Josh Slocum: Sailing Alone Around the World

Preparing for the Reynolds family reunion, I’ve just finished reading the book that set the course of my father’s life at the age of 18. It’s Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. I don’t know why I had never read it before; I have his very own signed and annotated copy, all taped together from going around the world itself and (no doubt) being referred to so often.

Joshua Slocum was given a battered and abandoned sloop, Spray, for its salvage value. He rebuilt it, deciding–almost, it seemed, on a whim–to sail it around the world. With “no yachting experience at all” (although he had captained and even owned larger commercial ships), with very little planning and no fanfare, “as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair,” he weighed anchor, set sail, and pulled away from Boston on what ended up being over 3 years of adventures. His solo circumnavigation was the first of its kind.

Our yacht was over 25 years in the dreaming and three in the making. Everything was calculated and planned down to the nth degree.

I had the book on my lap as my dentist was making another attempt to re-crown a tooth (“It’s still seeping but I can work around it”) and she noted the book was an old one. (Published 1899; the pages are thick and brown and look hand-cut.) When I showed her the title page, she got excited and told her assistant, “There’s a Josh Slocum Restaurant in Newport Beach. I bet he was from there. I bet he was local!” I managed to  open the book and correct her with a finger on the word Boston. (Later I Googled the restaurant and was disappointed to find it has gone out of business.)

Anyway, attended by dolphins, one with distinctive scars which followed him for a thousand miles, Slocum weathered williwaws, pirates, doldrums and any number of torn sails, broken masts, booms and halyards. Someone along the way offered him gold dust and thumb tacks. He chose the tacks and before he retired below for the night in pirate-plentiful parts of the world, sprinkled his deck with them to–very effectively–ward off intruders. (We, on the other hand, just missed being boarded and commandeered by pirates in the Galapagos Islands. See Phoenix of Hiroshima)

Our navigational equipment was primitive, even for the 1950s, consisting of a sextant and chronometer. But  Slocum, because it would have cost him $15 to clean and rate his old chronometer, used only an old tin clock with no minute hand (presumably with a sextant) to reckon his position, estimating drift and current, yet found even the tiniest atoll right on the money–except when he approached North America; a goat had eaten his charts of the West Indies.

He and other yachtsmen not only hailed each other in mid-ocean but sometimes came right alongside to exchange information or goods (in one case a bottle of wine). The only ship which hailed our Phoenix in mid-ocean was an American destroyer signaling us to sail to Kwajalein and the only boat to come alongside (that same day) was transferring two  armed coastguardsmen in white ducks to our deck to put my father under arrest for sailing into a nuclear test zone and to escort us to said island.

I was incredulous upon reading that Slocum could lash his wheel for hundreds of miles at a time and let the sloop steer itself while he read or wrote or slept. Apparently I was in good company:

“Some of the oldest and ablest shipmasters have asked how it was possible for her to hold a true course before the wind, which was just what the Spray did for weeks together.  One of these gentlemen, a highly esteemed shipmaster and friend, testified as government expert in a famous murder trial in Boston, not long since, that a ship would not hold her course long enough for the steersman to leave the helm to cut the captain’s throat.  Ordinarily it would be so.  One might say that with a square-rigged ship it would always be so.  But the Spray, at the moment of the tragedy in question, was sailing around the globe with no one at the helm, except at intervals more or less rare. . .

“But see the run the Spray made from Thursday Island to the Keeling Cocos Islands, twenty-seven hundred miles distant, in twenty-three days, with no one at the helm in that time, save for about one hour, from 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. . .”

Certainly not the Phoenix, although we were a ketch, gaff-rigged not square-rigged. We had five men alternating watches around the clock for our nearly 6-year circumnavigation and we never lashed the tiller except to heave to during the roughest weather and even then my father the skipper frequently prowled the deck to check on things.

Still, I can guarantee you there were times, traveling with a wife, son, daughter, a dynasty of cats and three yachtsmen, one of whom mutinied and had to be shipped home, when my father  must have wished he were sailing alone around the world.


About Jessica Renshaw
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2 Responses to Josh Slocum: Sailing Alone Around the World

  1. says:

    Jessica, what is the name of the book about your family’s voyage? Is it in print? I would love to read it. Allean

    Please note: message attached

  2. The Forbidden Voyage by Earle Reynolds.

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