Saturday, 2 May 2009

VOR: First Around the World - Alone

Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world single-handed, left for his epic voyage from Boston.

by Riath Al-Samarrai

"There's a great sailing tradition here," said PUMA skipper Ken Read as he stepped on the dock at the end of leg six. He wasn't wrong.

It's been a shade longer than 114 years since the April day in 1895 that Joshua Slocum, the Nova Scotia-born son of a Quaker, stepped off land in Boston and boarded a 36-foot oyster sloop called Spray.

Over the course of the next three years, two months and two days, he completed a voyage of 46,000 miles, arriving in Newport, Rhode Island on June 27, 1898 to become the first solo circumnavigator of the world. In his equipment bag was a sextant, some old charts and a wind-up tin clock.

It was the crowing achievement of his sailing career, but his life until that point had already been something of an adventure, not least for a man who couldn't swim.

Raised as the fifth of 11 children, he always had an attachment to the ocean, making leather boots for the local fishermen of Briar Island by the age of eight in 1852, and running away to become the cook on a local fishing schooner at 14.

In 1860, Slocum, then 16, left home and became a seaman on a merchant ship heading for Dublin, Ireland. Over the next two years he rounded Cape Horn twice, stopped at the Moluccas, Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore and by 18 had received his certificate as a fully-qualified Second Mate.

He was a Chief Mate at 25 and between 1869 and 1889 he was the master of eight vessels. In that time he married Virginia Albertina Walker after a three-week courtship and over the next thirteen years she is said by some sources to have had seven children, all at sea or foreign ports.

Legend has it that one of his boats, "Washington", was wrecked in a storm in Alaska, and Slocum managed to save his wife, the crew, and much of the cargo.

He also overcame some adversity in the Philippines in 1874. One of his boats, the Benjamin Aymar, a merchant vessel in the South Seas trade, was sold by its cash-strapped owner from under Slocum. Stranded, he organised native workers to build a 150-ton steamer in the shipyard at Subic Bay, where earlier this year Telefonica Black retired from leg four of this race.

In 1886, Slocum married again, to his second-cousin Henrietta Elliott. He was in charge of "Aquidneck" at the time and within a couple of years is said to have tackled an outbreak of cholera among his crew, then smallpox, and also fought off pirates, one of which he shot and killed. He was tried and acquitted for murder. Ultimately the boat was wrecked in southern Brazil in 1887.

After sailing a boat called "Liberdade", his professional sailing career was struggling against the emergence of the steamship. He struggled to make a living as an author and worked two years as a shipwright until a midwinter day in 1892 when the most notable chapter of his life began.

"Come to Fairhaven and I'll give you a ship," he was told by his old friend Captain Eben Pierce when they met in Boston in March 1892.

He received an antiquated sloop named the Spray and began renovations. After a year and a month, the 36-foot, 9-inch boat was launched. As was the beginning of his legacy.

He set sail from Boston in 1895 and returned a largely unheralded hero. His achievements were so incredible, many thought it impossible and were sceptical of his claims.

Ultimately his subsequent book about the trip, "Sailing Alone Around the World", became a best seller, telling compelling tales of battles against the oceans, natives near Cape Horn and the struggle of a solitary life at sea.

The success of the book helped Slocum buy his first ever home ashore, but life on land didn't seem to agree with him.

Eventually, at 65 years of age, Slocum set sail on his fourth consecutive annual trip to the West Indies. He never arrived and years later he was declared legally dead. The date of his death was set as the November 14, 1909, the day he set sail.

Mystery surrounds what ultimately happened to him, but his legacy set a path many others would follow, including the sailors currently planning to leave Boston as part of a circumnavigation.

As Read said, "There's a great sailing tradition here".

Volvo Ocean Race

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