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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review: Sailing Alone Around the World

The Voyages of Joshua Slocum
Collected and Introduced by Walter Magnes Teller. Sheridan House, 1958, 1995, 401 pp.

“I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else,” wrote Joshua Slocum, the first man to circumnavigate the globe on his own. Sailing Alone Around the World is his engaging account of that extraordinary 3-year journey, which takes in the world but is dominated by two characters: Slocum and his 37-foot sloop, the Spray.

After introducing us to both of these characters in his opening chapter, which details his rebuilding of the antiquated sloop—revealing at once the absolute thoroughness of the man and the strength of the boat—Slocum begins his journey. The year was 1895, he was 51 years old, and at this point in his life, says the Slocum scholar Walter Magnes Teller, he was a “defeated” man. He was unable to acquire a new ship, he was unsuccessful as a writer, and he had lost his beloved first wife. “He owned almost nothing except the home-made Spray.

But no sense of defeat emerges from this exuberant book.

Whether he is confronting terrible gales, dust storms, doldrums, or pirates, Slocum is energetic, interested in everything, and full of praise for his adored sloop. As he sails to Nova Scotia, Gibraltar, Rio de Janeiro, through the Strait of Magellan—a true achievement!—and on to Australia, Mauritius, and Cape Horn, he reflects on solitude, reads, cooks the flying fish that land on the deck, and observes the seascape. At the ports where he docks, his reputation has often preceded him, and he is generally welcomed, at times with great fanfare. He visits the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, a favorite author, in Samoa, stops at the island of Juan Fernandez, where Alexander Selkirk—later made famous as Robinson Crusoe—was shipwrecked, and is amused by President Kruger in South Africa, who insists that Slocum can’t have gone round the world, because the earth is flat!

Sailing Alone Around the World is Slocum’s best-known work, though he also wrote others, which are included in my anniversary edition of Teller’s book. Now considered a classic, Sailing Alone became immensely popular when it was published, and Slocum, already lecturing about his journey while en route, continued to give talks upon returning. Reading this memoir, it is easy to see how appealing a lecturer Slocum would be—knowledgeable, charming, and eccentric, a man who sailed on his own around the globe but never learned to swim!

In 1909, Slocum sailed again on yet another solitary journey, planning this time to reach South America and ultimately the source of the Amazon. No one knows what happened, but he never returned.

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