Book Review: Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

Note: Joshua Slocum’s circumnavigation aboard the Spray definitely deserves an entire post of its own, so this post will be focused on the memoir itself.

First published in 1900 and in continuous publication ever since, Joshua Slocum’s memoir of his solo circumnavigation of the world is a classic in nautical literature. The first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world*, Slocum was already an experienced sailor prior to his journey. After purchasing and refitting the derelict sloop, Spray, Joshua Slocum departed Massachusetts on 24 April 1895 on a journey around the world that would take him more than three years to complete. His voyage ultimately took him across the Atlantic three times, and he visited various far off places in South America, the Pacific Ocean, Australia, the Indian Ocean, Africa, and the Caribbean. He finally returned home to Fairhaven, Massachusetts on 27 June 1898.

*Slocum was the first person to complete the voyage solo. Not to be confused with the first circumnavigation of the world completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano as part of Ferdinand Magellan’s crew. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and never completed the voyage…yet he takes all the credit!

This particular illustrated version (cover shown above) is useful because, although it contains modern photos of the locales, it still gives the reader some idea of the places Slocum would have seen as he sailed around the world. It also retains the illustrations from the original publication, as well.

Joshua Slocum, September 1899
The Spray

Throughout his voyage, Slocum was well-received by many of the places that he visited, but he also had to deal with the common problems that many solo adventurers encounter, such as fatigue, boredom, and isolation. Not to mention the various natural dangers at sea, as well. Thankfully, Slocum seems very much at home on the water and noted that the design of the Spray allowed her to run easily before the wind and self-steer. Indeed, there were times when Slocum simply lashed the helm and the Spray held her course fast for hours or days on end. At other times, Slocum had to outrun pirates and ward off attacks by the natives off Tierra del Fuego. In another interesting note, while sailing up the coast of South America in May of 1898, Slocum encountered the battleship USS Oregon on her way to the Caribbean for the Spanish-American War.

Naturally, some of the incidents in the book are a bit hard to swallow. The most famous one occurs after Slocum fell ill with food poisoning after eating plums and cheese. In a fever dream, Slocum claims that he saw an apparition of the pilot of the Pinta; one of the vessels that was part of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. The pilot, apparently fluent in 19th-century English, reassured Slocum that he would steer the Spray while he recovered. Perhaps Slocum really did hallucinate his meeting with the pilot while in his delirious state, but most accept that Slocum was taking some artistic license with his work.

The book is filled with many interesting stories of distant lands and exotic people. I wouldn’t call it a thrilling read, but it’s really about one man’s solo voyage. Slocum’s writing is simple and easy to understand. In some ways, it has hints of the ideas of the transcendentalist philosophers of the mid-1800s. Slocum’s story is a classic sea adventure about a man, a boat, the oceans, and the world.

Personally, circumnavigating the world by sea is something of a fantasy of mine. Although I wouldn’t want to do it alone or non-stop. However, a lack of time, money, a decent crew, and wherewithal make it more of a pipe dream than anything. Sure, it’s easy enough to book a flight and hop from country to country, but that’s so mundane. Believe me, the 10 to 11-hour flight from the U.S. west coast to Japan is a real bore when you’re crammed aboard a commercial airliner. I’ve done it numerous times. It’s too economical and everyone is always in a hurry. That being said, being stuck aboard a ship can be extremely monotonous, too. Still, there’s something about the idea of a grand adventure in the test of endurance at sea, and seeing far-off places at a leisurely pace. Maybe I should just book several transatlantic/transpacific cruises. Haha!

Rating: 4 out of 5

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