Walden-on-Sea

In April 1895, when he sailed from Boston in a tubby home-made sloop on a solo voyage around the world, Joshua Slocum was fifty-one and on the run from his Furies. He was then barely on speaking terms with his second wife (“[My father] and Hettie did not pull on the same rope,” said Slocum’s youngest son, Garfield). He was at the bitter—and litigious—end of his seagoing career. His one published book, The Voyage of the Liberdade (1890), had attracted little notice and almost no sales. If he had hoped to follow Dana and Melville into the ranks of seamen-turned-authors, he began from a position of huge disadvantage. His father had removed him from school when he was ten. His spelling and punctuation were stuck in the third grade. Later on, his letters to publishers would speak, unpromisingly, of “litterary production,” of his mind being “deffinately fixed” on his “voyoage.”

Like Conrad (who was thirteen years his junior), Slocum was pigheaded in his attachment to sail at a time when the shipping industry was converting to screw-driven steamers. As a result, he captained a succession of elderly craft carrying second-rate cargoes and manned by third-rate crews. Two ships under his command ran aground on shoals and became total losses. In 1883, he was convicted in New York on a charge of cruel and false imprisonment of a crew-member, whom Slocum kept in irons in a lazarette on a voyage from South Africa to the United States. In 1884, his beloved first wife, Virginia, died suddenly aboard the Aquidneck at Buenos Aires. She was thirty-four. In 1887, in Antonina, Brazil, Slocum shot dead one crew-member and injured another; he was detained, tried for murder, and acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. Four months later, he grounded the Aquidneck on a sandbar and for the next six years he engaged in a quixotic lawsuit against the Brazilian government, claiming $50,000 in damages for his lost ship. He returned from this misadventure, with his sons and his new wife, in an eccentric sailing craft named the Liberdade, built largely from the wreckage of the Aquidneck. The experience wasn’t a happy one for the second Mrs. Slocum. When Slocum invited her to join him on further cruises, she is reputed to have answered stonily, “I’ve had a v’yage, Joshua.”

He was a profoundly disappointed and frustrated man when he came to build the Spray in a field at Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Slocum’s carpentry was rough but rugged. The boat, more barge than yacht, with its low sheer, blunt bow, sawn-off stern, and shallow draft, was a private ark, designed to float free of the irksome land. With no crew to make trouble, no wife to bicker with, and no perishable cargo (except for an unusually well-stocked library), Slocum took off into the blue. He meant to make the voyage pay for itself by writing travel articles for the Boston Globe at twenty dollars a pop, and …

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