Book Reviews

Resilience & Wit in the 1890s

Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum was the first man to circumnavigate the world solo, a feat he accomplished between 1895 and 1898 on a course of over 46,000 miles. His account of this voyage ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ is a book that stands reading and re-reading and re-reading again. It is full of good-humoured resilience, adventure, laugh-out-loud hilarity and musings on seamanship that remain relevant to this day.

Having been given the wreck by a fellow sea captain, Slocum sets about rebuilding the 37 foot gaff-rigged sloop ‘Spray’ over the course of 13 months. His patience and perseverance keep the project ticking along, and there are many fantastic passages on the intricacies of the rebuild. The section ‘Conundrums in Regard to Finance and Calking’ will resonate with anyone who has been involved in the refit of a wooden boat!

Setting out from Massachusetts having been told that a solo circumnavigation is impossible, Slocum proceeds to calmly make his way around the globe, chalking up escapade after escapade and scrape after scrape with a wickedly dry sense of humour. His manner can be neatly summed up by this exchange, in South Africa, with the explorer Henry Stanley:

(Stanley) “What an example of patience!” “Patience is all that is required,” I ventured to reply. He then asked if my vessel had water-tight compartments. I explained that she was all water-tight and all compartment. “What if she should strike a rock?” he asked. “Compartments would not save her if she should hit the rocks lying along her course,” said I; adding, “she must be kept away from the rocks.” After a considerable pause Mr. Stanley asked, “What if a swordfish should pierce her hull with its sword?” Of course I had thought of that as one of the dangers of the sea, and also of the chance of being struck by lightning. In the case of the swordfish, I ventured to say that “the first thing would be to secure the sword.” The colonel invited me to dine with the party on the following day, that we might go further into this matter, and so I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Stanley a second time, but got no more hints in navigation from the famous explorer.

Other highlights include pirates off Gibraltar, locals boarding the ship in Tierra del Fuego (you’ll never look at brass tacks the same way again), storms, reefs, and a goat eating his charts of the West Indies.

Adventures aside, what I love about this book and the reason it continues to strike a chord, is Slocum’s insight into the psychology of the seafarer. He invents a crew mate to take some of the night watches, as well as partitioning himself into ‘cook’ and ‘captain’. He gently ribs himself constantly, and is able to hold conversations to abate any loneliness. His attitude is to just keep on getting on with it, but this is done with humility rather than machismo. Credit, when due, is given to the ‘Spray’ rather than to himself (and she did sail 2000 miles across the Pacific with the helm lashed and no adjustments needed). These relationships, with oneself and with one’s ship, are so particular and so familiar to anyone who has spent time at sea. They make the book almost timeless.

I also think his attitudes to seafaring are as relevant now as ever.“The officers who are over-sure, and ‘know it all like a book’ are the ones, I have observed, who wreck the most ships and lose the most lives.” He is of the opinion that you can be too sure of your position, too confident in your navigation, thanks to technology. This reduces the degree to which you keep a strong lookout and navigate to what’s in front of you, rather than what you expect to be in front of you. Modern tales of under-crewed container ships running over yachts without AIS highlight how true this still is.

Add to this the fact that Slocum is not racing. There is as much exploration ashore as there it at sea. He takes the time to see everywhere he goes, and the book is as much about the chance friendship of strangers as it is about sailing. Which makes it the ideal read for all Classic Sailing sailors!

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