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Slocum, Joshua

Joshua Slocum

In 1898, Canadian-American mariner Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) completed a three-year, 46,000-mile journey around the globe during which time he endured storms, pirates and clashes with some of the native islanders he encountered along the way. It was the first recorded, solo circumnavigation of the earth—an amazing feat at the time, considering Slocum sailed on a crude, self-built ship with nothing but a tin clock to track time and a compass, a sextant and some old charts to guide his way.

Enchanted by the Sea

The fifth of 11 children, Joshua Slocum was born February 20, 1844, in Nova Scotia, Canada. His father, John Slocombe, was a farmer and his mother, Sarah Slocombe, was a lighthouse keeper's daughter. When Slocum was eight, the family moved to Westport, Brier Island, which is located off the tip of Nova Scotia at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. There, his father opened a dockside cobbler's shop, specializing in fisherman's boots. At 10, Slocum was taken out of school and made to peg boots for up to 10 hours a day in his father's shop.

During his scarce free moments, Slocum hung out with local sailors making short trips along the coast. His relationship with his father was stormy and when Slocum was 14, he tried to escape, finding work as a ship's cook. Fired almost immediately, Slocum returned home and received a thrashing. When Slocum was 16, his mother died, and he left home for good, securing work on the open seas aboard a ship bound for Dublin, Ireland.

Writing in his memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum explained his enchantment with the ocean. “As for myself, the wonderful sea charmed me from the first. At the age of eight I had already been afloat along with other boys on the bay, with chances greatly in favor of being drowned. When a lad I filled the important post of cook on a fishing-schooner; but I was not long in the galley, for the crew mutinied at the appearance of my first duff, and ‘chucked me out’ before I had a chance to shine as a culinary artist. The next step … found me before the mast in a full-rigged ship bound on a foreign voyage.”

Slocum worked hard and taught himself celestial navigation. He learned to use a sextant—a nautical device that sailors of his time used to locate a ship's position at sea by measuring the angles between the stars and the horizon. By 18, Slocum was a second mate and by 1869 he had moved up the ranks, becoming Captain Slocum. Around this time he also became a U.S. citizen and changed his name from Slocombe to Slocum.

Sailed Cargo Around the Globe

In 1870, Slocum delivered a load to Sydney, Australia, and met Virginia Albertina Walker, a native of New York. They married on January 31, 1871. As a sea captain's wife, Virginia Slocum preferred to sail with her husband rather than stay in port. She learned to use a sextant and could pick off menacing sharks with a rifle. Their children were born at sea and Virginia Slocum taught them to read and write as they voyaged around the world. She made Slocum bolt an upright piano to the ship's deck so she could teach them music. It was a rough life, though—three of their seven infants died at sea, with three boys and one girl surviving.

By the early 1880s, Slocum was skipper—and part owner—of the 220-foot, tall-masted American windjammer Northern Light. Used to transport goods during the late 19th century, a windjammer was the most majestic cargo ship of its day, with several masts and square sails. While Slocum was an expert navigator and astute trader, he had a reputation as a brutal leader who pushed his crew mercilessly. Slocum once gunned down two mutinous seamen. Another time, he placed an officer in the irons for 53 days. The man pressed charges and a New York court fined Slocum after convicting him on charges of false and cruel imprisonment.

Around 1884, Slocum sold the Northern Light and purchased the 138-foot-long Aquidneck. On July 25, 1884, while delivering a load of flour to South America, Virginia Slocum died while the Aquidneck was moored off the coast of Buenos Aires. She was 34. Slocum rowed her body ashore and buried her in a local cemetery. Slocum's children said he was never the same.

In February 1886, Slocum married a seamstress from Boston named Henrietta Miller Elliot. In December 1887, the Aquidneck struck a sandbar off the Brazilian coast. Uninsured, it was a total loss. The family spent the next several months living in a primitive shelter as Slocum and his children built a new vessel so they could sail home. He used native timber and items scrounged from the Aquidneck. Slocum fashioned boat clamps from guava trees and melted down the ship's metal to make nails. The 5,500-mile journey home took 55 days, during which they battled storms, sandbars and whales in their primitive craft. They arrived in the United States in October 1888. Slocum returned home nearly broke, having lost his savings with the boat. Over the next few years, he worked odd jobs and unloaded cargo at the waterfront.

Built The Spray

In 1892, Slocum ran into an old friend and whaling captain who offered him a ship. When Slocum arrived in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, to pick up the ship—dubbed The Spray—he found it sitting in a pasture. The rotting, centuryold oyster sloop was in need of a complete overhaul, but it was just the kind of challenge on which Slocum thrived. He built a steam box and pot boiler to steam and bend oak trees from the surrounding woods into a perfectly curved hull. He used yellow pine for planking and rebuilt the ship. Thirteen months later, the 36-foot-long, 14-foot-wide vessel was finished. He used The Spray as a charter for small cruises and as a fishing boat, but the vast sea beckoned.

At some point, Slocum resolved to set sail on a grand adventure around the globe. He was happiest at sea and in desperate need of money. Slocum figured he could make money by writing articles about his adventure for newspaper syndication. He stocked his ship's library with Darwin, Mark Twain and Shakespeare and his ship's cupboard with sailor's bread, flour, codfish, potatoes, butter, tea, coffee, pepper, mustard and curry. He also packed a rifle and revolver and was ready to set sail.

Sailed Alone Around the World

Slocum sailed for the open seas on July 2, 1895, setting off from Nova Scotia. In Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum described his first moments at sea: “A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt that there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.”

He planned to circle the earth by heading east, passing through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea. The strait cuts between Spain and Morocco. He arrived in Gibraltar in early August and a British officer warned Slocum that he should change his route to avoid the Mediterranean Sea because it was teeming with pirates. Slocum heeded their advice, reversed course, sailed back across the Atlantic Ocean and toward Cape Horn. He was chased by pirates along the way.

Slocum arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 5, 1895, and was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by January 1896. As he neared Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America, locals warned Slocum that sailing around the cape would be dangerous because the indigenous Fuegian people who inhabited the area liked to plunder passing ships. On that advice, Slocum decided to avoid the cape and instead pass through the Strait of Magellan, just south of Chile, which would allow passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Strait of Magellan, however, is a difficult 400-mile passage due to erratic currents and williwaws— violent bursts of cold wind that head down from the mountains and are capable of knocking ships over. Slocum made several attempts to sail through the passage and had to do it twice. After his first successful pass, the winds blew him back and he had to start again. It took 62 days.

Slocum encountered the Fuegian people several times but was able to outwit them. Once, several Fuegian canoes came alongside The Spray. Slocum hurried into the cabin and came out the other side dressed in different clothes, hoping the Fuegians would think there were several people on board. Ducking inside the cabin, he quickly built a “scarecrow” out of his clothes and attached a line he could tug on to make it move and appear human. As the Fuegians closed in on Slocum, he fired his rifle and, thinking there were at least three armed men on board, the Fuegians fled. Another trick Slocum used was to spread carpet tacks on his deck while he slept at night. At least once, he was awoken by shrieks from a barefooted native who had come aboard. Slocum fired his gun from the cabin and the man jumped overboard.

Slocum arrived at the Juan Fernandez Islands in the South Pacific in April 1896, then headed for Samoa, where he met Fanny Stevenson, widow of famed novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson had spent the last several years of his life on the island. Slocum spent several days in Fanny Stevenson's company and when he left, she gave him four volumes of her husband's Mediterranean sailing directories. Slocum enjoyed this leg of the journey, stopping at various islands in the South Pacific. He took part in local celebrations and was often asked to dine with area officials. Next, Slocum went to Australia, where he stayed for 10 months, spending time on the island of Tasmania. Around this time, he began giving lectures about his voyage and charging people to come aboard his boat to earn money to finish the trip.

In December 1897, Slocum rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In May 1898, Slocum crossed the path he had sailed en route to Brazil in October 1895—he had circled the world, but still had a long trek to get back to his starting point. He entered Newport, Rhode Island, on June 27, 1898, dropping anchor at 1 a.m., thus completing his journey.

Disappeared at Sea

The 54-year-old captain, having completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe, expected a hero's welcome, which he did not receive. Many people doubted his story, believing it impossible to sail around the world alone in such a crude ship. In an article published in the Smithsonian on the centennial anniversary of Slocum's voyage, Carlton Pinheiro, a marine museum curator in Rhode Island, said he understood the skeptics.

“Slocum's feat was as remarkable in its time as putting a man on the moon,” Pinheiro said. He went on to note that many modern-day sailors will not set out on the open seas without radar, a depth sounder, a GPS and other electronic gear. “It's not surprising that people a hundred years ago were skeptical.” After Slocum's logs were examined and he produced papers stamped at 20-some various ports around the globe, people began to believe his story.

For the next few years, Slocum roamed the seaboard giving lectures about the journey and working on his book, Sailing Alone Around the World, which was published in 1900. The delicate language and thoughtful passages in this memoir earned him a reputation as a “sea-locked Thoreau.”

By 1909, Slocum was itching for another adventure and had a notion to sail the Amazon River. He set sail on November 14, 1909, and was never heard from again. Theories abound as to what became of him. Some believe Slocum had become less attentive to The Spray and she was not seaworthy, perhaps busting up in a storm. Others think the vessel, with her faint kerosene running lamp, was plowed down by a steamer in the night. Still others think Slocum headed to some tropical island to live out his days. In 1924, he was declared dead as of the day he set out on his voyage.


Lasky, Kathryn, Born in the Breezes, Orchard Books, 2001.

Slocum, Joshua, Sailing Alone Around the World, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1999.

Spencer, Ann, Alone at Sea: The Adventures of Joshua Slocum, Firefly Books, 1999.

Teller, Walter, Joshua Slocum, Rutgers University Press, 1971.


Cruising World, April 1995.

Maclean's, July 6, 1992.

New York Times, September 22, 1897; July 29, 1956.

Toronto Star, December 13, 1991.

Smithsonian, May 1998.

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