Joshua Slocum was born on February 20, 1844, in Nova Scotia. He was the fifth of eleven children. His father was a hard disciplinarian and from his early teens, he made several attempts to run away to the sea.
At the age of fourteen he became cook on a local fishing schooner and soon afterwards he and a friend shipped out, bound for Dublin. From Dublin, he went to Liverpool becoming an ordinary seaman on the British merchant ship Tangier which was bound for China.
Joshua Slocum’s first command in 1869 was the barque Washington which he took across the Pacific from San Francisco to Australia and then onwards to Alaska. In 1871, while in Sidney, he married his first wife, an American named Virginia Walker. They went on to have four children, all born in different countries.
In remote Alaska, the Washington ended up dragging her anchor during a gale, ran ashore and was a total loss. However, Slocum managed to save the cargo and crew, bringing them back safely in the ship’s open boats.
The shipping company was impressed by this feat of leadership and seamanship and gave him command of the Constitution which he sailed to Honolulu and later Mexico.
After the Constitution he commanded the Benjamin Aymar in the South Seas. However, when the owner sold the vessel, he became stranded in the Philippines.
There he was given the 90 ton schooner, Pato. Reviving his fortunes, he crossed the North Pacific to British Columbia. During this period, Slocum fulfilled his wish to become a writer by becoming a temporary correspondent for the San Francisco Bee.
Crossing to Hawaii, he sold the Pato and bought the Amethyst which he sold in Hong Kong for an interest in the full-rigged ship Northern Light. This was his ‘best command’ and was considered the ‘finest American sailing vessel afloat’ at the time.
However after two years he sold his interest and bought the barque Aquidneck in which he sailed to Buenos Aires. While there his wife, Virginia, died at the age of 35.
The following year, 1886, he married his cousin Henrietta Elliott and the Aquidneck ran between Baltimore and South America. During this time he lived through a cholera epidemic, an outbreak of smallpox (which killed several of his crew), and later a mutiny in which he was forced to shoot two men.
A few months later, in 1887, his ship ran aground and broke up in Brazil, marooning him and his family and ruining his fortunes. Unwilling to return to the United States as a castaway and a pauper, he used native help and the wreckage of his ship to build a 35-foot, junk rigged, dory which he named “Liberdade”.
The next year, he, his wife and children sailed this small, homemade craft across 5,500 miles of open ocean to South Carolina. Slocum wrote his first book ‘Voyage of the Liberdade’ about the trip. In recognition for this feat the Liberdade was placed on view at the Smithsonian Institution. (Chesapeake Bay Lighthouse Project)
Then, he sailed alone …
At noon on April 24, 1895, Joshua Slocum cast off his dock lines in East Boston and set out to sail alone around the world in the 37’ sloop Spray.
“The first name on the ‘Spray’s’ visitors’ book in the home port was written by the one who always said, ‘The ‘Spray’ will come back.’”
“The ‘Spray’ was not quite satisfied till I sailed her around to her birthplace, Fairhaven, Massachusetts, farther along.” (Slocum)
“The ‘Spray’ … plunged into the Pacific Ocean at once, taking her first bath of it in the gathering storm. There was no turning back even had I wished to do so, for the land was now shut out by the darkness of night.”
“To cross the Pacific Ocean, even under the most favorable circumstances, brings you for many days close to nature, and you realize the vastness of the sea. Slowly but surely the mark of my little ship’s course on the track-chart reached out on the ocean and across it, while at her utmost speed she marked with her keel still slowly the sea that carried her.”
“On the forty-third day from land, – a long time to be at sea alone, – the sky being beautifully clear and the moon being “in distance” with the sun, I threw up my sextant for sights. I found from the result of three observations, after long wrestling with lunar tables, that her longitude by observation agreed within five miles of that by dead-reckoning.” (Slocum)
“Taking things by and large, as sailors say, I got on fairly well in the matter of provisions even on the long voyage across the Pacific. I found always some small stores to help the fare of luxuries; what I lacked of fresh meat was made up in fresh fish, at least while in the trade-winds …”
“… where flying-fish crossing on the wing at night would hit the sails and fall on deck, sometimes two or three of them, sometimes a dozen. Every morning except when the moon was large I got a bountiful supply by merely picking them up from the lee scuppers.” (Slocum)
“The Pacific is perhaps, upon the whole, no more boisterous than other oceans, though I feel quite safe in saying that it is not more pacific except in name. It is often wild enough in one part or another.”
“I once knew a writer who, after saying beautiful things about the sea, passed through a Pacific hurricane, and he became a changed man. But where, after all, would be the poetry of the sea were there no wild waves?”
“At last here was the ‘Spray’ in the midst of a sea of coral. The sea itself might be called smooth indeed, but coral rocks are always rough, sharp, and dangerous. I trusted now to the mercies of the Maker of all reefs, keeping a good lookout at the same time for perils on every hand.” (Slocum)
More than once during his 38-month circumnavigation, Slocum was reported as having gone missing. There were times when it was presumed he had been lost.
But when Slocum finally sailed into Newport, Rhode Island, at 1 am on June 27, 1898, he proved all the doubters wrong. Slocum and his Spray had sailed into history. (New Bedford Whaling Museum)
At the age of 51, Captain Joshua Slocum became the first man to sail around the world alone. His 46,000-mile voyage in the 36-foot sloop ‘Spray’ was only part of a life of adventure, exploration and ingenuity, making him one of the world’s most famous sailors. (South Bay Sail)