the person who embarks on any voyage without the respect for those fundamentals that got Slocum safely around the world.
Traveling mile after mile with no hand at her helm, and under the guidance of just one man, the Spray sailed “as no other ship had ever sailed before in the world”, and Slocum knew it was a record-setting voyage. It gave him something to do at a time in his life where otherwise his course was not clear, and he undoubtedly had in mind that he could pay for the voyage and maybe a bit more, by telling the tale. He also knew he was proving it could be done, and he executed the voyage in a sensible and professional manner that made it clear it was no stunt. In this book he revealed the bright spectrum of rewards offered by ocean voyaging. He opened the door for many to follow him, and gave them a reason to go, enriching their lives and those who read about them.
Reviewed by Daniel B. MacNaughton