SPECIAL REPORT

SAILING SOLO

A NOVA SCOTIAN’S LONELY ODYSSEY

JOHN DeMONT July 6 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

SAILING SOLO

A NOVA SCOTIAN’S LONELY ODYSSEY

JOHN DeMONT July 6 1992

SAILING SOLO

SPECIAL REPORT

A NOVA SCOTIAN’S LONELY ODYSSEY

I was born in the breezes, and I studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else. —Joshua Slocum, in Sailing Alone Around

the World

The simple elegance of the words jumped off the page at Cameron Jess. It was 1973 and Jess, a former official with the Canadian International Development Agency, and his wife, Linda, were in the midst of a two-year Caribbean sailboat cruise. While at anchor in Miami, he had walked into a bookstore and opened a slim volume entitled Sailing Alone Around the World. Never before had Jess heard about the first solo voyage around the globe, an epic three-year, 46,000-mile odyssey beginning in 1895. But he was even more startled to read that its author, Capt. Joshua Slocum, was born on the same mountainside in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley where he grew up. “How was it that I, a Nova Scotian, had never heard of the most famous master mariner of them all?” he recalls thinking. Largely ignored in the country of his birth, Slocum is the classic Canadian adventurer.

A traveller, a survivor, a loner, he also epitomizes the seafaring tradition of a nation that, less than four decades after his death, would boast the world’s third-largest navy. But no sailor quite

equalled Slocum’s accomplishment, with all its brazen recklessness—taking a 36-foot boat alone around the world without the aid of radio or any other safety device. His book about the voyage was hailed as a work of literature and has inspired other adventurers. “He was an exceptional person who did exceptional things,” says Peter Goddard, a physician from Aylesford, N.S., who founded the Joshua Slocum Centennial Society in 1990. The society has mounted a campaign to build a replica of Slocum’s sloop, the Spray, and to re-create his voyage in 1995, the centenary of the trip.

But like many heroic figures, Slocum had a dark side, as well: he mistreated his seamen and was even accused of sexual misconduct. And in Nova Scotia, the only real reminder that he was bom on the province’s North Mountain in 1844 is a local schoolhouse that has been transformed into a museum featuring some material about his life. The province’s main tribute to Slocum is a cairn erected by a group of U.S.-based fans on Brier Island off the northeast tip of Nova Scotia, where Slocum and his family moved in 1852.

Most of his life was spent far from Nova Scotia’s shores. When he was 16, Slocum ran away to sea. Nine years later, he took his first command as captain. Gauntly built with craggy features, a bald dome and brown beard, Slocum won a reputation

THE CRUEL AND COMPELLING NORTH

As a child, Maclean’s Ottawa correspondent E. Kaye Fulton, the daughter of a naval officer, was fascinated by her neighbor, Arctic explorer Henry Larsen. In the years before his death in 1964 at age 65, Larsen spoke often of his adventures. Fulton’s account:

He was a retired sailor—an Arctic adventurer who spun tales of ships held captive in prisons of ice and of Inuit in parkas made of silk from a fallen dirigible. Larsen was Norwegian-born, drawn to the sea at 15 and lured to Canada’s frigid frontier in the 1920s through the ranks of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1961, to a child of 10 who scrambled after school through the backyard hedge between their Ottawa homes, the Canadian North portrayed by Larsen in vivid stories was both cruel and compelling. By then, he was bound to the land as the Ottawa-based superintendent of

the RCMP. But Larsen spoke wistfully of his two decades as commander of the St. Roch, the round-hulled polar ship that, from 1928 to 1948, ran supplies to RCMP detachments in the isolated reaches of the Arctic. On his mantelpiece sat a photograph of his 104-foot “ugly duckling” and soapstone gifts to the red-bearded captain the Inuit called Hanorie Umiarjuag—Henry with the Big Ship.

Larsen often taJked of heroes. His own was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to conquer the Northwest Passage in an east-to-west search for the magnetic North Pole in 1903. He also told the child of an Inuk medicine man who amputated a trapper’s gangrened leg and replaced it with a piece of driftwood and a musk-ox horn for a foot. There were accounts of the cheerful endurance of the crew of nine, locked in icy desolation for as long as a year in one spot; the sturdy heart of the St.

Roch, “crushed like a nut” between ice packs that failed to claim her time after time. Most of all, Larsen lamented the fate of an indigenous people whose desire to please, he predicted, would lead to their ruination. “If they survive what we do to them,” he said, “they are the true heroes.”

Later, the child read two lines in a history book that revealed the entire truth. Under Larsen’s command, the St. Roch was the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from west to east, and the first to cross it in both directions—asserting Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic during the Second World War. The first voyage, from Vancouver to Halifax, spanned more than two years, from June 21,1940, to Oct. 11,1942. On the return trip in 1944, Larsen followed in Amundsen’s wake, completing the trip in 86 days. With the passage of time, the child learned what the explorer neglected to say: that the modest neighbor with the passionate stories about a frozen land of unbearable beauty is one of its greatest heroes.

for being a tough, sometimes brutal, leader. Once he shot two mutinous seamen. In 1883, a New York court fined him $500 for placing one of his officers in irons for 53 days.

By then, Slocum, who had become an American citizen, was the skipper and part owner of the Northern Light, one of the finest ships afloat in the twilight of the Age of Sail. Within a year, however, his fortunes began to change. His wife, Virginia, died. Then, while sailing to South America with his new wife, Henrietta, and two of his eight children, he was driven aground on the Brazilian coast. Slocum and his family sailed 5,500 miles back to Washington in a 35-foot canoe. The voyage left the 44-year-old mariner nearly penniless and unable to find a ship to captain. Soon, he was reduced to odd jobs and was almost a derelict.

Then, in 1892, he ran into an old New Bedford, Mass., whaling captain who offered him the Spray. The sight of the dilapidated century-old oyster sloop, sitting in a farm pasture, stirred Slocum. In 13 months, he rebuilt the boat plank by plank for $553. When he launched her in April, 1893, he wrote, “she sat on the water like a swan.” Two years later, the 51-year-old Slocum set out from Boston for a nostalgic trip to Nova Scotia. And on July 2,1895, with only a tin clock for a navigation device, he sailed for open water.

He planned to circle the globe heading eastward. But in Gibraltar, he heard about pirates in the Mediterranean and backtracked to South America. To avoid going around Cape Hom, he tried to cut through the Strait of Magellan— arguably the worst sailing waters in the world. After seven attempts and more than two months,

he finally broke through to the Pacific, shouting “Hurrah for the Spray” to the seals and seabirds.

From there, he headed for the Samoa Islands, where he met the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, one of his favorite authors. Reaching Australia, he dropped anchor and stayed for 10 months. He resumed his course across the Indian Ocean to the tiny island of Mauritius, and then on to South Africa. On March 26, 1898, Slocum began the last leg of the circumnavigation. Two months later, the ship crossed her outward-bound track. “I felt a contentment in knowing that the Spray had encircled the globe,” Slocum wrote. At 1 a.m. on June 27, Slocum dropped anchor at Newport, R.I., completing his voyage.

For three years, he had tested the limits of his courage, endurance and skill. To fend off nighttime ambushes, he sprinkled tacks on deck while he slept. He nearly drowned trying to release his vessel from a South American sandbank. Stricken by food poisoning and lying delirious in bed, he once saw the ghost of the pilot of Columbus’s ship the Pinta at the Spray’s wheel—or so he claimed.

The voyage brought Slocum a meat sure of fame in his adopted homeland, z Soon he was roaming America’s eastern ° seaboard, lecturing and working on the spare, powerful book that would ensure his immortality; Sailing Alone Around the World was published in March, 1900. Two years later, Slocum bought a farm in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. But the increasingly eccentric mariner seemed unable to settle down. He was constantly on the move— sailing the Spray south in the winter, returning in the spring to trade in seasheUs and other goods. In 1906, Slocum gained notoriety when he was charged with indecently exposing himself to a 12year-old girl who had visited the Spray while it was docked in New Jersey. Awaiting trial, he spent 42 days in jail. Then, although his lawyer did not contest the charges, the judge dropped them.

One final voyage lay ahead. On Nov. 14, 1909, the 65-year-old mariner left Tisbury, Mass., on the way to South America, where he intended to sail up the Amazon River. The last person to see the Spray was a Massachusetts fishing captain who glimpsed the tiny vessel heading southeast into strong winds. Slocum was never heard from again.

But there are people determined to keep his name alive. “He did what no one else had done— and he did it without the benefit of all the modem technology and safety equipment,” says John Hughes, a Halifax-based sailor who completed his own circumnavigation of the globe in 1987. Even if Slocum had never completed his voyage, adds Jess, his independent, self-sufficient life would stand as an inspiration. “Slocum is a life-affirming role model for anyone living in the 20th century,” he declares. And he will likely remain that as long as there are people willing to test the unknown alone.

JOHN DeMONT in Halifax