Joshua Slocum grew up by the sea. His grandfather was lighthouse keeper on Brier Island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Canada, and his father made shoes for the local fishermen. But being close to the water wasn’t good enough. He needed to conquer it, until it conquered him.
Slocum was one of eleven children, and his father was very strict. He couldn’t wait to find his place in the world with open space and less competition. The obvious place to head was out on the ocean. He tried to run away from home several times, and when he was 14 years old got hired as a cabin boy and cook on a fishing schooner. That didn’t last long, however, and he ended up back at home. Two years later, in 1860, his mother died in childbirth and Slocum couldn’t bear to stick around. He and a buddy headed out for Dublin, Ireland as merchant seamen.
Slocum had found his passion and traveled the world. He earned his certificate as a Second Mate and ultimately became a Chief Mate of British ships. In 1865, San Francisco became his home base, and he became an American citizen.
Slocum did not have to sail through life alone. He found his perfect first mate, Virginia Albertina Walker. For one month in 1870, his ship was in Sydney harbor, and he met and married Walker, who happened to be an American. She joined Slocum on his trips, and they had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports.
Slocum commanded several ships across the Pacific. His hidden desire to be a writer was fulfilled as a correspondent for the San Francisco Bee.
In 1884, the Slocum family was headed for South America when Virginia became ill and died. Not able to care for the children on his own, Slocum left the youngest ones with his sister in Massachusetts. His oldest son, Victor, became his new first mate.
Two years later, when he was 40, Slocum married his 24 year old cousin, Henrietta Elliott. She was not as enamored by life at sea as Virginia had been, perhaps because during the first year they sailed through a hurricane and the crew contracted cholera which required being quarantined. In addition, sometime later they were stricken with smallpox, which killed three crew members, and finally, in 1887, they were shipwrecked in Brazil.
Not wanting to spend the rest of their lives in Brazil, Slocum and two sons built a boat to sail back to the U.S. The family left on May 13, 1888 and arrived in Cape Roman, South Carolina after 55 days at sea. They reached their final destination of Boston in 1889. Slocum turned the stories of this trip into a book called Voyage of the Liberdade.
Now, Slocum decided, it was time for a little adventure in his life, and he set out to circumnavigate the globe alone. He rebuilt an oyster boat named Spray and left Boston harbor April 24, 1895. He was 51 years old with 35 years of sailing experience to rely on. He visited his family in Nova Scotia and then set out on July 3, 1895.
His route took him across the Atlantic to Gibraltar, south along the coast of Brazil and Argentina and through the Strait of Magellan, across the Pacific to Cooktown, Australia, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back up the coast of South America to Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
Slocum’s sailing experience gave him the confidence to use dead reckoning instead of a chronometer to calculate longitude. His source of food was often the ocean itself. Flying fish would soar right onto the deck and make a tasty meal. In the Pacific, where he had his longest stretch of solitude at sea, he subsisted on food he picked up in port: mostly potatoes, salt cod, biscuits, coffee and tea.
His quest took him through every type of weather, attacks by pirates and some close calls with other boats. In November 1895, Slocum ran aground in Uruguay and had to take a lifeboat to shore in very turbulent water. Ironically, Slocum didn’t know how to swim. He was tossed overboard and made three unsuccessful, flailing attempts to right the dinghy. As his life flashed before him, he said an exhausted final prayer and tried once more. It worked, and he was able to climb on the lifeboat and row to shore.
At 1:00am on June 27, 1898, after over three years of seafaring, solitude, and struggle, Slocum sailed into Newport, Rhode Island to complete his 46,000 mile journey. He arrived one pound heavier than he left and was told by friends that he looked much younger.
Slocum’s adventure made for compelling reading when he published Sailing Alone Around the World a year after his return. The profits from his book and lectures allowed him to set down roots and buy a farm on Martha’s Vineyard. Being rooted felt so contrary to his nature, however, that he couldn’t stay put. He sailed up and down the Atlantic during the summer and spent the winters in the West Indies, earning money from lectures and book sales.
Slocum’s mental stability took a downward turn as he got older. He was convicted of indecent exposure to a 12 year old girl in New Jersey. He spent 42 days in jail awaiting trial, and after his family begged for a leniency, the judge sentenced him to time already served.
Income was now sparse, so in 1909, at 65 years old, he tried to reinvigorate his life by planning a new adventure in South America. He started out on his annual trip to the West Indies in November, but he was never heard from again. Henrietta informed the press in July 1910 that she assumed he had been lost at sea. It was never determined what happened to him, but since he never learned to swim, he wouldn’t have been able to save himself if the boat had capsized. He was legally declared dead in 1924.
QUESTION: What’s something you love to do so much that you might write a book about your experiences? What would it be called?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
http://www.joshuaslocumsocietyintl.org/images/voyagemap.htm (Map of his journey)