Sailing is one of civilized society’s most romantic endeavors. Plying the world’s blue waters with nothing but a warm breeze and a sunset on the horizon brings cozy, enviable images to mind. And sailing alone around the world? Like scaling the highest peaks or cave diving to the deepest depths, such individual accomplishment appeals to the Western mind. In the 21st century, world records for sailing solo around the world seem a contest of time (youngest, oldest, fastest, etc.…), but toward the end of the 19th century, apparently nobody of any age had done it. Accomplishing the feat between 1895 and 1898, Joshua Slocum wrote about his experiences in the mysteriously titled Sailing Alone around the World.
Full of can-do American spirit, in 1895 Joshua Slocum looked to translate his many years of merchant marine experience into a solo sailing experience around the globe. After refurbishing a 36 foot sloop named the Spray, Slocum set out from Boston for Europe one fine summer day, and never looked back. Returning to Boston by way of Gibraltar, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego, Samoa, Australia, and Cape Horn, his was a long trip, during which a lot of interesting people were met with, and, as seems natural, the occasional adventure. (The goat may be the best.)
I have read a fair amount of travel books, and I find Slocum’s narrative middle grade. This is not to say his experiences and anecdotes are not interesting. Indeed, he has some adventures on Tierra del Feugo, has a taste of paradise on Samoa, and meets with trouble on stormy waters. But the overall narrative is light and airy, skating over potential rather than digging into it. Romanticized, there is more than one wink embedded in the narrative voice, and the presentation of more than one of the scenes seems slightly larger than life—as if Slocum were attempting to balance a Robert Louis Stevenson adventure with the true version of circumstances. For example, at one point “native savages” are fended off by simple tacks on deck, and at another, the bloodiest pirate of the region is placated with just a rifle shot across the bows. Really? Men interested in robbing a single man on a boat in the middle of the ocean are deterred by a few sharp metal objects and lone gunshot? And yet Slocum would have them yelping and paddling their canoes madly away… Yes, the white man reigns supreme in his encounters with natives. This is not to say the narrative must be a grim, terse affair that dramatizes circumnavigation in order to succeed, only that Slocum skims the surface of his years on the ocean without really unearthing the gritty reality of his trip. (Traversing the Pacific, for example, takes two short chapters.)
In no way should Slocum’s manner of recount detract from his achievement, however. Single handedly surviving on the seas for three years and 46,000 miles, faultlessly piloting the Spray using the oldest known method (dead reckoning), is a testament to true skill. By his own account Slocum had a lot of assistance along the way in terms of supply and money, but there is simply no substitute for pure capability circling the globe with naught but a few planks of wood separating him from the inky depths and the fickle wind for movement.
In the end, I daresay Slocum’s autobiography as a whole is more interesting reading than Sailing Alone around the World. That being said, the circumnavigation seems the main achievement of Slocum’s career, something which his own account covers in perfunctory enough detail, but not in any truly meaty, engaging sense.