Man who fell from grace with the sea

In 1895, Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotia mariner, set out from Gloucester in his 37-foot sloop, the Spray. Forty-six thousand miles and almost three years later, Slocum had become the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo. His thrilling, wryly humorous account of the voyage, “Sailing Alone Around the World,’’ remains a masterpiece of nautical literature. In “The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum,’’ Geoffrey Wolff captures the extraordinary life and nature of the man who in 1908 set sail from Martha’s Vineyard for the Amazon and disappeared without trace.

Wolff’s nonfiction works include “The Duke of Deception’’ and biographies of Harry Crosby and John O’Hara. He is also the author of six novels. Wolff spoke from his home in Bath, Maine.

Q. Where does Slocum fit in the rank of mariners such as Shackleton and Bartlett?

A. I think Joshua Slocum was the greatest sailor in modern history, chiefly because he followed his path with so little fuss, and because he was such a bravura and accurate navigator. After 5,000 miles at sea, 43 days out of sight of land, he hit the Marquesas within 5 miles. In 1896 this was extraordinary, particularly since he was a lunar navigator, a method rewarding in accuracy but incredibly painstaking. Usually it required three people to establish a fix, but he did it alone. In “Sailing Alone Around the World’’ there’s a moment of epiphany, when Slocum had been beaten back through the Strait of Magellan, then beaten back around Cape Horn, then survived the rock-strewn Milky Way at night, then battered by foul tides and contrary wind as he inched forward toward the Pacific. He was in a fair contest, a game, really, with nature. The sea he saw as a worthy opponent rather than an enemy. He also seemed to ask, “What’s the hurry?’’ That too made him different. So many of the great sailors were sailing against deadlines or speed records. That wasn’t Slocum’s spirit. In the wildness of Tierra del Fuego he became a sea creature.

Q. Was he most himself at sea?

A. When he went ashore he was a social creature, but he did not thrive there. Rather than running away to sea he escaped to it. He was comfortable there, self-reliant. What’s striking, in a man of such quick temper, was his absence of any anger at the sea for what it threw at him. He certainly held a grudge against sharks but never cursed wind, waves, or weather.

Q. Did the fact that Slocum was sailing in the waning days of sail make him even more appealing to you?

A. That circumstance unfolded for me. It was not my provocation. All I had when I decided to write about Slocum was a sense of wonder. It wasn’t the fact that he had done this thing when the thing was ending, although that became part of my astonishment. But that doesn’t change how you practice your craft. It would be nice to say that Slocum planned this voyage as some audacious statement, but I don’t think that’s how he worked. A good idea came on him slowly. He was not theatrically defiant. But we’ll never really know because he’s so cunning.

Q. So cunning in his writing too. Did Slocum’s style leach into yours?

A. I wish it had leached in a little more and a little earlier; I’ve had a tendency to be baroque. But writing this book I couldn’t but be influenced by Slocum’s descriptive responsibility. He manages his necessary exposition with amazing grace. Like his description of his father, “. . . who, if wrecked on a desolate island, would find his way home, if he had a jack-knife and could find a tree.’’ He can also build a wave of a sentence and then let it just slide out instead of crashing. [Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s] “Two Years Before the Mast’’ anticipates similar graces.

Q. Yet his ship, by contrast, was a mess?

A. The mess doesn’t surprise me. There was something of the commercial fisherman about Slocum from the very beginning. He was never a spic and span sailor, but don’t imagine that he was sloppy, in the sense of not knowing where things were.

Q. Why did he set off again?

A. We’ll never really know that or how he disappeared. His son’s hunch sounds the most likely; that he was run over. The shipping lanes were congested by then, and Slocum indulged the audacious habit of letting the Spray sail herself while he read, cooked, or slept. He’d stay below for hours on end, a roll of the dice. We know that you have only 20 minutes until the moment of impact from the time you spy something on a collision course with your boat.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at  

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