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Joshua Slocum, The first solo circumnavigator

115 years ago, Joshua Slocum set sail for the first time from the American city of Boston, Massachusetts, and succeeded in what many before and after him dreamed of, sailing around the world.

Articles JUL 25, 2012 01:00

By the late 1800s many professional seamen had completed circumnavigations and proved beyond doubt that the world was not flat, but no one had done it singlehanded. This was Slocum’s great achievement, and over the years hundreds of others were inspired to emulate his feat, including those who took part in this year’s Barcelona World Race.

Slocum’s accomplishment was all the more remarkable because his 11.2m gaff rigged cutter Spray had none of the navigation and sailing aids that today’s sailors consider essential. There was no sat-nav, no roller reefing, no self-steering or self-tailing winches; yet, Slocum’s little ship was so well balanced that she could hold a true course for weeks on end – something that even the best seamen of the day found hard to believe. Answering those doubters, Slocum wrote in his book Sailing Alone Around the World: “See the run the Spray made from Thursday Island to the Cocas Islands. 2,700 miles with no one at the helm in that time save for about an hour, land to land. No other ship in the history of the world ever performed, under similar circumstances, the feat on so long and continuous a voyage”.

Slocum navigated without a chronometer but relied instead on the traditional method of dead reckoning for longitude; he used a cheap tin clock for approximate time and noon-sun sights for latitude. He made only one lunar observation during the entire circumnavigation. Spray was built over the frames of an oyster sloop bearing the same name that had first served off the coast of Delaware almost a century earlier. Slocum, a naturalised American born in Canada, had found the wreck propped up in a field at Fairhaven and set about rebuilding it. He added 45.8cm forward, 30.5cm amidships and 35.8cm to the stern to make it a better (and dryer) deep-water vessel.

saving devices there were none. The sails were hoisted by hand, the halyards were roved through simple wooden blocks and the sheets were all belayed aft. The windlass and her smallest anchor, together with the carving on the end of the cutwater, came from the original Spray, and she relied on concrete for ballast, for there was no iron or lead in her keel.
On April 24, 1895, Slocum set out from Boston to sail the ‘seven seas’. He had no preconceived route, just a simple yearning for adventure and travel, and made stops during his voyage only to replenish supplies or take a rest from the sea.

First, he headed out across the Atlantic to the Azores before continuing to Gibraltar. He then continued south to Penambuco, before calling at Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo in South America. His course then took him through the Straits de Magellan to avoid Cape Horn, in the Chilean Patagonia, where he sprinkled tacks across Spray’s deck to ward off the unwelcome attention of bare-footed Indians.

Once in the Pacific, Spray headed toward Australia via Juan Fernandez and Samoa before reaching Hobart, Tasmania. From there, Slocum crossed the Tasman to Melbourne, then headed north, first to Sydney and then to the Great Barrier Reef, before crossing the Indian Ocean via Christmas and the Cocas Islands, Rodriguez and Mauritius and finally reached Durban, South Africa.
He may have escaped the hazards of Cape Horn, but there were no short cuts around the challenges of the Cape of Good Hope which Slocum weathered during Christmas 1897 before seeking shelter in Cape Town, known to sailors for centuries as the ‘Tavern of the Seas'.

Slocum spent almost three months in Cape Town and then sailed north once again, calling in at St. Helena and later in Ascension Island, where he let Spray be fumigated to prove that he was the only one on board. Spray crossed her outward track on May 9, 1898, and, taking full advantage of the Brazil Current, sailed back to the South American coast taking in the Caribbean islands of Grenada and Antigua and surviving a tornado before reaching Newport, Rhode Island at 1:00am on June 27, 1898.

In 3 years, 2 months and 2 days of sailing Spray covered 46,000 miles around the globe – an average of 100 miles a day! During the voyage, Slocum changed Spray’s rig from a sloop into a yawl to reduce the size of her heavy mainsail and improve her steering qualities on the wind. She sailed her truest course when the wind was two points off the quarter with her boom set broad and with the mizzen furled.

Slocum found that it never took long to find the right amount of helm required to hold Spray on course. Sailing close-hauled in light winds with all sail set, she had little or no weather helm, but as the winds increased, he found he could keep her on course by turning the wheel up a spoke at a time to take account of the increasing weight on the helm, then lashing the wheel down.

Hallucinations at high sea

Joshua Slocum suffered a series of hallucinations due to a fever before arriving in Gibraltar. In one of them, he imagined the pilot of La Pinta, one of the caravels from Christopher Colombus’ first voyage, on board his boat. Even though in the case of Slocum the hallucinations were due to an illness, these types of visions are relatively common amongst solitary sailors after spending various days on the high seas. A lot of people imagine they are at home, with friends, hear voices etc. According to neurologists, this is caused by a tired brain which is deprived of the necessary hours of sleep, which makes sailors daydream.

People made some disparaging remarks about Spray’s blunt bows and wide transom on such a shallow-draft yacht. Slocum took on these doubters head on, writing in his book: “They never crossed the Gulf Stream in a nor’easter, and they do not know what is best in all weathers. For your life, build no fantail overhang on a craft going offshore. As a sailor judges his prospective ship by a ‘blow of the eye’ when he takes interest enough to look her over at all, so I judged the Spray, and was not deceived.”

To date, more than 800 replicas of Spray have been built, ranging in size from 11 to 21m. Australian Kenneth Slack, the author of the book In the wake of Spray, spent a lifetime researching the origins of Slocum's yacht and produced a complete set of drafts of the Spray, which other designers, including Bruce Roberts, have refined for amateur building. Slack sailed his own replica, Pagan, extensively and survived one horrific storm that lasted 40 days. On October 10, 1996, a fleet of 13 Spray replicas sailed into Sydney Harbour in commemoration of the centenary of the arrival of the original Spray and her captain. The Joshua Slocum Society International promotes the legendary first solo circumnavigator and has a complete record of 64 single-handed circumnavigations from 1921 to the present on its website www. joshuaslocumsocietyintl.org

In 1909, Slocum set out on another voyage aboard Spray, from Rhode Island, and neither he nor his yacht has been seen or heard of again. Did she sink in a storm - something Slocum had always dreaded, - or was Spray run over, unseen, by a ship at night? Their fate remains a mystery, and it became the source of a debate that continues to this day: is sailing single-handed fundamentally unseamanlike? But the lack of agreement on whether or not a vessel should be sailed untended while the solo sailor is asleep does not stop an ever-growing number of adventurers from taking up the challenge.

by Barry Pickthall