In 1898 Joshua Slocum became the very first person to circumnavigate the world single-handedly onboard his hand-built boat ‘Spray’. His name may not be that familiar, but his epic achievements have shaped travel for the last 115 years.
Joshua Slocum was born on 20 February 1844 in Nova Scotia on Canada’s eastern Atlantic coast. The traditions of the Maritime Province (Nova Scotia) influenced Slocum’s early life as he craved life at sea. Desperate to escape his hectic home life, he eventually succeeded in running away to sea aged fourteen, after many such attempts. He served a short stint as a cabin boy and cook but eventually found his true calling aged 16 as he finally left home for the last time, as a seaman aboard a merchant ship heading to Dublin.
Slocum served on a British merchant ship for two years and sailed the world, visiting Cape Horn, Jakarta and Hong Kong. Until the age of 25 Slocum was a British citizen before finishing his expedition in San Francisco where he then became an American citizen. From there, Slocum worked the cargo ships in and out of San Francisco before meeting his future wife in Sydney, Australia. The family lived entirely ay sea for 13 years during which time the Slocums had seven children.
After building a commercial steamer, Slocum was part-paid with his very first vessel – a schooner named Pato. He began running his own cargo business and also took up writing for a local newspaper.
Making waves with Spray
Slocum completely rebuilt the oyster boat ‘Spray’ which measured just 36′ 9″ (11.2 m) and set out on what was to become a truly epic journey. On 24 April 1895 aged 51 years old, Slocum left Boston, Massachusetts during which he penned his now classic account ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’ which has inspired other explorers and travellers for over a century. Slocum circumnavigated the globe without the aid of navigation – instead using the sun and fixed points of reference. After travelling 46,000 miles, Slocum returned in to Newport on Rhode Island on 27 June 1898, having successfully traversed the glove.
The publication of his book in 1899 further cemented his position as a truly epic explorer and royalties from the sale and from lecturing afforded Slocum a small farm on Martha’s Vineyard. But by 1909 money was tight and book sales had dried up. Slocum set off in November 1909 to sail to the West Indies on a winter sojourn and was never seen again. He was assumed lost at sea, at 65 years of age.
Joshua Slocum’s Legacy
His legacy lives on, with many cruising yachts named ‘Spray’ in Slocum’s honour. He is also commemorated with a monument in Nova Scotia, close to his birthplace. Several biographies have been published on Joshua Slocum’s life and several maritime museums in the USA have dedicated exhibits.
The Joshua Slocum Society International has more details on the great man’s life and the work that the society does.