Courage of the Lone Sailor   Leave a comment

Captain Joshua Slocum was a man of the sea. Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, Joshua left home for the deep water when he was 16. He began as an ordinary seaman and worked his way up to captain. He married in 1871 and his wife accompanied him on his voyages – bearing four children aboard ship. He transported goods to and from the California coast, China, Australia, the Spice Islands, South America and more. His fortunes rose and fell. His wife died, he faced a mutiny in which he shot two men, overcame disease, married a second wife, gained and lost commands and finally ended up in Boston, Massachusetts in 1890. During the same period steam power supplanted the sail and Captain Slocum’s hard-earned skills were in less demand.

Captain Slocum turned to writing and published a book describing his adventures at sea. Sales were disappointing. In 1892 he decided to build his own boat and sail her around the world alone. The 37-foot sloop Spray was the star of one of the greatest sea adventures ever told. Captain Slocum’s odyssey began on April 24, 1895. He was 51 years old!

Captain Slocum reached Gibraltar in early August 1895 planning to continue through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. However, the warnings of naval officers in Gibraltar regarding the presence of pirates and his subsequent experience changed his course. The following encounter persuaded the captain to sail westward across the Atlantic:

I was not long in reefing the mainsail and sweating it up – probably not more than fifteen minutes; but the felucca had in the meantime, so shortened the distance between us that I now saw the tuft of hair on the heads of the crew, – by which, it is said, Mohammed will pull the villains up into heaven, – and they were coming on like the wind. From what I could clearly make out now, I felt them to be the sons of generations of pirates, and I saw by their movements that they were now preparing to strike a blow. The exultation on their faces, however, was changed in an instant to a look of fear and rage. Their craft, with too much sail on, broached to on the crest of a great wave. This one great sea changed the aspect of affairs suddenly as the flash of a gun. Three minutes later the same wave overtook theSpray and shook her in every timber. At the same moment the sheet-strop parted, and away went the main-boom, broken short at the rigging.”Monday, August 25, the Spray sailed from Gibraltar. …A tug belonging to her Majesty towed the sloop into the steady breeze clear of the mount, where her sails caught a violent wind, which carried her once more to the Atlantic, where it rose rapidly to a furious gale. My plan was, in going down this coast, to haul offshore, well clear of the land, which hereabouts is the home of pirates; but I had hardly accomplished this when I perceived a felucca making out of the nearest port, and finally following in the wake of the Spray …here I was, after all, evidently in the midst of pirates and thieves! I changed my course; the felucca did the same, both vessels sailing very fast, but the distance growing less and less between us. The Spray was doing nobly; she was even more than at her best, but, in spite of all I could do, she would broach now and then. She was carrying too much sail for safety. I must reef [reduce the size of the sail] or be dismasted and lose all, pirate or no pirate. I must reef, even if I had to grapple with him for my life.

Captain Slocum’s Odyessy 1895-98

Impulsively I sprang to the jib-halyards and down-haul, and instantly downed the jib. The head-sail being off, and the helm put hard down, the sloop came in the wind with a bound. While shivering there, but a moment though it was, I got the mainsail down and secured inboard, broken boom and all…The mainsail being secured, I hoisted away the jib, and, without looking round, stepped quickly to the cabin and snatched down my loaded rifle and cartridges at hand; for I made mental calculations that the pirate would by this time have recovered his course and be close aboard, and that when I saw him it would be better for me to be looking at him along the barrel of a gun. The piece was at my shoulder when I peered into the mist, but there was no pirate within a mile. The wave and squall that carried away my boom dismasted the felucca outright. I perceived his thieving crew, some dozen or more of them, struggling to recover their rigging from the sea. Allah blacken their faces!”

Captain Slocum faced his greatest challenge as he sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Magellan:

It was the 3d of March when the Spray sailed from Port Tamar direct for Cape Pillar, with the wind from the northeast, which I fervently hoped might hold till she cleared the land; but there was no such good luck in store. It soon began to rain and thicken in the northwest, boding no good. The Spray neared Cape Pillar rapidly, and, nothing loath, plunged into the Pacific Ocean at once, taking her first bath of it in the gathering storm. There was no turning back even had I wished to do so, for the land was now shut out by the darkness of night. The wind freshened, and I took in a third reef. The sea was confused and treacherous…I saw now only the gleaming crests of the waves. They showed white teeth while the sloop balanced over them…on the morning of March 4the wind shifted to southwest, then back suddenly to northwest, and blow with terrific force. The Spray, stripped of her sails, then bore off under bare poles. No ship in the world could have stood up against so violent a gale. Knowing that this storm might continue for many days, and that it would be impossible to work back to the westward along the coast outside of Tierra del Fuego, there seemed nothing to do but to keep on and go east about, after all. Anyhow, for my present safety the only course lay in keeping her before the wind. And so she drove southeast, as though about to round the Horn, while the waves rose and fell and bellowed their never-ending story of the sea.

For the next four days Captain Slocum and the Spray rode the angry sea as the gale pushes them back towards the Strait of Magellan:

It was indeed a mountainous sea. When the sloop was in the fiercest squalls, with only the reefed forestaysail set, even that small sail shook her from keelson to truck when it shivered by the leach. Had I harbored the shadow of a doubt for her safety, it would have been that she might spring a leak in the garboard at the heel of the mast; but she never called me once to the pump. Under pressure of the smallest sail I could set she made for the land like a race-horse, and steering her over the crests of the waves so that she might not trip was nice work. I stood at the helm now and made the most of it.

Night closed in before the sloop reached the land, leaving her feeling the way in pitchy darkness. I saw breakers ahead before long. At this I wore ship and stood offshore, but was immediately startled by the tremendous roaring of breakers again ahead and on the lee bow. This puzzled me, for there should have been no broken water where I supposed myself to be. I kept off a good bit, then wore round, but finding broken water also there, threw her head again offshore. In this way, among dangers, I spent the rest of the night. Hail and sleet in the fierce squalls cut my flesh till the blood trickled over my face; but what of that? It was daylight, and the sloop was in the midst of the Milky Way of the sea, which is northwest of Cape Horn and it was the white breakers of a huge sea over sunken rocks which had threatened to engulf her through the night. It was Fury Island I had sighted and steered for, and what a panorama was before me now and all around! It was not the time to complain of a broken skin. What could I do but fill away among the breakers and find a channel between them, now that it was day? Since she had escaped the rocks through the night, surely she would find her way by daylight. This was the greatest sea adventure of my life. God knows how my vessel escaped.

Slocum and Spray returned to home base three years later. He’d been through a grand adventure made of many small adventures. He’d pitted himself and his skills against the enormity of nature and he had survived it.

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