Solitude at Sea
Three years, 30,000 miles
Reviewed by John Rousmaniere, edited by Gene Epstein, Barrons
Anybody hoping for a happier second act in life will find inspiration—as well as caution—in the story of Captain Joshua Slocum (1844-1908). Praised by Theodore Roosevelt as the hero “who takes his little boat, without any crew but himself, all around the world,” Slocum stimulated thousands to change their lives with his 1900 book, Sailing Alone Around the World, which recounts that adventure.
That Geoffrey Wolff tells this story knowledgably and sympathetically should be no surprise. He is, after all, the author of The Duke of Deception, Black Sun and other books about tipping points in the male ego. Wolff is also a fine writer who understands how another fine writer could produce one of the very best books ever about going to sea.
Slocum initially went to sea not for romance, but to escape his father’s beatings and the tiny Nova Scotia island of his childhood. For years he thrived as a captain of commercial sailing ships. But by his fortieth birthday, steam was supplanting sail, so he lost his livelihood. Then he lost his wife—the only person who ever loved and understood him. At 50 years old, the former clipper-ship captain was working on shore as a carpenter when a friend offered him an ancient and decrepit 37-foot fishing sloop. As Slocum rebuilt Spray, he devised a daring plan.
Ever since Magellan, large crews of sailors had been sailing around the world for cash. Slocum, already the accomplished author of short pieces, would make the trip alone and sell his words about it. This scheme led to a great voyage and a masterpiece of maritime writing.
Before setting out, Slocum faced two crucial questions: Was Spray up to the job? Was he? Without another sailor, Spray would have to steer itself for days on end. Unsure that this was possible, Slocum kept delaying his departure. After he finally got under way, in July 1895, Spray showed a wondrous ability to steer any course without his hand on the wheel. Modern boats are as flighty as butterflies; Spray was as steady as a whale.
But could her skipper cope with the loneliness? He confessed that loneliness first got to him when he dreamed up the ghost of an old seaman who identified himself as a pilot of Columbus and assured Slocum that all was well. After that, wrote Slocum, “The acute pain of solitude experienced at first never returned.” He was a contented man as he sailed through the Straits of Magellan to Australia, and then to South Africa and home. Like so many solitary men, Slocum found it a little too easy to cross the line from the social world to the lonely world. Loneliness was his identity. He credited it for his fame and success, bragging that his navigation was precise because he had no shipmate to distract him.
After three years and 30,000 miles, Slocum’s journey was over. But he loved solitude too much to be at home on land. Happy only at sea, unable to resume domesticity with his second wife, he sold himself cheap as a sideshow exhibit at the Buffalo World’s Fair and spent his winters in the West Indies, collecting conch shells to sell to American yachtsmen. He reached bottom when a scandal involving a girl ended with a term in a New Jersey jail.
Ironically, as Slocum the man declined, his reputation only grew. Even after the sex scandal, President Roosevelt sent his son Archie off sailing with Slocum in Spray for a tutorial in heroic manliness.
Yet that one word, alone, at the heart of his reputation, also undermined him for keeps. In 1908, lonelier than ever, he sailed off in Spray and vanished in the Atlantic.
JOHN ROUSMANIERE’s maritime books include Fastnet, Force 10, After the Storm and The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.