Joshua Slocum knew exactly what we wanted out of life by the time he was 12 years old. That was the first time he ran away to crew on a ship as a cabin boy and kitchen hand. Against his hope, that first time at sea delivered him right back to his home in Nova Scotia, on the Bay of Fundy. But life on land didn’t last long. At 16, he ran away once again to the ocean. This time, it was for good.
Slocum was born in 1844 to a loving mother and a father whose toughness may have verged on cruelty. Sharing a humble existence with his 10 siblings, Slocum dreamed of leaving home for a life on the water. He came from a long line of sailors, yet somehow his father and mother preferred land. Slocum never felt quite right about it.
Some 38 years after he ran away for the second time, Slocum would gain international fame as the first person to sail around the world alone. In between, he lived one hell of a life, complete with pirates, exotic ports of call, and blue water sailing.
In 1860, 16 was old enough to be hired as a full-time seaman on a merchant ship. In two short years, he sailed to Ireland, England, China, Jakarta, the Maluka Islands, Manila, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He rounded Cape Horn twice in that short yet eventful era and eventually landed in San Francisco. After securing a solid, recurring gig on a Britain-San Francisco cargo route at 18 years old, he passed his second mate exam, a critical step to taking on more leadership and responsibility aboard ship. Soon thereafter, he was promoted to first mate on the route.
Very little is written about this time in Slocum’s life, so it’s tempting to assume that he was living a young sailor’s dream of a girl in every port. He may have been. But his quick ascension through the ranks also indicates that he was driven and focused on learning about seamanship and boats. At 21 years old, he had earned the opportunity to be in command, as captain, of a local San Francisco-Seattle cargo run. Before long, he was captaining the route between San Francisco and Australia.
It takes a special kind of person to live with a man (or woman) who prefers water to land. When your life is spent at sea, time is limited to develop the bonds of a marriage. By many considerations, Joshua Slocum was not a lucky man. He endured challenges and escaped peril through skill and grit. But when it came to meeting the love of his life, Virginia Walker, luck was on his side.
Walker and Slocum met in Australia, which was slightly odd given they both were American. The stars aligned for Slocum, because in Walker he found a woman with an equal taste for adventure and a willingness to live life on a boat. They dated for just over a month when Slocum proposed. They married in January 1871.
Together, the couple sailed the world for 13 years – his reputation as a skilled and reliable captain growing each year. His main route across the Pacific remained San Francisco-Australia, via Alaska on the eastbound journey. They had seven children (only five survived) who were born abroad. As a family, they visited Japan, China, the Spice Islands, and other exotic South Pacific ports of call. They even endured a shipwreck in Alaska, in which Slocum is credited for saving the lives of all aboard, along with most of the cargo.
In the late 1800s, much as today, captains were hired to run the ships of wealthy owners. Slocum was afforded the finest ships and learned to sail nearly every type of vessel – barques, schooners, sloops, junks, clippers, and even a steam-powered torpedo boat. With the exception of the Alaska experience, Slocum navigated all his trips with little to no incident. Until the Aquidneck.
Sailing and superstition go way back. Who knows what line was crossed for the terrible luck of the Aquidneck, but that ship – which he owned himself – brought nothing but misery to Slocum. A three-year period (1884-1887) in command of the Aquidneck began with Virginia dying in Argentina. Slocum (then age 42) married his 24-year-old cousin and things just went downhill from there.
His new wife hated life aboard the ship and her opinion was solidified when they were hit by a hurricane on their first voyage. To further pile on the bad luck, the crew contracted cholera and the ship was quarantined for six months. Pirates attacked, and Slocum killed one. In a small bright spot, he was acquitted for the killing, but then the ship got smallpox and three crew members died. It was extremely expensive to disinfect the vessel. In what is perhaps the only fitting end to the life of the Aquidneck, the ship finally wrecked off the coast of Brazil.
The second wife hung in there long enough to make it back to the United States, sailing a junk-style ship that Slocum built in Brazil. From that trip, Slocum wrote the book, Voyage of the Liberdade. His wife called it quits for life on the sea, but the couple stayed married. She eventually settled in Martha’s Vineyard and he would go on to achieve his life goal and most notorious exploit.
There’s no way of knowing if the boat inspired the idea or the idea inspired the boat. Either way, Slocum bought a 39-foot, 9-inch gaff -rigged sloop, named Spray, and set about rebuilding her to circumnavigate the globe. He set sail alone, from Boston, on April 24, 1895. As he wrote in his famous book, Sailing Alone Around the World, “I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.”
He was 51 at this point and all indicators are that he did understand the nature of his adventure. Though there’s little way to prepare for being alone for long stretches of a 46,000-mile, four-year trip. Nothing too unexpected came up through his journey, and he continued to solidify his now-legendary seamanship. The resonant tales that came from this adventure aren’t of strife or near disaster, but rather of his spot-on navigational skills and his use of dead reckoning many years after technology existed to guide otherwise. Slocum, by all accounts, was a superb sailor.
In achieving his greatest dream, Slocum put the exclamation point on a life built on skills and fortitude. His achievement wasn’t immediately recognized, but his book caught on a few years later, and he made a comfortable living from books sales and speaking engagements. He became a celebrity of sorts.
Unfortunately, as money from his book dwindled, his remaining years were spent chasing something that he never seemed to truly define. His mental capacities diminished, and some claim he even went a little crazy. In 1909, on a routine trip south to winter in the Caribbean, he and Spray were lost at sea. Few could believe this was the fate of such an expert sailor, until many years later a nautical expert determined that it was close to a miracle that Spray hadn’t capsized long before. Apparently, the sloop was quite the tippy design. Slocum, it turns out, never learned how to swim.
Top photo: New Bedford Whaling Museum