Less about the voyage; more about the man

A Man for All Oceans
By Stan Grayson, Tilbury House Publishers and New Bedford Whaling Museum 2017, 399 pp. $29.95.

Joshua Slocum was a rock star in – and after – his time. Since 1900, his book has never been out of publication, and there have been at least 25 separate editions of “Sailing Alone Around the World,” in which he recounts his three-year circumnavigation in an engineless sailboat. He is every sailor’s hero – independent, highly skilled, brave beyond belief, tough, enigmatic, and resourceful.

Now we have yet another Slocum book, but this one less about what he did than who he was and why his story resonated. In “A Man for All Oceans,” Stan Grayson drills deep into the fascinating life of the Nova Scotia native whose fame came late in a life filled with adventure, grief, poverty, failure, and daring feats of seamanship in the short age of the great clipper ships.

We also get a fascinating glimpse into the turn-of-the-century Zeitgeist, which Grayson recreates in the spirit of historic novelist E. L. Doctorow. Slocum wasn’t just a hero of fellow sailors. In fact, there wasn’t much of a recreational boating crowd at the time to admire him. He was a hero of Americans who were attracted to his spirit of adventure and his work ethic. And he was a skilled storyteller with some amazing stories to tell of distant shores and then unfamiliar cultures.

Today, his followers are mostly sailors who understand the dangers and challenges he faced in a small boat at sea. If not in his personal and financial life, at sea he always seemed to be able to dig deeper into his well of skill and creativity to rescue himself and his crew and family.

He was a crazy-good sailor. Grayson recounts an incident in Hong Kong when Slocum – piloting the bark Amethyst, his wife Virginia at his side – shows off to a British admiral, three British warships, and a merchant at anchor. His son, Ben Aymar, recalled the incident.

“Father just cleared the H.M.S by inches – then skillfully cleared the merchant ship by a few inches – passed on to the vacancy and with ‘down helm’ swung into the wind and the ‘let go the anchor’ order was given.” Slocum apologized to the admiral for a breach of etiquette, to which the admiral responded, “Any man who can sail a ship under full sail through a passageway too dangerous to contemplate need not apologize to the entire British Navy.”

Reading “Sailing Alone Around the World” – and the earlier and in some ways more incredible “Voyage of the Liberdade” – one doesn’t get a sense of the skill and experience that Slocum brought to this voyage. He was a naturally talented seaman, but – by this point in his life, having shipped out at age 17 – he had easily amassed a lifetime of experience at sea. He had earned the admiral’s admiration.

By 1900, Slocum had advanced from seaman to captain, sailed big ships all over the globe, supervised the building of a steamship, become a ship owner, and, after that ship was wrecked, designed and built his own cruising canoe to get himself and his family home. By the time it occurred to him to rebuild the rotting Spray, he had massive experience at sea.

In fact, the circumnavigation was something of an afterthought rather than a life’s ambition. At that stage of his life, he had gone from revered clipper captain who “had walked the quarter deck wearing kid gloves and a stovepipe hat” to a fisherman who couldn’t make a profit on a pollock.

“He was discouraged and felt [a need for] a vacation. Why not start off and go round the world in the Spray,” biographer Clifton Johnson wrote. “He was sure he would find it enjoyable. It would be easier than selling fish anyhow.”

His voyage and subsequent book would make Slocum a very famous man, a sought-after lecturer, and a featured attraction at the 1900 Buffalo Exposition, where, after an overland trip, Spray was moored in a small pond. Only 10 years later, he and Spray would be lost at sea in a mystery that has yet to be solved.

For those who care to experience the full spectrum of Slocum’s turbulent life, Grayson’s book is a must-read, offering historical context for the amazing voyage recounted in “Sailing Alone Around the World.”

Co-founder of Points East, Sandy Marsters is also the magazine’s former editor, and he crafts PE’s reviews when he’s not sailing in the Caribbean.

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