Joshua Slocum’s Journey

English sailor James Mellor is retracing the Caribbean voyage of Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world.

  • At anchor in Trinidad. Photograph by James Mellor
  • The Ospray in Trinidad, ready to retrace Slocum’s Caribbean voyage. Photograph by James Mellor
  • The Ospray in port. Photograph by James Mellor
  • Slocum’s successor, ready to go. Photograph by James Mellor
  • The Ospray. Photograph by James Mellor
  • Getting ready to sail. Photograph by James Mellor

Almost one hundred years ago, Captain Joshua Slocum, in his beloved little ship Spray, sailed through the West Indies at the end of an epic voyage of 46,000 miles. He was the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. He accomplished this feat in a vessel under 40 feet long and more than 90 years old, given to him in jest by an old whaling captain named Eben Pierce. The jest was that she was a total wreck, and Slocum had to rebuild her timber by timber.

However, the jest rebounded: for Slocum carved a place in maritime history for himself and the Spray with a feat which many said could not be done.

Joshua Slocum was a “Bluenose” Nova Scotian, from a race whose self-reliance, hardiness and versatility are legendary. Born in 1844, he ran away to sea at the age of twelve after being thrashed for building a model ship instead of making sea boots in his father’s workshop. He rose quickly through the ranks and at eighteen was promoted to second mate, delighted at having come “through the hawse pipe and not through the cabin window.”

Before he was twenty-seven he was captain of The Washington, a magnificent square-rigged ship, in which he sailed to Sydney, Australia, where he met and married his wife Virginia. Together they sailed the seven seas and enjoyed many years of adventure, he as a master of some of the finest vessels afloat, until sail began to be replaced by steam and Slocum found himself redundant; as he said, cast up on the beach.

Unable to “swallow the anchor”, he let it be known that he was looking for a ship, which is where we meet old Eben Pierce and his wreck. Slocum’s voyage in this “wreck” took three years, from 1895 to 1898, and his book about it, Sailing Alone Around The World, inspired me to build Ospray, a Spray look-alike in which to follow in Slocum’s wake.

An extract from Slocum’s log, as he reaches the Caribbean. “Tonight in latitude 7º 13′ N, for the first time in nearly three years I see the North Star.” Two days later: “On the 20th May, about sunset, the island of Tobago, off the Orinoco, came into view bearing west by north, distant twenty-two miles.” The Spray was drawing rapidly towards her home destination: Boston, Massachusetts.

Later that night, running along the coast of Tobago, Slocum was alarmed to find himself, as he thought, among breakers. He lamented the day he had allowed on board a goat which had eaten his charts of the West Indies. For hours, heart in mouth, expecting to be wrecked at any moment, he steered this way and that to clear the reefs he was sure surrounded him. Always he saw the flash of white water ahead.

At last, from the crest of a wave higher than the rest, he could see all there was of the reef and fell back speechless with amazement. “It was the great revolving light on the island of Trinidad, thirty miles away, throwing flashes over the waves, which had deceived me.”

He set course for Grenada, “a lovely island with people worth knowing”, and cast anchor off the town of St. George’s, forty-two days’ sailing from the Cape of Good Hope. After giving a talk on his adventures to an audience in the Court House, Slocum sailed for Dominica where he was bearded by a pompous customs official who was “starched from clew to earring and stood as straight up and down as a fathom of pump water.” Then on to Antigua where the Spray was towed into St. John’s harbour with some ceremony by a steam launch bearing Sir Francis Fleming, then Governor of the Leeward Islands.

This was not Joshua Slocum’s first visit to the West Indies. Ten years before, the bold captain had been shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil, where he lost his beautiful barque the Aquidneck with a cargo of timber, but saved his crew and his wife with their two boys. With only a few hand tools, the family built a thirty-five foot boat which they aptly named the Liberdade to celebrate both their own freedom and that of the Brazilian slaves on May 13th, the day the family sailed for home via the West Indies.

“On the 19th day from Pernambuco, early in the morning, we made out Barbados away in the west. First the blue fertile hills, then green fields came into view, studded with many white buildings between sentries of giant windmills. Barbados is the most pleasant island in the AntiIles, to sail round its green fringe of coral is simply charming. We stood into the coast, sailing close so as to take in a view of the whole delightful panorama. By noon we rounded the south point of the island and shot into Carlysle Bay.”

The voyage from Brazil was not without incident. Garfield, the Slocums’ youngest son, declared, “Mammy, this boat ain’t big enough to pray in” after being thrown from his knees in heavy weather. On another occasion, a sixty-foot whale surfaced under the boat, throwing it into the air. The family were at dinner at the time. With his usual masterly understatement Slocum reports that “the meal was finished without dessert.”

The Slocums were treated royally in Barbados, but eventually, when the hurricane season was drawing to a close, the Liberdade sailed for Puerto Rico. “The passage through the islands was magical! Fair breezes filled the sails of the Liberdade as we glided along over tranquil seas, scanning eagerly the islands as they came into view. The birds too, of rare plumage, were there flying from island to island, the same as seen by the discoverers, and the sea with fishes teemed of every gorgeous hue, to lend enchantment to the picture and thrill the voyager now the same as then.”

Slocum tells of a lad returning home with tales from the West Indies. “Mountains of sugar; rivers of rum and . . . flying fish! ! ” His mother chided him: “Don’t lie to me, John. Mountains of sugar no doubt you saw, and even rivers of rum, but flying fish there could never be!”

The Liberdade sailed past Santa Cruz, which Slocum tagged “the island of brave women”. Sailing through island scenery “worth the perils of ten voyages to see”, the Liberdade reached Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, five days out from Barbados. “This was to be our last run among the trees of the West Indies and we made the most of it. Such a port for mariners I shall never see again. The port officials, kind and polite, extended all courtesies to the quaint barco piquina.”

Having been gripped by these yarns of Slocum’s ocean wanderings, is it any wonder that I was seized by a compulsion to own a boat and sail the seas as he had done?

Own a boat? Buying a forty-foot ocean-goer was out of the question. I would have to build one, and it must be a Spray. Slocum’s love for his brave little ship was contagious.

Naturally there were problems. One of these was my total lack of experience. Until then my principal achievements in the field of construction had been a coffee table with a wonky leg and a stone fireplace which had been likened to the North Face of the Eiger. However, I did have some resources; a barn in which to build, and a son who was a welder. This last clinched my decision to build a copy of the Spray – in steel.

Thus began, in the very heart of England, 80 miles from the sea, a three-and-a-half-year project. It started as a means to an end, but soon became an obsession which governed all my waking thoughts and many of my sleeping ones too.

“It was my purpose to make my vessel stout and strong,” wrote Slocum. These words rang in my ears as we hammered and forged fifteen tons of steel into a rugged hull which we fitted out with timber from trees we had cut down ourselves.

They say that a boat is a hole in the water into which a man pours his money. To stem the ebb tide of my dwindling resources, I wrote articles for magazines, I catered for weddings, funerals and other joyous occasions, anything which would buy a gallon of paint or a pack of welding rods. All on top of a full-time job. I read for at least two hours a day: my elevated platform of ignorance required every stage to be extensively researched.

This worked well; I ended up with a boat founded on many opinions rather than one.

I often imagined the wraith of Joshua Slocum hovering over us, nodding his grim approval as we worked to make her “stout and strong.”

One summer’s night, weary with toil, I crept back down to the barn, unable to sleep without one last look at her. I gazed up at this majestic shape gleaming black in the darkness. She was finished!

The Ospray sailed to Ireland, Scotland and the misty Hebrides, Tir-nan-Og – The Land of the Ever Young. Wherever we cast anchor, folks recognized her for what she was and would row out to have a look at us.

At the end of 1991, the Spray came again to Trinidad, to follow Slocum’s route through the Caribbean. The first rays of the sun threw into sharp relief the forested tops of the Northern Range; the Ospray battled a strong tide as we entered the Dragon’s Mouth. Frigate birds, pelicans and – believe it or not – an osprey wheeled over our little vessel. At a quarter to eight, after a voyage of over five thousand miles from England along the ancient trade winds route, we dropped anchor in Hart’s Cut Bay.

We had visited Galicia with its fabulous seafood, the volcanic isles of the Canaries with their stunning mountain scenery, their miles of concrete jungle and arid lunar landscape. We had called at the remote and weirdly beautiful Cape Verde Islands, where people smile all day long and swimmers wallop nosy hammerhead sharks on the nose to make them go away.

Our voyage from the Cape Verdes to Trinidad had taken twenty-one days, with the North East Trades behind us. Apart from a few squalls at night, where terrifying black arches would engulf the boat in lashing rain and buffeting blasts of wind, the trip had been peaceful. Majestic Atlantic rollers urged the Ospray along. Her seventeen tons would be picked up bodily and we would surf down the face of the waves; shoals of flying fish scattered as we ploughed a furrow through the ocean towards a family Christmas in Trinidad.

Then, early in 1992, we set sail to follow in Joshua Slocum’s wake, following the Spray through the islands and on to Boston. We had already seen flying fish: still to come, perhaps, were the mountains of sugar and rivers of rum.

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