Alone at Sea : The Adventures of Joshua Slocum (9780385674072)

BOOK: Alone at Sea : The Adventures of Joshua Slocum (9780385674072)
13.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Copyright © 1998 Ann Spencer

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior consent of the publisher — or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Reprography Collective — is an infringement of the copyright law.

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Spencer, Ann
   Alone at sea

eISBN: 978-0-385-67407-2

1. Slocum, Joshua, b. 1844. 2 Sailors — Canada — Biography. 3. Voyages around the world. 4. Spray (Sloop). 5. Sailing, Single-handed. I. Title.

G440.S63S63 1998   910.4′5′092   C98-930071-4

Letters from Henrietta Slocum in Appendix 3 courtesy Nova Scotia
   Archives and Records Management/MG100 Vol. 94

Published in Canada by
Doubleday Canada,
a division of
Random House of Canada Limited


To Jo and Joe, who helped me understand the intricacies of solo sailing and the courage and skill it requires



Title Page




Prologue: On Beam Ends

Chapter 1 - The Call of the Running Tide

Chapter 2 - Learning the Ropes

Chapter 3 - True Love and a Family Afloat

Chapter 4 - Ebb and Flow

Chapter 5 - What Was There for an Old Sailor to Do?

Chapter 6 - All Watches

Chapter 7 - High Seas Adventures

Chapter 8 - Walden at Sea: A Solitude Supreme

Chapter 9 - Ports of Call

Chapter 10 - Booming Along Joyously for Home

Chapter 11 - That Intrepid Water Tramp

Chapter 12 - Swallowing the Anchor?

Chapter 13 - Seaworthy for the Last Time

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4

Notes on Sources


Early in September of 1997 I sat on the edge of a cliff where land ended and the Atlantic Ocean began. I was on Brier Island, Joshua Slocum’s boyhood home in the Bay of Fundy. The smell of salt water was riding the wind, and seabirds were calling. I sat with closed eyes and listened to the rhythms of the island. A constant pattern was all around: waves lapped on the shore directly below me, and the high-pitched sigh of a foghorn punctuated the lull, which startled an island rooster to crowing. The sounds echoed softly, before the sequence started up again. I tried to imagine how this vital environment had shaped the spirit of young Joshua Slocum, how it felt to be a ten-year-old boy running through the wind to the edge of this very cliff. It was Brier Island that had given young Joshua the sense that adventure and escape would always be found on the water, and the belief that a larger world lay just beyond the horizon. The sea coursed through his veins, and it would always beckon him, whatever its mood.

Brier Island inspired me. By the time I boarded the ferry back to the mainland, I had already embarked on a voyage of discovery. I had begun to get a sense of Joshua Slocum’s strength and his complexity. He was a master mariner who had followed his calling with an uncompromising spirit fueled by deep reserves of courage and humor. At the same time, he paid a high price for staying true to his passion: he was both a restless man and a profoundly sad one, and he was forever an outsider on dry land.

From Brier Island I traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the Whaling Museum houses the extensive Teller collection of documents about Slocum, as well as letters, photographs and other Slocum memorabilia. I owe a great debt to Walter Magnes Teller, Slocum’s biographer in the 1950s, and envy him for being the first to undertake this research. In the foreword to his 1956 biography,
The Search for Captain Slocum
, Teller wrote that his journey started with “a chance reading of his [Slocum’s] book, and a chance discovery, at Martha’s Vineyard, that people who knew him were still alive. For Joshua Slocum had disappeared at sea some forty years before.” Intrigued, Teller began collecting stories and memorabilia relating to Slocum. Sadly, other people’s recollections were all that survived — Slocum’s published books were still available, but his letters, logs and personal diaries and papers had been lost at sea with the
. It was also rumored that Slocum’s widow, Hettie, had burned much of the captain’s correspondence. Nevertheless, Teller pieced together a full and vibrant portrait of a determined man “living on the edge of the twentieth century.” It was through Teller’s research that I became fascinated by Slocum the navigator, explorer, lecturer, shipwright, writer, and staunch individualist.

Some forty years after Teller, it was I who was searching for Captain Slocum. I felt certain there was more to be discovered, and new ways to approach what was already known about him. In my preliminary research at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, I uncovered three letters that Teller had not seen. They were written by Slocum’s second wife, Hettie, to a captain’s wife in the Annapolis Valley, which was Slocum’s birthplace. In a letter dated 1910, Hettie wrote that her husband had been missing since he first set out in November 1908. This intrigued me right away, as this date contradicted every published account of Slocum’s disappearance, allegedly in 1909. It was quite possible that Hettie had her dates mixed up, but documents in the Teller collection almost exclusively mention the date of Slocum’s last sail as November 1908. The captain’s fate was now even more of a mystery than before.

The Teller collection is a feast of folk history. I pored over letters from Slocum’s sons, daughter, and relatives. All had similar memories of their mother, Joshua’s extraordinary first wife, Virginia. By all accounts, Virginia was a woman of tremendous spirit and strength of character as well as beauty and grace. Her strong sense of beauty breathed life into the rugged existence aboard her husband’s commands. Her navigational skills and, perhaps more importantly, her guiding intuition were said to have been Slocum’s mainstays. As Slocum’s son Ben Aymar remembered, “one peep from her would have changed the whole picture.”

The story of Joshua Slocum is of a man’s life lived fully and uncompromisingly. He survived mutinies and shipboard epidemics of smallpox. He was challenged to duels, and shot and killed a member of his crew in self-defense. His wife and three of his children died in foreign ports, and he lost his fortune when he stranded an uninsured vessel. His three-year circumnavigation was, for him, as much a spiritual and emotional voyage as it was a quest to be history’s first solo circumnavigator. His sad decline after the circumnavigation, and his mysterious death, add a mythic element to his life.

I wish to express my gratitude to the following people, who inspired and helped me along this literary voyage of discovery.

Many thanks to the people of Brier Island, especially to Phil Shea, Judy Joys, Nancy and Rolland Swift, and Carol and Bill Welch, who helped me understand what was indelibly etched in a boy’s soul.

Thank you to the following sailors, who helped me understand what calls someone to the sea: Tom Gallant talked seadog lingo to me and answered my many questions about why a sailor does what a sailor does. Tom has the true storyteller’s uncanny ability to find the choice words, explaining not only the mundane realities but the profound philosophy of a sailor’s life. Ed and Lainie Porter shared stories of their experience in gales, becalmings and fine weather along the coast of Maine. Lainie sang me sea songs and Ed answered any and all technical questions. I spent a Sunday morning around a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, kitchen table with Dean Plager, who told me how he came to pack up his office job and sail alone. His stories of unbroken horizons, phosphorescence and mirages fueled the chapter on solitude. Cam Allbright in Annapolis Royal shared stories of the challenges of sailing the Bay of Fundy, as well as his knowledge of celestial navigation. However, it was Cam’s thoughts on sailing as a spiritual discipline that helped me understand what Slocum meant when he wrote, “Everything in connection with the sea would be eminently respectable and be told in spirituality.”

I am grateful also to Fred Lawrence of Cape Breton, who sails his homemade replica of the
, the
Double Crow
, and shared his thoughts on Slocum’s forgiving old boat; and to Gary Maynard and his wife, Kristie Kinsman, of Martha’s Vineyard, who gave me a tour of the captain’s home in West Tisbury and loaned me videos of the Maynard family’s replica of the
, the
, in which Gary’s parents took their family around the world.

For historical and nautical information, thanks to Alton Barteaux at the Mount Hanley School Museum; and to Dan Conlin, Curator of Marine History at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The museum’s permanent exhibit “Sailing Alone,” which tells stories of four single-handers, including Slocum, was installed in June 1997. Dan’s research and enthusiastic writing about nautical adventurers, along with the historical photos in the exhibit, gave me a solid footing to start my journey. Thank you to Garry Shutlak, Senior Archivist, Reference Services, at the Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia; to Carlton J. Pinheiro, Curator at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island; and to Mike Martel and Phil Shea of the Joshua Slocum Society International Inc.

Judith N. Lund, curator at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, was an invaluable source of information and inspiration. Thank you, Judy, for your enthusiasm, thoroughness, detective work and care during the project. Judy drew my attention to new shipping information to be gleaned from the records filed away in the Teller Collection, which disputed all published reports of Slocum’s early commands. Thanks also to Lee Heald and Laura Pereira.

I had the pleasure of talking with Ben Aymar’s granddaughters, Carol Slocum Jimerson and Gale Slocum Hermanet, who told me of Virginia Slocum’s Native American heritage, shared with me family stories of her bravery, and filled in details of the cultured life she left behind in Australia when she married Joshua. Gale Slocum Hermanet also sent me three unpublished photographs of Virginia and two of her sons, Victor and Ben Aymar. I thank them here for their insights into the captain and his wife and for their kind permission to use those three photographs in this book.

I also wish to thank Don Sedgwick for listening to my sea captain stories and encouraging me to turn that interest into a book about Joshua Slocum; and my editor, Anne Holloway, who sat at the helm when my self-steering mechanism took us into strange waters.

There was so much kindness along the way. I am grateful to Gerret Warner and Mimi Gredy, and to Dr. David Glover and Tina Balog, for opening their homes to me. Dr. Glover also shared his knowledge of ocean conditions, williwaws, and the treacheries of the Horn.

Thanks to Dr. Joseph Gabriel for his help in making sense of Slocum’s way of thinking, to Joanna MacIntyre for her boosts to the creative spirit, and to Debbie Young for her insights into the past. Thanks also to Sandra Spencer, Kevin Fitzpatrick, Ray Imai and Klara Fassett for their thoughts on safe passage through storms. Thanks to my mother for all her help; to my sons Sam and Max for their patience and interesting suggestions; to Graham and Alecia Spencer for their computer know-how and for being on twenty-four-hour emergency standby; to Andy Manning for his patience and time teaching me the intricacies of my new computer; to Fred MacDonald for showing me his uncle’s watercolors of ports at the turn of the century; to Chris van den Berg for helping with swift communications; to Gerrie Grevatt for the author photo; and to Uncle Gordon for checking any odd fact at any odd hour.

Thanks to Linda Granfield, Paul McKenzie, and Gail Whiteside for their leads on tackling the initial research.

BOOK: Alone at Sea : The Adventures of Joshua Slocum (9780385674072)
13.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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