Little Bits of History

 April 24

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 24, 2017

1895: Joshua Slocum sets sail from Boston, Massachusetts. Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844 near the Bay of Fundy. His grandfather was the keeper at the lighthouse and he spent time around and on the water. His father made boots for the seamen of the area but the son was far more interested in being in the boots than making them. He was one of eleven children of a strict father and made several attempts to run away from home before succeeding at the age of 14. He did so by hiring himself out as a cook and cabin boy on a fishing schooner. He returned home shortly before leaving for good, signing on as a seaman aboard a transatlantic ship.

He sailed with several different concerns before settling in San Francisco at the age of 21. He became an American citizen, fished and hunted locally, and then became the pilot of a schooner travelling between San Francisco and Seattle. He moved from ship to ship, became master of several, sailed between Asia, Australia, and the US, and married. His wife joined him aboard ship and over the course of the next 13 years, they had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports. One of the ships he captained was wrecked during a gale, but Slocum saved his family and crew and most of the cargo. This led to greater ships and more sailing. Not all smooth sailing, twice the family was stranded and eventually returned to the sea by luck and determination.

Back in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Slocum rebuilt a 16’9” gaff rigged sloop oyster boat christened Spray. On this day, he sailed forth from Boston on a solo trip around the world. He first sailed up to Nova Scotia and spent time there before leaving North America on July 3. He did not have a chronometer, but used traditional dead reckoning for longitude and noon sun sights for latitude. This meant he needed only a cheap tin clock for approximate times. While sailing across the Pacific, he was one of the last to use a lunar distance observation to check longitude – decades after these were commonly used.

He managed to sail most of the way without touching the helm due to the design and proportions of the ship and sails. The self-steering ship was helped by Slocum’s adjusting the sails and lashing the helm. In fact, he sailed 2,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean without once touching the helm. Finally, on June 27, 1898 he returned to Newport, Rhode Island, travelling more than 46,000 miles. He wrote about his journey and published Sailing Alone Around the World, a classic in travel literature today. He was the first person to make a solo trip sailing around the world. He made enough money from his book and lectures to support himself and future sailing projects. On November 14, 1909, he once again went to sea, heading for the West Indies and never arrived. He was lost at sea and presumed dead at the age of 65.

I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter.

The twelve o’clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail. A short board was made up the harbor on the port tack, then coming about she stood to seaward, with her boom well off to port, and swung past the ferries with lively heels.

A photographer on the outer pier of East Boston got a picture of her as she swept by, her flag at the peak throwing her folds clear. A thrilling pulse beat high in me.

My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood. – Joshua Slocum in Sailing Alone Around the World