Joshua Slocum
April 30, 2010 10:12 AM   Subscribe

On June 27, 1898, all but unnoticed, a Canadian seaman named Joshua Slocum sailed his rebuilt oyster boat Spray into Newport, Rhode Island, completing a 3-year, 46,000 mile voyage conducted solely by dead reckoning that made him the first man to ever achieve a solo circumnavigation of the world. His account of the feat, Sailing Alone Around The World (HTML with illustrations, plain text, EPUB, audio), was described by Arthur Ransome as "one of the immortal books". In 1909, Slocum set out in the Spray for the West Indies. Neither he nor the craft were ever seen again.
posted by Joe Beese (27 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Thus demonstrating once again the wisdom of that old addage, don't push your luck.
posted by grizzled at 10:17 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some days, you eat the sea, some days the sea eats you. As they say. Or don't say.

In all seriousness, great post!
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:26 AM on April 30, 2010

Slocum. Seaman. Spray. Really?
posted by gman at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Slocum, Seaman, Spray...
Needs NSFW tag, amirite?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2010


I wonder if Slocum has fed as many hours of fantasy and day dreams as Tolkien, Asimov, or DC comics. He has for me, I know. And I have sailed a sunfish around a small lake a few times.
posted by Some1 at 10:28 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd never heard of this book before, and already I love it. Just look at that list of illustrations:

A great wave off the Patagonian coast
Meeting with the whale
"I suddenly remembered that I could not swim"
The shark on the deck of the Spray

Godspeed, Joshua Slocum. I'm glad you got to do something you loved so much.
posted by Catseye at 10:34 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a fantastic, fantastic book. I read it while traveling, which made it even better.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:39 AM on April 30, 2010

Free Kindle edition too! Party! Bonus!
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2010

Most of the free ebook sites also have copies, so you can get it through Stanza/etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:12 AM on April 30, 2010

Very influential book for me growing up. Given to me by my sailor godfather, with whom I sailed across the Gulf of Mexico (from Moss Point, MS to Galveston Bay) when I was 13 and thankfully not alone.

The recent documentary Deep Water, about the 1968 single-sailor-boat around the wold race, is a must-watch for people attuned to Slocum and his solo adventures.
posted by activitystory at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2010

Slocum was a beached sea captain with a flair for self promotion. He'd written of memorable voyages. One was a voyage from Brazil to the states in a large open boat named the Liberdade, he built of reclaimed timber .

The Spray was given to him as a cruel joke when he was once again beached and penniless. He rebuilt her and circumnavigated her. The boat has been cloned by countless free spirits wanting to sail into the sunset.
posted by shnarg at 11:26 AM on April 30, 2010

+1 on Deep Water. One of my top ten movies of all time.
posted by jcruelty at 11:31 AM on April 30, 2010

Perhaps even more than the feat itself - one whose poetry is rivalled only by Armstrong's moon walk - what astounds me is the simplicity of the means Slocum used to achieve it.

It's as if Hillary had summited Everest in hiking shorts and tennis sneakers.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:41 AM on April 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oops! I read that as Arthur Ranson and thought it would be a great comic.
posted by tellurian at 11:54 AM on April 30, 2010

Not entirely true that he used only dead reckoning for navigation. Wikipedia explains that he used DR for longitude (as had pretty much everyone except the Polynesians until John Harrison perfected his marine chronometer), but he was able to use a sextant for lattitude measurements daily. And once he used his sextant to take a lunar observation, obtaining a true lat/lon fix.

If you like Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World, you might enjoy Jack London's The Cruise of the Snark. Slocum's voyage was the inspiration for London's, and though London didn't make it all the way around, he had his own share of adventures. (One gem was his description of surfing in Hawaii in ~1907, probably the earliest popularization of the sport.)

(Also, big ups for mentioning Arthur Ransome, author of the Swallows and Amazons series of adventure tales for children. Great read-aloud fodder for parents of adventurous kids.)
posted by richyoung at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2010

Slocum is doubly remarkable, first for being the first to sail around the world alone, and second for writing a book about it that still reads as fresh, lively, and completely engaging. Please do yourself a favor and read the book. It's really good.
posted by rusty at 12:03 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm reading the Wikipedia article about the Spray, and I'm intrigued by the section on self-steering. Are there any ships currently that can perform the same feat? What is it about Spray that enabled it to remain so true?
posted by Xoder at 12:17 PM on April 30, 2010

Xoder: any boat that's well-balanced and rigged properly can do it. Which means not that many, but it's not unheard of. It takes a hell of a lot of skill and know-how on the part of the sailor to have everything adjusted just right for that though.

Mostly self-steering is done by either electronic systems or a wind-vane that will keep the boat at the same point of sail for as long as it's allowed to. Which is not necessarily the same thing as going in the same direction, if the wind direction changes, but is most similar to Slocum's downwind self-steering.
posted by rusty at 12:28 PM on April 30, 2010

great book, great thread
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:31 PM on April 30, 2010

Xoder: Previously
posted by toastchee at 1:12 PM on April 30, 2010

More formats (including larger pictures), hosted by, scanned by Google from the library of Harvard University.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:35 PM on April 30, 2010

I've read the book and honestly it's not that good. His feat was incredible, the book... meh. If you want a fantastic... FANTASTIC sailing around the world book, read "Two years on the mast" that is a fantastic book. I have yet to read a sailing biograph even approaching Henry Dana's. This is not to belittle at all, Slocum's very amazing feat.
posted by ExitPursuedByBear at 1:59 PM on April 30, 2010

Also, big ups for mentioning Arthur Ransome

Apparently this time they did mean to go to sea.
posted by GuyZero at 2:35 PM on April 30, 2010

Classic book. I always found it curious it wasn't until 1898 the first person sailed around the world alone. It's not as if the route was unknown, or the ships not capable. It seemed the biggest fear was simply the "alone" part, they thought he might go insane or something, it was almost inconceivable that anyone would want to be alone that long, or could survive the solitude. What a difference from the modern mindset that finds virtue and value in being alone in the wilderness.
posted by stbalbach at 2:55 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this.
There is no real analog for this in modern times. I can't think of any adventure that requires such a level of self-reliance. You could say space travel but even though astronauts are beyond the reach of direct help they are still in easy reach of communication. Even Shackleton had people with him.

I've been thinking recently about attempts at setting around the world sailing records. There needs to be some attempt to divide these attempts into classes based on the technology utilized. Here is a list of the electronics on Abigail Sunderland's Boat - Wild Eyes
Full Centerline Amidship Navigation Suites with Full Compliment of Electronics for Trans Oceanic Sailing
12 Volt DC and 110 Volt AC Electrical Systems
Battery Parallel Switch
3 Batteries
Solar Panels
Two Wind Generators
Two Coursemaster CM850i Hydraulic Autopilots with remote
Deck Mounted and Below Deck Repeaters and Control Heads (includes remote)
Built in Computer Monitor and CPU in Navigation Suite
Raytheon Radar and Chart Plotter
Thrane & Thrane Sailor 250
Permanent SAT Phone Antenna
2 Below Deck Rudder Mounted Hydraulic Auto Pilots (CourseMaster)
Control Heads (with windvane mode)
Fully Integrated with GPS
ICOM M710 SSB Radion and Antenna
Horizon Intrepid VHF and Handheld VHF
Energy Monitor and Controller
BilgAlarm, BA4R-4W, Four Sensor Bilge Alarm System
I think we might be at a point where a sailboat could circumnavigate without a person aboard or any intervention after the launch.
I'm not suggesting that a sailor be foolhardy and as someone who raced sailboats for 5 years I have nothing but respect for those that might attempt circumnavigation. I wouldn't. I do however think that some attempt should be made to classify the feat of circumnavigation with respect to the skill of the sailor.

I mean "with remote" for fucks sake.
posted by vapidave at 5:35 PM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great points, Vapidave - and here's the clincher: Abby's going to have to pull in to Cape Town for autopilot repairs.

And stbalbach, it was the development of self-steering systems that allowed people to consider solo voyages. That Slocum's boat stayed on course without his constant attention was so novel at the time that many folks believed he was lying.
posted by richyoung at 10:34 PM on April 30, 2010

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