Read an Excerpt
From Dennis A. Berthold’s Introduction to Sailing Alone Around the World
There is nothing in sea literature like Sailing Alone Around the World, nor can there ever be again. Only one man was the first to sail around the world alone, and only one book recounts that astonishing voyage in his own words. This is that book.
When Joshua Slocum left Boston on April 24, 1895, to sail around the world alone in the Spray, a 37-foot sloop he reconstructed himself, Mabel Wagnalls wrote in his log, “The Spray will come back” (Teller, Joshua Slocum, p. 77; see “For Further Reading”). Those words proved prophetic in more ways than one. Of course the Spray did come back three years later, anchoring on June 27, 1898, in Newport, Rhode Island. No one had ever circumnavigated the globe alone until Slocum did it, and not many have done so since. The Spray has also returned in the hundreds of full-sized replicas Slocum fans have built over the last century, many of them amazingly precise. Two books, Kenneth Slack’s In the Wake of the Spray (1966) and R. Bruce Roberts-Goodson’s Spray: The Ultimate Cruising Boat (1995), have documented this phenomenon, which began in 1903 and continues to the present. Between 1969 and 1995, Roberts-Goodson sold more than 5,000 sets of plans for Spray replicas of various sizes, and more than 800 of these have actually been built (Roberts-Goodson, p. viii). Hundreds of additional pleasure craft have been based on the Spray’s general lines and rig, and there are probably several thousand more inspired, to one degree or another, by Slocum’s modest sloop. Less ambitious Slocum fans can find kits in any good hobby store and build their own model at home. Right now, somewhere on the world’s oceans, someone is sailing a version of the Spray and keeping alive the remarkable story of a little boat that sailed around the world with only one crew member, the dauntless Yankee skipper Joshua Slocum.
As important as are the material reincarnations of the Spray, her voyage would be far less memorable if she had not also returned as a literary artifact, the inspiration and heroine, if you will, of one of the greatest sea narratives ever written. Like the Spray, Sailing Alone Around the World is Slocum’s original creation, and it has enjoyed a long life in many editions, reprintings, and retellings. It first appeared in serial form in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, a popular periodical published in New York. As soon as the magazine series ended, Slocum’s tale was produced in book form, complete with the Century illustrations by Thomas Fogarty and George Varian. It sold 7,000 copies in its first year, and its original edition eventually sold more than 27,000 copies (Teller, pp. 179, 176). Since 1956 it has been widely available in paperback editions, including a dozen or so for young readers. Excerpts are frequently included in anthologies of nautical writing. It has been translated into Swedish, Polish, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Czech, and in 2003 and 2004, Japanese and Chinese. There is probably no time during its history that it has been out of print, an honor it shares with such American classics as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Portions of the book are frequently anthologized, and its durability has kept Slocum’s other extended sea narrative, Voyage of the Liberdade (1890), before the public as well. Slocum has his own author society, an active group of sailors, shipbuilders, and lovers of nautical literature who honor his boat, his book, and his remarkable feat with regattas, awards, a journal and newsletter, and various memorabilia, all available on the society’s website (see “For Further Reading”).
So for all his seeming obscurity in the world of American literature, Slocum’s journey has fostered a world unto itself, a place where dedicated men and women spend years studying details of his boat; rebuilding it out of wood, fiberglass, reinforced concrete, aluminum, or steel; replicating his journey in whole or in part; and reading again and again the story of his amazing voyage.
Given such interest in the man and his boat, one would think we would know more about him today. He has been favored with a tireless biographer, Walter Magnes Teller, who assembled most of the key facts and documents in Slocum’s life and interviewed Slocum’s remaining family in the 1950s. Besides Sailing Alone, Slocum left a small published legacy of two additional accounts of voyages; a souvenir pamphlet about the Spray; a few unpublished letters to his editors, government officials, family, and friends; and scattered newspaper interviews with inquisitive journalists. Teller has collected and published most of this material, and after reading it our first impression is that we know this man as we would a traveling companion. Throughout Sailing Alone Slocum appears honest, forthright, and direct, like Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854), a man who cared more for truth than money, love, or fame. Slocum is much more modest and unassuming than Thoreau, however. His writing style is straightforward and lucid, his nautical terminology is appropriate and precise, and he achieves a consistent humor by gently mocking himself as well as others. He admits his shortcomings as well as his accomplishments, as when he confesses to getting lost at Cape Horn, or feeling anxious about lecturing, or being so afraid of meeting pirates in the Mediterranean that he completely reverses his itinerary by sailing west around Cape Horn instead of going east through the Suez Canal. Thoreau described how he single-handedly built a cabin for only $28.12½; similarly, Slocum describes building the Spray for only $553.62. But Thoreau does not include any plans. Slocum does, along with a detailed account of how he built the boat. His diagrams of the Spray’s profile, deck plan, and rigging are reprinted in nearly every edition. They lend his narrative authenticity and credibility and reinforce the impression of Slocum’s sincerity. He presents himself as the real thing, an honest-to-goodness Yankee ship captain with a yarn to share and the salty language for telling it.