The Hard Way Around|
The Passages of Joshua Slocum
Knopf, 240pp, $25.95
Joshua Slocum was a hero of my salt-smitten youth. Along with all the usual suspects, from Treasure Island to Moby Dick, and Lone Voyager to The Sea Around Us, I devoured Sailing Alone Around the World. But that was that. I never knew more about Slocum's life than what I had read in his account of his great feat. An unspecified number of years later, (2010) Geoffrey Wolff published a biography of Slocum which more than filled in the blanks of the life of one of my sea-going heroes.
The Hard Way Around is well titled, given the personality of its subject. Wolff leaves no doubt that Slocum was a genius, learning all that was necessary to sail a windjammer, fish for cod, trade with the natives (both civilized and less so) as well as to accomplish the feat for which he was most famous. According to Wolff's account, Slocum's hardscrabble youth was spent on a windy spit of Nova Scotia overlooking the Bay of Fundy. The son of farmer/boot maker, Slocum, early on, found life on land lacking sufficient challenge. He and a friend shipped aboard a "drogher" bound for Dublin shortly before his sixteenth birthday.
At seventeen, he was second mate. At nineteen he achieved the rank of first mate. "It is daunting to study what this unschooled boy was obliged to learn in order to pass the formal and practical tests required even of a second mate, much less a first," says Wolff. Slocum did have an advantage over his fellow wharf rats...he could read and write. Before he was twenty-one he had "twice doubled" Cape Horn and sailed around the world along the "Clipper Way" (from Liverpool south to the western coast of Africa, rounding the Cape of Good Hope to Australia, then around the tip of South America to Liverpool, receiving and discharging goods along the way.
At twenty-five, Slocum received his first command, the Montana "a seventy-five foot coasting schooner" whose homeport was San Francisco. His second command was a larger coasting schooner bringing wheat to Seattle and coal back to San Francisco. His third command was the 110-foot barkentine Constitution which he sailed to Australia where he met the second love of his life, Virginia Albertina Walker. They were married two weeks after they met. She shared his zest for the roaming/sailing life and sailed with him until she died, having birthed all seven children aboard ship.
And that is just the beginning! No matter who wrote it, the story of Slocum's life would be extraordinary. The man was just that...from teaching himself Euclidean geometry, trigonometry, advanced algebra, the use of logarithms as he advanced through maritime ranks, to his determination to develop his own literary style and voice, Slocum was an was an extraordinary man, spilling over with intelligence and talent.
However, Wolff, in my opinion, makes far too much of an effort to present a more shady side. He gives oblique credence to the arguments that Slocum made up many of his adventures and that he was not always an honest trader. He also paints the Captain as at best an indifferent husband to his second wife...who was miserable aboard ship and fled to the cozy home of relatives in Massachusetts. This may be the author's effort to demonstrate fair mindedness. As a partisan, however, I must state, nobody's perfect, and it will take a lot more than innuendo to convince me that Slocum did not sail the Spray around the world. And finally, the author is too much with us...there is a footnote on practically every page and an average of three literary references on many pages all of which, to me, was more distracting than edifying.
This biography is well worth reading and it has inspired me to read more books about Slocum, especially Victor Slocum's Capt. Joshua Slocum: The Adventures of America's Best Known Sailor which was published by Sheridan House in 1993.