In 1895 Joshua Slocum set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the Spray, a thirty-seven-foot sloop. More than three years later, he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo, and his account of that voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World, made him internationally famous. But scandal soon followed, and a decade later, with his finances failing, he set off alone once more—never to be seen again.
In this definitive portrait of an icon of adventure, Geoffrey Wolff describes, with authority and admiration, a life that would see hurricanes, shipwrecks, pirate attacks, cholera, smallpox, and no shortage of personal tragedy.
Excerpted from The Hard Way Around by Geoffrey Wolff. Copyright © 2010 by Geoffrey Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: What drew you to Joshua Slocum as a subject?
A: The personal history that led Capt. Slocum to be the first to sail alone around the world was fascinating on its face. Why around and why alone were not questions that he directly answered in Sailing Alone Around the World, his extraordinary book about the
adventure. To explore his life I hoped to understand what prepared him to succeed and what might have drawn him to endure more than three years of solitude. (In fact, while I say “endure”—thinking of solitary confinement—he might well have said “enjoy.”) And while Slocum had written about two other adventures—the self-rescue of his family after a shipwreck in Brazil by building and sailing 5,500 miles in a canoe (the Liberdade) and bringing a warship (the Destroyer) from New York to Brazil during one of its comic-opera civil wars—he never had the leisure to write about the many other extraordinary feats and perils he experienced afloat and ashore during the second half of the 19th century. He ran away to sea from Nova Scotia to Liverpool at sixteen, and rocketed through the ranks to become a very young master of a majestic bark in the San Francisco-Sydney trade. He sailed everywhere, and experienced astonishing trials: mutinous murders, shipwrecks, piracy, the eruption of Krakatoa, deadly shipboard epidemics, the capricious booms and busts of the shipping trade, the deaths of his beloved wife and three of their children.
Q: Did his wife join him at sea?
A: Virginia Walker was a young American beauty when she and Slocum met in Sydney, where her father had brought her during the Australian gold rush. After a whirlwind courtship they married, Joshua twenty-six and Virginia young enough to require the
consent of her parents. A crack shot, an adventurer always eager for a new escapade, she was Slocum’s full partner at sea, from San Francisco to Alaska to Manila to Hong Kong to the Okhotsk Sea to Portland to Honolulu to Liverpool to New York, around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. That is, until her death at sea near Buenos Aires thirteen years later. Four children—three boys and a girl—survived; the deaths of the other three in infancy—twins and a little girl—caused unspeakable grief. I have tried to imagine and convey what it must have been like to be anchored in the Philippines, pickle your baby in brandy to preserve her corpse for a proper burial, and then raise sail and navigate to Hong Kong.
Q: How did they raise those children at sea?
A: They were natural teachers. Slocum attended school only through the third grade, but he had an unappeasable appetite for knowledge. He taught himself sufficient math and astronomy to become the foremost lunar navigator of his day, and he read voraciously: fiction, poetry, biography, polemic, history, geography, and science. Virginia had been formally educated, and she ran a strict schoolroom at sea. Instruction in geography and foreign languages, biology and physics, were everyday life lessons for a family at sea.
Q: You make it sound blissful, but of course it wasn’t always.
A: Consider childbirth at sea. Add seasickness. Or even toothache. Not to mention diseases picked up in this port or from that seaman. Consider mutinies as well: the Slocum family suffered several of them. As a result of one, Slocum had to shoot and kill a knife-wielder; owing to another he chained a mutineer below decks for fifty-three days and upon reaching New York was accused and tried for cruel and unusual punishment. An editorial in the New York Times accused Slocum of “barbarity,” declaring that he was a “brute who deserves the severest punishment.”
Q: Slocum endured numerous charges of brutality. Were these claims exaggerated, or was he a brute?
A: The case which the Times was so quick to judge was perjured, and the mutineer recanted his testimony against the captain. But Slocum was a complicated man, with a great sense of sly humor, often self-deprecating but also pridefully thin-skinned. He could be brutal, tough as a cob and quick to use his fists. This was due to circumstance as well as temperament. “Motley” as a modifier of “crew” was no mere cliché at that time. Many sailors were desperate men, on the run from the law, shanghaied by crimps to whom they owed money for booze and hookers and unlucky turns of marked cards. Violence was commonplace, but it was also unpredictable, so that living aboard a three-masted ship with a polyglot crew of forty was akin to living atop an active volcano.
Q: One can begin to see why he might be drawn to the idea of sailing alone.
A: Indeed. And in addition to aspiring to tell the stories that Slocum didn’t have time to write, I hoped to understand how solitude must have come to feel like freedom for this complex, loving, and difficult man. No crews to worry about, no need to correctly predict the market in Liverpool for wheat you were racing to bring from San Francisco, or guano from Chile, or lumber from Halifax. No family members aboard to fret about. No one else’s mistakes to suffer from. On the other hand, to behave with honor and competence on your own was to act without witnesses to your courage and wits. If you were sad, you could weep, though Slocum was notably miserly with displays of emotion.
Q: How did Slocum become such a successful seaman?
A: He had a natural gift for navigation. I’ve written that much of such an art can be learned and refined with practice. Slocum, though, had a gift as arbitrarily bestowed as that of whistling with perfect pitch, or hurling a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball, or hitting such a ball out of the park.
Q: You describe Slocum as “a carpe-diem kind of fellow, remarkable even in such a carpe-diem period in our carpe-diem country’s history.” Where do you think such spirit came from?
A: Oh, wasn’t the second half of the 19th century a great and awful period of our history? Everyone was on the move and on the make. The Gold Rush is the perfect illustration of the fever to make a killing, spend it, show off. Greed was on the loose at sea as well as in Deadwood. Slocum was a plunger: he tried gillnetting, otter hunting, codfishing, wood trading, boat-building, piano shipping. He tried any enterprise he could think of, as long as it was coastal or trans-oceanic.
Q: Slocum traded in his ship the Amethyst (which had been sailed for almost sixty years) for the Northern Light, a fancy looking but highly defective vessel that Slocum said was “as beautiful as her name.” It ushered in a period you describe as Oedipal in its “sequential unraveling of the shipmaster’s overreaching pride.” What was so tragic about this ship?
A: Pride of ownership of such a large and daunting vessel blinded Slocum to the Northern Light’s hidden flaws: poor design, a treacherous crew, and the end of the era of merchant shipping by sail instead of steam. We might have hoped that Slocum, as shrewd as he was, would have seen past the Northern Light’s magnificence of scale to her rotten planks, weary rigging, and criminal crew. That he didn’t—that he was dazzled by his dreams of magnificence—is merely human.
Q: What did you discover about Slocum that most surprised you?
A: The steady sweetness of his affection for the sea. He never felt betrayed by it, even when it seemed most perversely cruel. His tolerance for fellow humans, on the other hand, was more measured.
Q: Is it true that he couldn’t swim?
A: Yes. He and many sailors from such cold waters as Nova Scotia believed that—having fallen overboard—to swim was merely to prolong the agony.
Q: You give the following account of Slocum at age forty-five: “He had lost to death three infant children and his first wife. He had lost to shipwreck two clippers, been charged with cruel imprisonment of one crew member and the murder of another. He was broke. The age of sail had ended. The captain was, that is, entirely at sea.” And then you add, “Just at this dismal moment came the encounter that changed everything, a lucky break for literature.” What happened?
A: Slocum was offered for free a derelict oyster sloop by his old whaling friend Eben Pierce, who bumped into him along the Boston waterfront, where he was doing piece-work for boat-builders. The 37-foot Spray (about one-tenth the scale of the Northern Light) was grounded in a pasture on Poverty Point, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, where Pierce lived. The old harpooner offered Slocum the hulk half in jest, and thank goodness the stranded Joshua accepted it with alacrity. He never flagged in his determination to
rebuild the boat, staying meanwhile under the hospitable Pierce’s roof. It makes, I believe, a sweet and bracing story.
Q: Of a passage from Sailing Alone Around the World, you write, “taking my breath away, it made me feel what I can only describe as love.” What about this book so entranced you? Did Slocum’s writing style influence your own writing on this particular book?
A: I read Sailing Alone Around the World almost fifty years ago. It was pressed on me by a fellow sailor as an adventure story, but I wasn’t at the end of the first paragraph before I was astonished by the music of Slocum’s prose. Since then I’ve always taught the book as a run of narrative, a bravura translation of fact into beauty. Its freshness has never flagged for me. He manages always to hit the right notes, beats, and cadences even when he describes a patch of ocean: “I heard the clanking of the dismal bell on Norman’s Woe as we went by.” My job has been to keep out of his way.
Q: Is there a particular passage from Sailing Alone Around the World that is most meaningful to you?
A: On May 8 of 1898, near the Equator in the South Atlantic, the Spray crossed her own earlier outbound path and Slocum writes of that closed circle, “Let what will happen, the voyage is now on record. A period was made.”
Q: Sailing Alone Around the World is still in print. What do you think accounts for its endurance?
A: Simple justice keeps it in print. How could it not be?
Q: You ask a question at the start of your book: What makes a voyage “true”? What made the voyage so for Slocum?
A: See above: “A period was made.” A moving full stop, an epic epoch marker, the end of something that can be read both on a chart and in a sentence. Becoming a different person by arriving again at the same place.
Q: You mention that George Plimpton, in an essay about the most intriguing men and women in history, wrote that of the few people he’d bring back from the grave for dinner and a conversation, Slocum would be one. If you could have dinner with Slocum today, what would you ask him?
A: What was the moment in the Strait of Magellan—battered and nearly broken by contrary winds, foul tides, and hostile natives—when you turned from an explorer into a conqueror whose conquest was impatience and fear? It was a moment of ferocity that I long to have witnessed. That’s what I’d like to think I’d ask. In fact I would be a tongue-tied fan, a damned teenager.
Q: We hear you are a bit of a sailor yourself. Any thoughts of abandoning the desk for the sea?
A: A “bit of a sailor” is exactly right. Slocum and I have in common only that we are human beings. (Oh, but I can swim, sort of.)
From the Hardcover edition.
“Enthralling. . . . Adroitly and economically told. . . . The best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A rich portrait. . . . A fascinating true story.”
—The Seattle Times
“A rich seafaring yarn.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“As one would expect from Geoffrey Wolff, The Hard Way Around is an engrossing and energetically written life of a very tricky and complex character. Slocum has at last met, in the author of The Duke of Deception, the biographer he has long deserved.”
—Jonathan Raban, author of Passage to Juneau
“Wolff captures the extraordinary life and nature of the man who in 1908 set sail from Martha's Vineyard for the Amazon and disappeared without trace.”
—The Boston Globe
“Concise. . . . Wolff holds a straight course in describing a solo sailor.”
“Engaging. . . . Wolff bores into Slocum's prose like a literary detective.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Wolff’s book, written in muscular, academic prose, fills in the gaps [and] focuses on the legend at the peak of his powers.”
“Hugely entertaining and informative. In an era of teenage sailors routinely circumnavigating the world within a safety net of satellite phones, GPS navigation, emergency call beacons and corporate sponsorship, Wolff skillfully illuminates, celebrates and further burnishes the eccentric life and legacy of Joshua Slocum—master of tall ships and The North Star of solo travelers.”
—Eric Hansen, author of Stranger in the Forest
“Exhilarating. . . . A rewarding tale of life on the high seas.”