Joshua Slocum was born February 20, 1844 in Nova Scotia.
His father was a Quaker who had left the United States in 1780 because of his opposition to the American War for Independence.
At the age of 16, Joshua himself left home for good, when together with a friend, they signed on as seamen aboard a merchant ship bound for Dublin, Ireland.
From Dublin, Joshua crossed to Liverpool to become an ordinary seaman with the British Merchant Navy.
During his early years at sea, he rounded Cape Horn twice, landed at Batavia, visited the Moluccas, Manila, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, and eventually San Francisco, as he became certified as a Second Mate.
Then at the age of 21, Joshua settled in San Francisco, and became an American citizen.
After a period of salmon fishing and fur trading in Oregon Territory, he returned to the sea to pilot a schooner in the coastal trade between San Francisco and Seattle.
His first blue-water command came in 1869, aboard the barque Washington, which he took across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Australia, and home via Alaska.
Joshua sailed for the next thirteen years out of the port of San Francisco, transporting mixed cargo to China, Australia, the Spice Islands, and Japan.
Then shortly before Christmas in 1870, Joshua and the Washington put in at Sydney, Australia.
There, in about a month’s time, he met, courted, and married a young woman named Virginia Albertina Walker. Their marriage took place on January 31, 1871. Miss Walker, quite coincidentally, was an American whose New York family had migrated west to California at the time of the 1849 gold rush and eventually continued on, by ship, to settle in Australia. She sailed with Joshua, and, over the next thirteen years, bore him seven children, all at sea or foreign ports. Four children survived to adulthood.
Back in Alaska, the Washington was wrecked when she dragged her anchor during a gale, ran ashore, and broke up. Joshua, however, at considerable risk to himself, managed to save his wife, the crew, and much of the cargo, bringing all back to port safely in the ship’s open boats. The owners of the shipping company that had employed him were so impressed by this feat of ingenuity and leadership, that they gave him the command of the Constitution which he sailed to Hawaii and the west coast of Mexico.
His next command was the Benjamin Aymar, a merchant vessel in the South Seas trade. However, the owner, strapped for cash, sold the vessel out from under Joshua, and he and wife Virginia found themselves stranded in the Philippines without a ship.
While in the Philippines, in 1874, under a commission from a British architect, Joshua organized native workers to build a 150-ton steamer in the shipyard at Subic Bay. In partial payment for the work, he was given the ninety-ton schooner, Pato, the first ship he could call his own.
Ownership of the Pato afforded Slocum the kind of freedom and autonomy he had never experienced before. Hiring a crew, he contracted to deliver a cargo to Vancouver in British Columbia.
Thereafter, he used the Pato as a general freight carrier along the west coast of North America and in voyages back and forth between San Francisco and Hawaii. During this period, Slocum also fulfilled a long-held ambition to become a writer; he became a temporary correspondent for the San Francisco Bee.
Joshua sold the Pato in Honolulu in the spring of 1878. Returning to San Francisco, they purchased the Amethyst. He worked this ship until June 23, 1881.
The Slocums next bought a third share in the Northern Light 2.
This large clipper was 233 feet in length, 44 feet beam, 28 feet in the hold. It was capable of carrying 2000 tons on three decks.
Although Joshua Slocum called this ship “my best command”, it was a command plagued with mutinies and mechanical problems. Under troubling legal circumstances (caused by his alleged treatment of the chief mutineer) he sold his share in the Northern Light 2 in 1883.
The Slocum family continued on their next ship, the 326-ton Aquidneck.
In 1884, Joshua’s wife Virginia became ill aboard the Aquidneck in Buenos Aires and died.
After sailing to Massachusetts, Joshua left his three youngest children in the care of his sisters; and his oldest son Victor continued on as his first mate.
In 1886, at age 42, Joshua married his 24-year-old cousin, “Hettie.”
The Slocum family again took to the sea aboard the Aquidneck, bound for Montevideo, Uruguay.
Joshua’s second wife would find life at sea much less appealing than his first. A few days into her first voyage, the Aquidneck sailed through a hurricane.
By the end of this first year, the crew had contracted cholera, and they were quarantined for six months.
Next, the Aquidneck was infected with smallpox, leading to the death of three of the crew.
Disinfecting of the ship was performed at considerable cost.
Shortly afterward, near the end of 1887, the unlucky Aquidneck was wrecked in southern Brazil.
After being stranded in Brazil with his wife and sons, Joshua started building a boat that could sail them home. He used local materials, salvaged materials from the Aquidneck and hired a local workforce. The boat was launched on May 13, 1888, the very day slavery was abolished in Brazil, and therefore the ship was given the Portuguese name Liberdade.
It was an unusual 35-foot junk-rigged design which he described as “half Cape Ann dory and half Japanese sampan”.
Joshua and his family began their voyage back to the United States.
After fifty-five days at sea and 5510 miles, the Slocums reached Cape Roman, South Carolina and continued inland to Washington D.C. for winter, finally reaching Boston via New York in 1889.
This was the last time his wife sailed with the family.
In 1890, Joshua published the accounts of these adventures in Voyage of the Liberdade.
The Spray: First solo circumnavigation of the earth
In Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Joshua rebuilt a 36′ 9″ gaff rigged sloop oyster boat named Spray.
On April 24, 1895, he set sail from Boston, Massachusetts.
In his famous book, Sailing Alone Around the World, now considered a classic of travel literature, Joshua described his departure in the following manner:
“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.”
After an extended visit to his boyhood home at Brier Island, Nova Scotia, Joshua took his departure from North America at Sambro Island Lighthouse near Halifax, Nova Scotia on July 3, 1895.
Joshua navigated without a chronometer, instead relying on the traditional method of dead reckoning for longitude, which required only a cheap tin clock for approximate time, and noon-sun sights for latitude. On one long passage in the Pacific, he also famously shot a lunar distance observation, decades after these observations had ceased to be commonly employed, which allowed him to check his longitude independently. However, Slocum’s primary method for finding longitude was still dead reckoning; he recorded only one lunar observation during the entire circumnavigation.
More than three years later, on June 27, 1898, Joshua returned to Newport, Rhode Island, having circumnavigated the world, a distance of more than 46,000 miles.
Joshua Slocum’s return went almost unnoticed.
The Spanish-American War which had begun two months earlier dominated the headlines.
After the end of major hostilities, many American newspapers published articles describing Joshua’s amazing adventure.
Sailing Alone Around the World
Then in 1899, Joshua published his account of the epic voyage in Sailing Alone Around the World, first serialized in The Century Magazine and then in several book-length editions.
Reviewers received the adventure story enthusiastically.
In his review, Sir Edwin Arnold wrote, “I do not hesitate to call it the most extraordinary book ever published.”
Joshua’s book deal was an integral part of his journey: his publisher had provided him with an extensive on-board library, and Joshua wrote several letters to his editor from distant points around the globe.
His novel Sailing Alone eventually won Joshua widespread fame in the English-speaking world.
He was one of eight invited speakers at a dinner in honor of Mark Twain in December, 1900.
Joshua then hauled the Spray up the Erie Canal to Buffalo, New York for the Pan-American Exposition in the summer of 1901.
In November 1909, Joshua set sail for the West Indies on one of his usual winter voyages.
He had also expressed interest in starting his next adventure, exploring the Orinoco, Rio Negro and Amazon Rivers.
Joshua Slocum was never heard from again.
In July 1910, his wife informed the newspapers that she believed he was lost at sea.
At the time, most believed that the Spray had been run down by a steamer or struck by a whale, the Spray being too sound a craft and Joshua too experienced a mariner for any other cause to be considered likely.
Years later, an analysis by Howard I. Chapelle, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution and a noted expert on small sailing-craft, demonstrated that the Spray was stable under most circumstances but could easily capsize if heeled beyond a relatively shallow angle. He felt that Joshua was merely lucky that his unstable vessel had not killed him earlier.
Despite being an experienced mariner, Joshua never learned to swim and considered learning to swim to be useless.
In 1924, Joshua Slocum was declared legally dead.
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