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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


Sailing Alone Around the World - The 125th Anniversary of Joshua Slocum's Legendary Voyage

Robert: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online. Okay, picture this. You're sailing a boat into Newport, Rhode Island. It's the middle of the night, and very dark out, but the dark doesn't bother you. You've been at sea for a long time, three years in fact, and now your journey is about to end. You've done something incredible, something no one in recorded history has ever done. All you have to do is drift into port, drop your anchor, and tell somebody about it.

There's one minor problem, the harbor is full of mines, mines like floating bombs. If your little sailboat hits one of these mines, it'll explode and you will very likely die after sailing 46,000 miles to six different continents, surviving variable winds, pirates, and crushing loneliness, and just a couple of days ago, a tornado off of Fire Island. You have just a little bit more to go as long as you don't blow yourself up.

You do what any smart captain would do, you hug the shore. Your boat is small, not quite 37 feet long, and it's nimble, so you can squeeze between the mines and the rocks. You don't blow yourself up, and a little while later, you see a ship emerge from the dark. [00:02:00] The Dexter, a patrol ship, a ship you've seen before and know pretty well.

Slocum: Someone on board of her sang out, "There goes a craft." I threw out a light once and heard the hail, "Spray, ahoy." It was the voice of a friend and I knew that a friend would not fire on The Spray.

Robert: The Spray is the name of your sailboat and now the way is clear. You sail safely into harbor and you drop anchor. What nobody knows is that you and The Spray have sailed around the entire globe. This little sailboat which started its maritime career as an unremarkable oyster sloop has become the first vessel to be sailed alone around the world. This is a story you are about to document in a book that you will write called, appropriately enough, Sailing Alone Around the World. This book will first be serialized in periodicals and then it will be published. The illustrated first edition will sell a ridiculous number of copies.

The new century will usher you in as a daring explorer, a renowned adventurer, a best-selling author, and basically a celebrity. Not that you really care about all that. In your heart, you're still just a good-humored seaman from Nova Scotia. You're in your mid-50s, able-bodied, feeling stronger and sharper than ever. On this night, June 27th, 1898, you're just happy to have finished what you set out to do. You have sailed around the world, just like you said you would. [00:04:00] You've done it. It's over. That's how it was for Joshua Slocum 125 years ago this month. After 1,160 days, Slocum completed his historic journey right here in Rhode Island.


I've been meaning to read this book for several years partly because my dad, a lifelong sailor and veteran of the US Navy has recommended it many times, and he knows me well. I've written travel books myself, and I love a good travelogue, especially old travelogues that explore a world we can't see anymore even if we tried. I didn't get around to it, not for a while because other books got in the way, and when you have the whole ocean state library system at your disposal, you end up with piles of unread books. I'm sure you know the feeling.

Now, it's the 125th anniversary of Slocum's circumnavigation. Not exactly a round number, but it seemed like a good excuse to finally hunker down and learn what Slocum was all about. Because really, what kind of person gets into a small boat and sails thousands of miles across multiple oceans completely on his own, never mind that no one as far as anyone knows had ever done this before.

The Spray was designed for oyster farmers, and when a friend offered Slocum The Spray for free, he found a wreck of a boat which had been decaying in drydock for a long time. Slocum didn't just sail this boat, [00:06:00] he remodeled it from the keel up, he basically brought it back from the dead.


Then, on April 24th, 1895, he left Boston, and he started his epic voyage. Just to warm up, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice from Massachusetts to Gibraltar and then back across to Brazil. He braved the storms of Cape Horn and continued sailing across the Pacific and didn't see another human being for two and a half months.

Slocum: To be alone 72 days would seem a long time, but in reality, even here, winged moments flew lightly by. I was not distressed in any way during that time. There was no end of companionship. The very coral reefs kept me company or gave me no time to feel lonely, and there were many of them now in my course to Samoa.

Robert: I kept thinking as I read the book how much I wish I could have met Joshua Slocum. Here's a man who nearly crashed his boat into a whale, who spread out carpet tacks on the top deck in case anyone tried to hijack his vessel, which someone did, and the tacks actually stopped them. This is a guy who went below deck, changed his outfit, and came up again to make it seem like there was more than one crewman aboard. This guy was given a personal audience with a Samoan king. He hung out with the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Pacific, and then he had a nice little chat with the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, in Africa.

He once sailed through a rainstorm [00:08:00] mixed with red dust which made it look like blood was falling from the sky. This was a guy who was so charming to a botanist in Mauritius that the scientists named a newly discovered flower after Slocum. This was a guy who could spend weeks and weeks on his own with only an imaginary friend for company and then suddenly show up in say, Sydney, Australia, and meet a whole mess of cool people without even trying.

He did it all for fun, that more than anything is what made his voyage so revolutionary. This was the 1890s and recreational sailing was still a new concept. Most people in most of human history had only gone out to sea because there was a reason; migration, commerce, war. The steam engine had changed all that. Suddenly, a lot of people were sailing just because they enjoyed it, and man, did Joshua Slocum enjoy sailing. He was an incredible navigator. He loved playing with rigging. At one point, he roped up the helm so he could sail straight without having to steer and he claims to have sailed 2,700 miles using basically an autopilot. This is where I'm obligated to say that he was a man of his time.

Yes, he called indigenous people savages. Yes, he fired a gun several times to keep strange people away. Yes, he made a sexist comment now and again, but in the long and uncomfortable history of Victorian explorers, Slocum is about as gentle as it gets. He didn't want to hurt or take advantage of anyone. If there's anyone I can appreciate, it's a [00:10:00] guy who would rather do everything himself because if anything goes wrong, he's the only one who's going down with the ship. Imagine how happy I was to learn that Slocum finished his journey in Newport, just a 45-minute drive from my house. All that way, all that time at sea, and it was Rhode Island that signaled, "You've come home," or if not home, then at least completion. Newport Harbor was as far as he needed to go.


There's a classic epilogue to this story. Slocum couldn't sit still. He'd been a commercial sailor his whole life, and he couldn't stay in one place for long, no matter how famous he might be. In 1909, he rigged up The Spray, set a course for South America, and disappeared forever. Now, you could think of this as sad. The man was only 65. No trace of him or The Spray was ever found, so there's no closure, but I'm on the fence about it. Slocum's writing is so easygoing, so zen. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who wanted to die in bed. Whatever happened, he was declared "lost at sea" which just seems kind of fitting. At the very end of the book, Slocum whacks his poetic about The Spray, but he could just as easily be talking about himself.

Slocum: If The Spray discovered no continents on her voyage, it may be that there were no more continents to be discovered. She did not seek new worlds or sail to pow-wow about the dangers of the seas. The sea has been much-maligned. [00:12:00] To find one's way to lands already discovered is a good thing, and The Spray made the discovery that even the worst sea is not so terrible to a well-appointed ship. No king, no country, no treasury at all was taxed for the voyage of The Spray, and she accomplished all that she undertook to do.

Robert: We should all be so lucky. Whether we sail around the world or just go about our business, may we all accomplish what we undertake to do.

You've been listening to Rhody Radio. This episode was written, produced, and presented by Robert Isenberg. Music licensed and provided by This episode was made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders.

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[00:13:45] [END OF AUDIO]


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