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The Passages of Joshua Slocum

Written by Geoffrey WolffAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Geoffrey Wolff


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On Sale: October 19, 2010
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59463-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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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.


 The Tales He Could Have Told

Joshua slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World (1900),his account of his audacious achievement as the first to complete a solocircumnavigation, is a tour de force of descriptive and narrative power. Histwo previous accounts of his voyages-The Voyage of the "Liberdade"(1890) and The Voyage of the "Destroyer" (1893)--are less remarkableonly for the huge shadow cast by his masterwork. To know what he achieved is tounderstand why the National Geographic Society, learning about Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927, elevated Lucky Lindy to a smallpantheon that included such notable voyagers as Dr. David Livingstone, SirGalahad, and Joshua Slocum. To read Slocum is to understand why GeorgePlimpton, in a charming personal essay about the most intriguing men and womenknown to history, wrote that Slocum would be one of the few he'd bring backfrom the grave to share a dinner and conversation. And what Plimpton knew ofhim didn't include the books that he'd been too busy to write.

Slocum might have made a grand adventure story of daring, catastrophe, and self-salvage from the facts of his honeymoon voyage as masterof the Washington. Following his wedding in Sydney, Australia, to Virginia-theAmerican daughter of a gold prospector-the couple sailed to Cook Inlet a coupleof years after the United States bought Alaska from the Russians. Seward'sIcebox (aka Seward's Folly) teemed with salmon that Slocum and his crew meant to catch, and did, but the Washington was driven aground and destroyed during agale. Slocum rescued his crew and their haul by building small boats from thewreckage, then daring to make the difficult passage to Kodiak Island and thenceto Seattle and San Francisco, where the fish were sold at a pretty price.

And it would be a thrilling study of enterprise andexotic geography to read Slocum's account of his adventures with the Pato, asmall packet that he and his family came by in Subic Bay as recompense for theyear they spent on a crocodile-infested beach, searching the branches above forboa constrictors and shaking centipedes and scorpions from their boots. Slocumhad been hired to build a steamship hull, but instead of his promised paymenthe was given the Pato, without a deck or cabin. Never mind: he built what heneeded to float his family and to trade in the Pacific, and soon they sailedthe schooner from Manila to Hong Kong and the Okhotsk Sea to fish for cod. Fourdays before the fishing began, Virginia gave birth to twin girls, but she thenstood undaunted at the Pato's rail with her infant son, Victor, hand-lining thehuge fish aboard. It was a great catch, and once the Pato was so loaded shebarely floated, Slocum sailed to Portland, where he sold the fish door-to-door.The twins died. The Pato next sailed for Honolulu, where his boat was shown offin an informal race against the fastest packet in Hawaiian waters, and won, where upon Slocum sold her for a small fortune in gold pieces.

And it should be wished that Slocum had written theserial tragedy of his voyages with his family aboard the Northern Light, theapogee of his merchant-shipping career. At Hong Kong in 1881, aged thirty-seven, he became one-third owner and master of "this magnificentship, my best command," as he uncharacteristically boasted. The medium clipper Northern Light, built eight years before and after the age of clipperships had passed, had a length of 233 feet, a beam of 44, and three decks. Itwas not only huge, spreading acres of canvas, but also built to demand attention: "I had a right to be proud of her," Slocum wrote,"for at that time she was the finest ship afloat."

Students of tragedy will recognize these words as aforeshadowing prologue, the pride that cometh before the proverbial sadheadline. Slocum's hubris at first seemed justified as the Northern Light sailed to Manila, Liverpool, and New York, where her progress up the East Riverwas blocked by the Brooklyn Bridge. She had to have her top masts dismantled to pass under this monumental connection in the web of land routes and steam-powered conveyances that were rushing together to end Slocum's calling.

Having refurbished his ship, Slocum began his voyage tothe Pacific with a crew that makes of "motley" an encomium. They gotas far as New London, Connecticut, before the Northern Light exhibited acharacter flaw, the failure of her rudder. The crew mutinied. The Coast Guard intervened, but not before a mutineer stabbed the first mate to death.

Slocum wrote about none of this, nor about forging aheadwith the same awful crew, seeing the prophetic Great Comet of 1882, and passingnear Krakatoa after its initial eruptions in May 1883 and before its finalcataclysm in August but in time to sail into a sea of boiling pumice. He did commit to paper his rescue of Gilbert Island missionaries adrift for more than forty days in an open boat, and his transport of these grateful castaways to Yokohama, where he attempted unsuccessfully to have members of his restive crew removed. He sailed on for the Cape of Good Hope, where the ship'srudderhead-the same mechanism that had brought such dismay near NewLondon-twisted off. Huge seas then opened other weaknesses of hull structure, and only furious pumping kept the ship afloat, till it was noticed that the pumps' discharge was slowing, a trickling brown syrup as thick as molasses,which in fact was what they were pumping-a gummy slurry of the hold's cargo ofsugar and seawater.

In newspaper interviews and court depositions, Slocum didrecord what befell him next. He reached a lucky haven in Port Elizabeth, wherethe Northern Light was patched up and he hired as a mate an ex-convict, Henry Slater, who was traveling under forged papers. Sailing for New York, the crewagain mutinied, and Slater was put in irons and confined to the hold on a dietof bread and water for fifty-three days. Upon arrival, Slater was freed and Slocum arrested, charged with excessive and unjust punishment of his prisoner.The trial was theatrical, with reversals of fortune and conflicting testimony,and the New York Times editorial page, rushing to misjudgment, vilified Slocumas a barbarian unfit to command a ship. He was fined and lost his ownership ofthe Northern Light, which was worth less in any case than repairs to her hulland rigging would cost. She was dismasted, sold as a coal barge, and tuggedport to port by a steamboat, sooty as the dust clouds from Krakatoa.

It's no wonder Slocum didn't wish to tell this sad tale,which nevertheless deserves telling. What he did write was more than enough tosecure his standing as a great writer, navigator, and adventurer, our AmericanSinbad. The historian Bruce Catton wrote of Slocum in 1959 that it was fittingto "mention Slocum on the same page with Columbus, because all truevoyages of discovery are basically alike." And what makes a voyage "true"? Above all, it must be inward, "concerned first of all with something in himself, if it be nothing more than the conviction that if hesearches long enough he can make the world give him something he has not yet had."

From the Hardcover edition.
Geoffrey Wolff|Author Q&A

About Geoffrey Wolff

Geoffrey Wolff - The Hard Way Around

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Geoffrey Wolff is the author of six novels and six works of nonfiction, including the memoir The Duke of Deception, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1994 he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. From 1995 to 2006, he directed the Graduate Program in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. For his writing, he has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Bath, Maine.

Author Q&A

Q: What drew you to Joshua Slocum as a subject?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 “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.”
The Oregonian
“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.”
Outside Magazine
“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.”
Kirkus Reviews

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