Friday, September 5, 2008

1895-1898: first man sails solo around the world

Joshua Slocum was born in 1844 in Nova Scotia, Canada. Joshua descended, on his father's side, from a Quaker who left the United States shortly after 1780 because of his opposition to the American War for Independence. Part of the Loyalist migration to Nova Scotia, the Slocums were granted five hundred acres of farmland.

His earliest ventures on the water were made on coastal schooners along the Bay of Fundy. When Joshua was eight years old, the Slocum family moved from Mount Hanley to Brier Island at the mouth of the Bay. Slocum's maternal grandfather was the keeper of the lighthouse at Southwest Point there.

His father, a stern man and strict disciplinarian, took up making leather boots for the local fishermen, and Joshua helped in the shop. However, the boy found the scent of salt air much more alluring than the smell of shoe leather. He yearned for a life of adventure at sea, away from his demanding father and his increasingly chaotic life at home among so many brothers and sisters.

He made several attempts to run away from home, finally succeeding at age fourteen, by hiring on as a cabin boy and cook on a fishing schooner, but he soon returned home. In 1860, after the birth of the eleventh Slocum child and the subsequent death of his mother, Joshua, then sixteen, left home for good. He and a friend signed on at Halifax as seamen on a merchant ship bound for Ireland.

From Dublin, he crossed to Liverpool to become a seaman on a British merchant ship bound for China. During two years as a seaman, he rounded Cape Horn twice, landed at Dutch East Indies, and visited the Moluccas, Manila, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, and San Francisco. While at sea, he studied for the Board of Trade examination, and, at the age of eighteen, he received his certificate as a fully-qualified Second Mate. Slocum quickly rose through the ranks to become a Chief Mate on British ships transporting coal and grain between the British Isles and San Francisco.

In 1865, he settled in San Francisco, became an American citizen, and, after a period of salmon fishing and fur trading in the Oregon Territory of the northwest, he returned to the sea to pilot a schooner in the coastwise trade between San Francisco and Seattle. His first blue-water command, in 1869, was the barque Washington, which he took across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Australia, and home via Alaska.

He sailed for thirteen years out of San Francisco to China, Australia, the Spice Islands, and to Japan. Between 1869 and 1889, he was the master of eight vessels, the first four of which he commanded in the employ of others. Later, there would be four that he himself owned, in whole or in part.

Shortly before Christmas 1870, Slocum put in at Sydney, Australia. There, in about a month's time, he met, courted, and married a young woman named Virginia Albertina Walker. Walker, quite coincidentally, was an American whose New York family had migrated west to California at the time of the 1849 gold rush and eventually continued on, by ship, to settle in Australia. She sailed with Slocum, and, over the next thirteen years, bore him seven children at sea.

In Alaska, his ship was wrecked during a gale, when it ran ashore and broke up. Slocum, at considerable risk to himself, managed to save his wife, the crew, and much of the cargo, bringing all back to port safely in the ship's open boats. The owners of the shipping company that had employed Slocum were impressed by this feat of ingenuity and leadership, so they gave him the command of another which he sailed to Hawaii and the west coast of Mexico.

His next command was the Benjamin Aymar, a merchant vessel in the South Seas trade. However, the owner, strapped for cash, sold the vessel out from under Slocum, and he and Virginia found themselves stranded in the Philippines without a ship. There, in 1874, under a commission from a British architect, Slocum organized native workers to build a 150-ton steamer. In partial payment for the work, he was given the ninety-ton schooner, Pato, the first ship he could call his own.

Ownership of the Pato afforded Slocum the kind of freedom and autonomy he had never experienced before. Hiring a crew, he contracted to deliver a cargo to Vancouver in British Columbia. Thereafter, he used the Pato as a general freight carrier along the west coast of North America and in voyages back and forth between San Francisco and Hawaii. During this period, Slocum also fulfilled a long-held ambition to become a writer; he became a temporary correspondent for the San Francisco Bee.

The Slocum Family continued on their next ship, Aquidneck. In 1884, Virginia became ill aboard the Aquidneck in Buenos Aires and died. Sailing to Massachusetts, his three youngest children were left in the care of his sisters while his oldest son continued as first mate.

In 1886, Slocum married again to his 24 year old cousin, Henrietta Elliott. The Slocum family once again took to the sea aboard the Aquidneck bound for Montevideo, Uruguay. Slocum's second wife would find life at sea much less appealing than his first. A few days into Henrietta's first voyage, the Aquidneck sailed through a huricanne. By the end of this first year, the crew had contracted cholera and were quarantined for six months.

Later, Slocum was forced to defend his ship from pirates, one of which he shot and killed. For the incident he was tried and acquitted for murder. Next, the Aquidneck was infected with smallpox leading to the death of three of the crew. Disinfecting of the ship was performed at considerable cost to Slocum. Shortly after, near the end of 1887, the unlucky Aquidneck was wrecked in southern Brazil.

His next boat, the Liberdade, was an unusual 35-foot design which he described as a cross between a "Chinese sampan" and a "Cape Ann Dorie,". In 1888 he and his family began their voyage back to the United States. After fifty-five days at sea, the Slocums reached South Carolina and continued on until finally reaching New York in 1889. This was the last time Henrietta sailed with the family. In 1890, Slocum published the accounts of these adventures in the Voyage of the Liberdade.

In Fairhaven, Massachusetts, he rebuilt the 36′ 9″ sloop-rigged fishing boat named Spray (later re-rigged as a yawl after problems he encountered in the Strait of Magellan).

On April 24, 1895, he set sail from Boston. In his famous book, Sailing Alone Around the World, now considered a classic of travel literature, he described his departure in the following manner:

"I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter. The twelve o'clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail. A short board was made up the harbor on the port tack, then coming about she stood to seaward, with her boom well off to port, and swung past the ferries with lively heels. A photographer on the outer pier of East Boston got a picture of her as she swept by, her flag at the peak throwing her folds clear. A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood."

After an extended visit to his boyhood home at Brier Island and visiting old haunts on the coast of Nova Scotia, Slocum took his departure from North America at Sambro Island Lighthouse near Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 3, 1895.

Slocum navigated without a chronometer, instead relying on the traditional method of dead reckoning for longitude, which required only a cheap tin clock for approximate time, and Noon sun sights for latitude. On one long passage in the Pacific, Slocum also famously shot a lunar distance observation, decades after these observations had ceased to be commonly employed, which allowed him to check his longitude independently. But Slocum's primary method for finding longitude was dead reckoning. He only took one lunar observation during the entire circumnavigation.

Slocum normally sailed Spray without touching the helm. Due to the length of the sail plan relative to the hull, and the long keel, Spray was inherently capable of self-steering (unlike faster modern craft), being able to be balanced stably on any course relative to the wind by adjusting or reefing the sails and by 'lashing' the helm. He tells us that he only helmed Spray when manoeuvering or in an emergency, and was proud of the fact that he sailed 2,000 miles west across the Pacific without once touching the helm.

More than three years later, on June 27, 1898, he returned to Newport, Rhode Island, having circumnavigated the world, a distance of more than 46,000 miles. Slocum's return went almost unnoticed. The Spanish-American War which had begun two months earlier dominated the headlines. After the end of major hostilities, many American newspapers published articles describing Slocum's amazing adventure.

In 1899 he published his account of the epic voyage in Sailing Alone Around the World, first serialized in The Century Magazine and then in several book editions. Reviewers received the Age of Sail adventure story enthusiastically. Arthur Ransome went so far as to declare, "Boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once." In his review, Sir Edwin Arnold wrote, "I do not hesitate to call it the most extraordinary book ever published." Slocum's book deal was an integral part of his journey: his publisher had provided Slocum with an extensive on-board library, and Slocum wrote several letters to his editor from distant points around the globe.

Slocum's Sailing Alone won him wide fame in the English-speaking world. He was one of eight invited speakers at a dinner in honor of Mark Twain in December, 1900. Slocum hauled the Spray up the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York for the Pan-American Exposition in the summer of 1901, and was well compensated for participating in the fair. (info from Wikipedia)

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