Today I’d like to introduce you to a great friend of mine, Joshua Slocum. Well, I never personally met him since he died thirty-seven years before I was born, but I wish I did. Those of you who are inveterate sailors may be excused. The sun is over the yardarm for you. You know his story better than you know the difference between the port and starboard sides of a ship. Keep my Bloody Mary waiting, mates. I’ll be joining you shortly.
Joshua Slocum was born to a hardworking Nova Scotian family on February 20, 1844. Though he ran away earlier, by the time he was sixteen, he heard the sea call his name so clearly, he was gone for good, working on a merchant ship headed for Ireland. As he matured, his travels brought him to the Dutch Indies, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan, Australia, and other destinations only a man with the sea in his veins could dream of.
When it came time to marry, Slocum was lucky enough to marry Virginia Walker, a woman who loved the sea as much as he did. And it was a good thing she did. They had seven children, typical for a family at that time. What wasn’t typical was that they were either born at sea or in a foreign port.
Slocum’s prowess as a mariner and captain was particularly evident aboard the Washington. The ship got into terrible trouble during a gale and broke up on shore. Risking his life, he not only rescued his wife and crew but the cargo as well.
By the time Slocum was thirty, he became the owner of the Pato, a freighter he operated along the West Coast of the United States and between San Francisco and Hawaii. An industrious mariner who knew the value of hard work and personal drive, he eventually traded up till he became part owner of the Northern Light 2, a handsome clipper ship. Though it made his heart sing, it came with multiple troubles which included mutinies, physical and legal problems. Though the ship didn’t last long in Slocum‘s life, the experience seasoned him into a tougher, wiser sailor.
His next ship was the Aquidneck. Sadly, his wife died on it in Buenos Aires, and things were never quite the same. His second wife, Henrietta, hardly shared his passion for the sea. Perhaps it was the hurricane they sailed through that did it. Or maybe it was the crew that came down with cholera then were quarantined for months.
During the trip, Slocum was attacked by pirates and forced to shoot one of them. He went on trial for murder but was acquitted. Then his crew came down with smallpox and three died. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, his vessel was shipwrecked in Brazil.
Joshua Slocum always had a hopeful heart and a dream to match. With the help of his wife and two older sons traveling with him, he built a boat using scraps from his shipwrecked boat and pieces of local timber. Because he launched it the same day Brazil outlawed slavery, May 13, 1888, he named her the Liberdade.
The trip back to the United States though somewhat long- fifty-five days- was relatively uneventful. Henrietta never went to sea again.
In 1893, Slocum accepted the job of delivering the Destroyer to the Brazilian government. A type of warship capable of firing torpedoes, it was similar to the ironclad vessels that grew out of the Civil War. The trip was a disaster from the start. Rough seas haunted the trip the moment they left Sandy Hook, New Jersey, December 07, 1893. When rivets broke, seams split, and holes opened, the crew had to constantly bail to keep her afloat. When the ship was finally delivered, she had even less luck and was eventually scrapped.
At fifty-one, Slocum’s greatest feat was just beginning. On April 24, 1895, he guided the Spray out of Boston Harbor, stopping to pay homage to his boyhood home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Then on July 03, 1895, he continued a journey no one had ever achieved in history. The solo circumnavigation of the globe. Ferdinand Magellan, William Dampier, and others had done it with the help of well-trained and well-seasoned crews. But no one had ever done it alone.
To make his accomplishment all that much more spectacular, Slocum achieved two sailing feats. Without benefit of modern navigation tools or even a chronometer, he tracked his longitude with the help of a watch using a crude method called dead reckoning.
The second marvel of his journey was his sailing barely touching the helm. By lashing the helm fast, he was able to make adjustments by reefing the sails.
Three years later, Joshua Slocum sailed into history when he guided the Spray into Newport, Rhode Island, June 27, 1898. His Homeric feat put him a class of Greek heroes like Odysseus and Hercules.
The last the world heard of Joshua Slocum was on November 14, 1909 when he set sail for the warm waters of the Caribbean. The mariner who faced pirates and merciless seas in his three year odyssey was never heard from again.
Through thick and thin, rough and calm, Joshua Slocum never waited for someone to do what he could do for himself. We need more heroes like that today. Someone who stands tall like the ships whose masts once reached the stars. Joshua Slocum was brave, decisive, insightful, and loved to be in the thick of Life. What about you? What kind of Adventure are you on? I hope you’re making it one for the record books even if it’s just yours. Wherever your odyssey carries you, may you have fair winds and following seas.
I got to go now. The Sun is over the Yardarm, and my Bloody Mary is waiting.