He was the first to sail solo around the world, earning fame and fortune as an author and lecturer. Eleven years later, in 1909, he sailed into oblivion.
Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) has been called the greatest sailor of the 19th Century. Among other feats, he became the first person to sail alone around the world.
In November 1909, Slocum in his famous old sloop the Spray sailed from his New England home into the North Atlantic . . . and never returned.
Slocum’s Life at Sea
Slocum was born beside the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, 20 February 1844. The sea beckoned him from childhood. At 14, he got a berth as cook aboard a fishing vessel. At 16, he became a transatlantic merchant seaman.
His career took him to ports near and far. By the time he was 25, he was a sailing ship captain, commanding voyages between California and the Orient. He then became part owner and skipper of several sailing vessels. For decades, Slocum endured hardships at sea, including shipwreck and stranding.
In the estimation of almost nautical historians, he was one of the very ablest and most skilled mariners of his time. He proved he could handle himself in all weathers and situations. That’s why his disappearance raised suggestions that something supernatural must have happened to him.
It has been classified as a sloop, bark or yawl. The Spray was 37 feet long and 14 feet wide (“in the beam”) and had a draft (the part of it underwater) of about four feet.
It already was a rotting derelict, beached in a field, when Slocum took it on as a restoration project in 1892. It was given to him by a retired sea captain, Eben Pierce, who mentioned that it “wants some repairs.” That no doubt was the understatement of the New England coast. It took a year-and-a-half and more than $500—two years’ good wages, at the time—to make it seaworthy.
Slocum tried to use the Spray as a fishing vessel but was unsuccessful. In his own estimation, “I had not the cunning properly to bait a hook.”
On 2 July 1895 he pointed the nose of his vessel into deep water. It would be three years until he returned, after a zigzag voyage of 46,000 miles around the globe. His well-documented adventure included close calls with storms, pirates, illness and other hazards, many of which might have taken his life.
Joshua Slocum’s Disappearance
In 1902, four years after completing his epic circumnavigation, Slocum used some of the proceeds from his best-selling book, Alone Around the World (1900), and his popular lectures to buy a farm on Martha’s Vineyard. It was natural for Slocum, a lifelong mariner, to select the Massachusetts coastal island as his home. Like neighboring Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard has a rich nautical heritage, particularly its whaling legacy.
Slocum was no farmer, however. The sea remained in his blood. In the autumn, he would sail alone to the tropics to escape the bitter New England winters.
On 14 November 1909, he began his seasonal voyage southward. Setting out from Vineyard Haven, he was bound for the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela.
What happened then is one of the greatest mysteries in the annals of seafaring.
Rumors and Theories About Joshua Slocum
By most accounts, there were no reports of Slocum having been seen again after leaving New England waters. Some, however, say he called at Miami to resupply, then vanished (in the so-called Bermuda Triangle) when he resumed his voyage. Others claim he was seen in various Caribbean locales. One version of the story has him sighted last while actually sailing up the Orinoco.
Chroniclers of the Slocum mystery include Lawrence David Kusche, author of The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. They point out a number of logical reasons why Joshua Slocum, like so many sailors before and since, may simply have perished in the vast, unpredictable sea:
- Although he was a savvy, weathered sailor, Slocum at last may have encountered a gale he couldn’t endure.
- He may have fallen overboard accidentally, leaving the Spray to ply the waters unguided until it foundered.
- He may have died of natural causes while aboard, likewise leaving his boat to its fate. Many researchers suspect Slocum was in poor health when, at 65, he embarked on the 1909 journey.
- A giant steamer could have splintered the Spray in a nighttime collision; the crew of the larger vessel may never even have been aware an accident had occurred.
- The Spray was a very old boat, perhaps woefully unseaworthy by the time it was taken on its last journey. It might not have required a particularly violent incident to sink it.
Some theorize Slocum was unhappy with his wife on Martha’s Vineyard and deliberately “disappeared” so he could finish his days anonymously in some distant port—or as an ocean gypsy aboard his beloved Spray.
- Freuchen, Peter. Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Seven Seas. Julian Messner, Inc. (1957).
- Joshua Slocum Society International.
- Kusche, Lawrence David. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. Warner Books (1975).
- Slocum, Joshua. Sailing Alone Around the World. Ria Press Edition, reprint of 1900 original (2005).
- Winer, Richard. The Devil’s Triangle. Bantam Books, Inc. (1974).