The mid Atlantic is still locked in winter. A parade of snow and ice storms keep me inside and close to our wood stove. What’s a boat builder to do?
Open a book, of course. And my top pick for vicarious nautical adventuring is Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Joshua Slocum, The Hard Way Round (Knoff, 2010). After reading the New York Times’ positive review a few months ago, I put his book on my Christmas wish list and was delighted when the handsome hardback appeared under our tree.
Like many (most?) part-time sailors, I had read Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum’s account of his 1895 solo trip around the world in his 37-foot sailboat, Spray. If you have not read this book, stop reading this post and immediately buy, borrow, or download (for free from Project Gutenberg) a copy of this classic narrative. Slocum’s skill as a sailor was matched by his skill as a writer and his book ranks as not only one of the best sea yarns ever published, but as one of the best non-fiction books of the modern era. He recounts with lyrical understatement the sublime beauty of tropical sunsets and fair winds, as well as the perils of twenty-foot waves, Arabian pirates, and thieving natives.
But if you already know the outlines of Slocum’s adventure, I then recommend Wolff’s biography. Here we find the back story to Slocum’s remarkable journey, discover something of his character and, especially, come to appreciate the various professional and personal tragedies that drove Slocum to the Spray, his vagabond life, and, ultimately, his mysterious disappearance at sea.
Slocum said little of his own motivations for undertaking his adventure. In a few pithy paragraphs he sketches his early life by talking about his determination to become a sailor and how he entered his profession “over the bows.” He also made it clear that he rose to the rank of master and enjoyed some success in his posts. He also hinted at a life of derring-do; when a ship under his command sank in Brazil he mentions, in the most off-hand way possible, that he chose to sail home with his family in a homemade “canoe.”
A canoe? From Brazil? With his family? Surely there’s more to the story, I said to myself when I first encountered this passage. And there is.
Slocum did begin is life at sea as a boy, probably to escape an unhappy life at his Nova Scotia home, Wolff recounts. And his ambition and talents allowed him to distinguish himself from the general the mass of surly, disputatious and drunken sailors. At first, his life was charmed. He met Virginia, his wife-to-be, in Australia. They fell in love, married and immediately set sail together, feeling complete in each other’s company. Children were born. He owned and commanded several ships, including a magnificent clipper; their staterooms were filled with books, pianos and fine furniture.
In these years, Slocum was master of the sea and master of his fate. He was capable of overcoming every obstacle. Even genuine tragedies–especially the death of three children—seemed not to affect his confident outlook on life. (For a devastating account of one child’s death, we must rely on a heartfelt letter written by Virginia). And so his life proceeded on its happy course for roughly a decade.
But then his luck changed. Over a short span of years, his wife, who was always in frail health, dies in South America. He is taken to court for mistreatment of a mutinous sailor, and his ship sinks off the Brazilian coast (commencing a multi-year battle with the Brazilian government for compensation), among other setbacks. Wolff places the reader’s sympathies with Slocum where possible, but we begin to see worrisome fault lines in his character. His battle with the Brazilian and American bureaucrats becomes obsessive; the charges of mistreatment are fended off, but reveal an explosive temper; he remarries, but emotional bonds are weak.
In this context, his return home from Brazil in a “canoe” (it actually was a 35-foot sailboat built from salvaged wood), might have been the work of an obstinate and increasingly angry man who wanted to thumb his nose at a world he could no longer control. Instead of booking passage aboard a steamer (the American consul was willing to pay for their return trip), he built a sailing canoe with his oldest son and made the journey himself. They returned to America safely and Slocum declared it a great success, but his long suffering second wife vowed to never set sail again.
Once home, he faced even larger storms. The age of sail had ended; the great clippers were left to rot and their skilled masters were forced to retire or adapt. Slocum found himself nearly destitute, his reputation sullied, and his profession evaporating. At a low point, he found employment as a shipyard carpenter while his wife worked as a gown fitter.
For those of us who first encountered Slocum through his books, it is easy to see his solo voyage aboard Spray as his crowning achievement, the culmination of his sailing career. But when placed in the full context of his life and work, his voyage could be viewed as a means of escape or a desperate final act of a man who found himself irrelevant. Consider: There was nothing to keep him home; no worthy employment presented itself. He was restless. In such a state of mind, it was easy enough to point a small boat to the open ocean. As all compulsive travelers know, forward movement can mask a life that is otherwise adrift.
Of course he had plans. Slocum always had plans. He had literary ambitions and hoped to serialize an account of his adventure. As it turned out, interest in his writing was limited, but he did enjoy success as a public speaker and refilled his pocketbook at each port of call by presenting illustrated talks about his journey. A born salesman, he would also charge for tours of his boat and, in Australia, even earned money exhibiting a shark. He was a global celebrity and crowds gathered in anticipation of his arrival. He was far from the stateroom of a clipper ship, but it certainly beat working in a boatyard.
But at journey’s end, he found himself back home, not much better off than he was before he left. While other nations cheered Slocum, Americans seemed indifferent. Some doubted his tale; others simply didn’t care. He continued to give illustrated talks, which were well received. He even earned enough from exhibiting his boat at the Buffalo World’s Fair to buy a small farm. But true wealth and happiness seemed to elude him. He proclaimed his intention to settle down and grow crops, but barely had enough interest in the idea to lift a hoe. He bickered with his relatives and ignored his children.
Inevitably, he returned to his boat and, Wolff reports, more or less lived aboard Spray for the rest of his life. He sailed south in winter, drifted north in summer, visited old friends and welcomed visitors, but even sympathetic commentators noted his dissipated state. He talked like a man of breeding and sophistication, but looked like a ragged tramp—dirty, unshaven, his shirt and pants indifferently buttoned. He broke a man’s jaw in Nassau and was briefly jailed after a twelve-year-old girl visited his boat in New Jersey but went home deeply shaken. Not rape, all agreed, but something scary happened. Slocum, contrite, offered no defense.
Like the picture of Dorian Gray, Spray seemed to mirror Slocum’s state of mind; it was filthy, visitors reported, and poorly maintained. Some wondered how it even stayed afloat. His disappearance in 1908 while enroute to Venezuela was not a dramatic final scene, but something closer to a slow fade to black.
And yet: What a life Slocum lived, and what amazing things he accomplished! Wolff, a prolific writer, tackles the man’s life and work with easy confidence, lingering over the intriguing details, but never getting bogged down in nautical trivia or the dull preoccupations of Slocum devotees (What did the Spray really look like? Did the boat really steer itself? And how did he die?). At just over 200 pages, The Hard Way Round moves at a brisk pace and is very much written for those of us who love Slocum’s book, and want to know just a little bit more. We learn to share Wolff’s deep respect for he man’s talents, both nautical and literary.
Unintentionally, it is also something of a cautionary tale. It is a reminder that journeys are undertaken for many reasons, not all of them noble. And journeys, once completed, do not solve the problems and worries we tried to leave behind. As Wolff notes, a circumnavigation is all about returning to the place we began. All this is obvious enough, but Slocum’s life suggests that it’s a truth we must all learn anew. Glory, grieving, ennui and madness can look much the same when we are far from land, in a little boat, all alone.