I just knocked off Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world: The Hard Way Around. Wolff wrote a great memoir, The Duke of Deception, and so, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s strong review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review I had to download his latest onto the Kindle.
Slocum wrote about his voyage in Sailing Alone Around the World, a familiar book to most fans of nautical writing and a classic in the circumnavigator genre that includes Pidgeon, Moitessier, Chichester, et al.. Wolff connects the rest of Slocum’s life to his great accomplishment, bringing together a complex portrait of one of the last great mariners from the Age of Sail, a man consumed with wanderlust, who lived from ship to ship most of his life, bringing his wife and family with him as he sailed, traded, and survived a life as a bluewater man.
I wrote a novel in college based on Slocum — it was terrible and an embarrassment that taught me that I would never be a novelist — so it was an interesting experience thirty years after that exercise to read about Slocum from his hardscrabble boyhood on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy to his disappearance at the age of 64 in the hand-me-down boat that carried him safely through the adventure of a lifetime, the Spray. Slocum was an extraordinary sailor who rose “through the hawse port” to the command of some great clipper ships in the late 19th century. He was also an accomplished ship’s carpenter, building his own boats on several occasions, including a strange canoe-like craft he sailed from Brazil to New York City with his wife and children aboard after being shipwrecked and stranded.
In his 50s, his career in ruins and with no sailing ships left to sail, Slocum was offered an old oyster boat by a whaling captain he had met in the Okhotsk Sea off of Siberia. He found the sloop, built almost 100 years before, in a meadow in Fairhaven’s Poverty Point, and decided to renovate her as his own.
He then sailed the Spray alone around the world at the age of 52. Talk about mid-life crisis.
Great book, quick read, and essential for anyone who has been captivated in the past by Slocum’s story.