The Seafarer

Rescue ship: Joshua Slocum (at left), his wife and sons Victor and Garfield aboard the Liberdade, the 35-foot ‘sailing canoe’ he built to get them home after they were shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil in 1888.

Joshua Slocum is remembered for two things—being the first person to sail single-handedly around the world and writing a marvelous account of the journey. In his biography of Slocum, “The Hard Way Around,” Geoffrey Wolff focuses less on the nautical and literary achievements than on what Slocum did before them.

It is, for the most part, not a pretty picture. The New York Times called Slocum a barbarian after he was imprisoned for allegedly mistreating a sailor. On one of the vessels he commanded, in the 1880s, several crewmen contracted smallpox, and Slocum was arrested again, this time for killing a mutinous member of the crew. Although he eventually resumed command of that ship, it then went aground and was lost in Brazil. By age 45, two of the ships Slocum commanded had been wrecked, his first wife and three of his children had died, and he was unemployed and broke.

I confess that, halfway into this tale of woe, I found myself thinking about bailing out. The early chapters seemed slow-moving, especially for anyone expecting an adventure story. There are also some odd change-ups in style, from carefully considered, grown-up prose to informal sentences such as this one: “It was a miracle the hulk didn’t sink, though if you wait a bit, she will.”

But Mr. Woolf’s writing was not my problem. I was troubled by his overall approach to his subject. Slocum’s solo circumnavigation—he set out from Boston in April 1895 and arrived back in Newport, R.I., in June 1898—was an extraordinary feat, and Slocum’s book about it all, “Sailing Alone Around the World” (1899), is an intoxicating masterpiece. I saw no purpose in exposing the great man’s failings more than a century after his death.

But I kept reading, propelled by Mr. Wolff’s engaging description of the life of a young seaman during the great age of sail. Slocum was 16 when he went to sea in 1860. He wanted to command one of the tall-masted clipper ships, and once he achieved his objective, 10 years later, he didn’t just chart the ship’s course and direct its crew. He also functioned as the resident entrepreneur, identifying cargos to carry and negotiating the terms. He called on exotic ports throughout the world, with his wife and children onboard most of the time.

But Slocum was born too late. The clipper-ship era is probably the most celebrated period of marine history—the inspiration for the paintings and prints that seem to hang everywhere, from stodgy clubs to fast-food restaurants. But it didn’t last long. In 1860, wood-hulled sailing vessels were already being displaced by steel ships powered by steam. By the time Slocum took over his most impressive ship, the 233-foot-long Northern Lights, in 1881, the tide was flowing swiftly against him.

It is in the attempt to connect Slocum’s circumstances and choices to his failures and his immortalizing achievements that Mr. Wolff finds book-worthy purpose. After Slocum lost his ship in Brazil in 1887, he built a 35-foot “sailing canoe” and set out on a 5,000-mile journey back to the U.S., this time with his second wife, Hettie (his first wife, Virginia, had died three years before), and two of his children. This is how Slocum, in his book, explained the switch to small-boat sailing: “The old boating trick came back fresh to me, the love of the thing itself gaining on me as the little ship stood out; and my crew with one voice said, ‘Go on.’ ”

Not far into the journey, the little boat ran into a squall and the sails, which had been sewn by Hettie, shredded. Seeking to answer the question of what Slocum was thinking at such times, Mr. Wolff bores into Slocum’s prose like a literary detective. Of Slocum’s lifetime sailing obsession and his arresting phrase “the love of the thing itself” he writes that it came from “irreducible, hard-nut recognition and radiant sentiment.”

Mr. Wolff doesn’t get around to describing Slocum’s 46,000-mile lap around the planet until his book’s penultimate chapter. By then many readers will be so fascinated by the man and the why-did-he-do-it question that they may be eager to read Slocum’s own book, which has never gone out of print.

What is it that drives some people to undertake the audacious? We live at a time when many of the most important firsts have already been claimed, but people seem more obsessed than ever with establishing records, some of them of dubious distinction. Businessmen-climbers search for mountain peaks that have never been surmounted, marathoners go to Antarctica to run, and a procession of teenagers seeks to replicate Slocum’s circumnavigation (with the benefit of high-tech boats, push-button navigational equipment and satellite telephones).

Was Slocum like these people? Before I read Mr. Wolff’s book, I would have said no, that his motives and achievement were more pure and singular. Now I am unsure. Many modern-day adventurers are driven by ego. And ego probably played a role with Slocum, who was no doubt eager to demonstrate that he was, in spite of his many setbacks, exceptionally skilled at what he did, to the point, as he put it, of “neglecting all else.” And aren’t some contemporary adventurers individuals who, like Slocum, feel as if they have run out of other options?

Then again, perhaps Slocum was different. Maybe it was all about “the thing itself.” In November 1908, Slocum sailed from his home on Martha’s Vineyard to undertake a solo exploration of the Venezuelan coast and the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he disappeared. No one knows exactly what happened.

Mr. Knecht is the author of “The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney of Hobart Race.”


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