Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 18 - November Issue - Year 2017
A Bag Of Tacks
“The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and the Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away. We have all seen miniature rainbows about a ship's prow, but the Spray flung out a bow of her own that day, such as I had never seen before.”
Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail alone around the world. Born in 1844 in Nova Scotia, Canada, Joshua abandoned school after only two years to help support his family. The young boy was irresistibly attracted by the sea and spent his free time down by the harbor, listening to the fascinating tales told by sailors and fishermen.
At the age of sixteen, he ran away from home. As a seaman on merchant ships, he completed his studies and qualified as an officer.
Over the years, Slocum rose to the rank of captain, while perfecting his seafaring technique and studying the art of shipbuilding. He finally settled down in Boston, but he soon felt restless. As luck would have it, Joshua met an old acquaintance, who offered to give him a ship. Slocum was disappointed when he discovered that the “ship” was actually an antiquated and derelict sloop called Spray that sat propped up in a field under canvas.
Nevertheless Joshua took up the challenge and for the next thirteen months worked from dawn to sunset, replacing every piece of wood on the vessel. When Joshua finally took his ship for a trial run in the harbor, the Spray handled beautifully and not a single drop of water leaked through the hull. The ship measured slightly more than thirty-six feet long and fourteen feet wide.
Joshua spent the next season fishing on the coast, but soon realized that he had no skills as a fisherman. After careful pondering, he made a monumental decision: he would take the Spray on a voyage around the world!
Slocum sailed eastwards from Boston on the morning of April 24th, 1895. He had only a cheap tin clock as a navigational aid and used dead reckoning to determine his position. Before going to sleep, he would tie the helm with a rope. After an uneventful crossing of the Atlantic, Joshua had a strange experience. He came down with food poisoning and was forced to lie below deck with severe cramps just as night was falling and the sea became rough with a brewing storm. He became delirious and was shocked when he glanced up through the companionway and saw a tall man standing at the helm. The mysterious figure introduced himself as the pilot of the Pinta, one of Christopher Columbus’s ships. The apparition assured Joshua that he would guide the ship safely through the storm and told him that he would feel better after a good night’s sleep. Sure enough, when Slocum awoke the next morning, he had completely recovered and was surprised to see that the Spray had kept her course for over ninety miles in a rough sea!
The British naval officers whom Slocum met at Gibraltar convinced him that it would be too dangerous to continue through the Mediterranean and the Red Sea because of pirates. So Slocum turned his ship around and headed back towards South America. After fighting off an attempt by a gaucho to steal his ship off the coast of Uruguay, Slocum entered the treacherous Strait of Magellan. At Punta Arenas, a sea captain gave Joshua a bag of carpet tacks, explaining that by scattering the tacks on his deck, Slocum could prevent the local barefooted natives from boarding his ship at night to attack him.
By now, Slocum had become a celebrity and he was eagerly awaited at each of his stops. In Samoa, he met the widow of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and he gave lectures in Australia. In South Africa, Slocum got into a heated argument with President Paul Kruger, who insisted that the world was flat! From there he sailed across the Atlantic and on to Newport, Rhode Island, where he arrived on June 27th 1898 after sailing over 46,000 miles.
In 1900, Slocum published Sailing Alone Around the World, an account of his incredible journey, still in print.
Ever the restless sailor, on November 14th 1909 Joshua Slocum took off with his beloved Spray to explore the rivers of South America. He disappeared without a trace and his fate remains a mystery to this day.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
Author: Giovanni Gregorat