A fantastic voyage ended 90 years ago this summer: On July 3, 1898, Captain Joshua Slocum sailed up the Acushnet River and landed in Fairhaven, Mass., the first to make a successful single-handed circumnavigation.
Many others have sailed around the world since Slocum's time, alone or with a two- or three-man crew. Girding the globe has become almost commonplace, thanks largely to modern self-steering and satellite navigation. Sir Francis Chichester. Alec Rose. Robin Knox-Johnston. Bernard Moitessier, who named his boat Joshua in honor of Slocum. And even Tania Aebi, who was just 21 when she returned to New York Harbor last November.
But Slocum was the first, and his account of that epic three-year voyage, reissued in 1988 (Sailing Alone Around The World, David & Charles), is a classic of sailing literature. For his gift of graceful expression, his quiet humor and his deep, knowing love of the sea, Captain Slocum stands alone. At 5'9�" and 146 pounds, he was described by a reporter as "spry as a kitten and nimble as a monkey." He was 51 years old when he set out.
"As the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston," wrote Slocum. "Nearby a great steamship, fully manned, officered, and piloted, lay stranded and broken.... So in the first hour of my lone voyage I had proof that the Spray could at least do better than this full-handed steamship, for I was already farther on my voyage than she."
Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, and he first went to sea in one of Her Majesty's ships at 16. He was appointed an officer at 18, and seven years later, while living in San Francisco, he was given his own command: an American ship. Slocum had by this time become a U.S. citizen.
That first command took him to Australia, where he met Virginia Walker, the daughter of a New Yorker who was prospecting for gold in New South Wales. Virginia was 21 when Slocum sailed his new ship into Sydney harbor. Not long after Slocum's arrival she stepped aboard his ship as his bride.
They moved on to larger and larger vessels until Slocum, though not yet 40, had worked and traded his way to partial ownership of the 1,800-ton Northern Light.
For 14 years, the Slocums made their home at sea. Their seven children, four of whom survived, were born at sea. Then, during a voyage to South America in 1884, Virginia died.
The Captain took his children back to Massachusetts, where two years later the 46-year-old widower married Henrietta Elliot, a cousin. Hetty was 24 and, although from Nova Scotia, she was no sailor. Her only voyage with her husband, which began in 1886, is described in his first book, The Voyage of the Liberdade. That trip to Brazil was marred by a mutiny, two killings, smallpox, cholera, and a shipwreck. Hetty had to help build a new boat and sail it back to the U.S. She never went to sea again.
But Slocum was committed to sailing, though he'd lost his ship and most of his money in Brazil, and though sailing captains now outnumbered sailing ships. He worked at odd jobs on the Boston waterfront until, in 1892, a friend offered him a vessel "wanting some repair."