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June 27, 1898: Down to the Sea in Ships, and Then Some

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June 27, 1898: Down to the Sea in Ships, and Then Some
1898: Joshua Slocum completes a solo voyage lasting nearly three years, becoming the first sailor to circumnavigate alone.
Slocum, born within sight of Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy in 1844, ran away from home at 14 and signed on a fishing schooner as cabin boy to begin a lifetime at sea. He later crossed the Atlantic and became an ordinary seaman on the Tangier, a British merchantman. By 18, he had received his papers from the Board of Trade qualifying him as a second mate.
Landing in California, Slocum received his first command there and spent 13 years sailing out of San Francisco, taking square-rigged ships to Japan, China, Australia and the Spice Islands (the Moluccas of present-day Indonesia), as well as engaging in the coast-wise lumber trade.
Several ships, two wives and two sons later -- his first wife died in Argentina -- Joshua Slocum found himself back on the East Coast, in possession of a rotting old oyster sloop called the Spray. He would make history with this boat.
He spent the next few years restoring the Spray and rigging her for solo sailing. In 1895, at age 51, Slocum set out to be the first sailor ever to make a solo circumnavigation. The 37-foot Spray left Boston in April 1895 with her original sloop rig, but difficulties in the Strait of Magellan would cause Slocum to re-rig her as a yawl for the remainder of the voyage.
One peculiarity of Slocum's sailing was his decision to eschew the chronometer -- in favor of using a sextant and the ancient method of dead reckoning -- for fixing his longitudinal position at sea.
It was an eventful passage. Chased by pirates, feted by island kings and almost drowned a couple of times in storms, Slocum sailed 46,000 miles, staying for weeks and sometimes months at various stops along the way. His longest time at sea without making landfall was 72 days in the Pacific.
In addition to his seafaring skill, Slocum was an accomplished writer. His account of the voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World, is considered a classic of adventure literature. He begins his story thus: I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter. The 12 o'clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail.
A short board was made up the harbor on the port tack, then coming about she stood to seaward, with her boom well off to port, and swung past the ferries with lively heels. A photographer on the outer pier of East Boston got a picture of her as she swept by, her flag at the peak throwing her folds clear.
A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.
Kind of makes you want to dump your stupid computer and run off to sea, doesn't it?
Sailing Alone earned Slocum a lot of money, enabling him to buy his first home on land -- though characteristically offshore -- in Martha's Vineyard in 1902.
Although sales of the book remained brisk during the first several years of the 20th century, they were waning by 1908. Slocum was suddenly hurting for money and decided to sail south this time, to the Orinoco River in Venezuela, with the idea of gathering material for another book. Luck was not with him on this voyage, however, and the Spray, while still seaworthy, was not what she had been a decade earlier.
Slocum set sail for the West Indies in November 1909 and was never heard from again. He wasn't declared officially dead until 1924.
A World War II Liberty ship, SS Joshua Slocum, was named for the doughty mariner.
Source: Various

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