Monday, November 1, 2010

Sailing alone

I grew up loving
Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World”. It was “Walden” without the training wheels. Whereas Thoreau made so much of his precious solitude in a shack only a couple of miles from his home in Concord, Slocum actually put himself at risk. In his 50s, pistol-whipped by fate, he set out in a largely self-built 36-foot sailboat and somehow managed to circumnavigate the earth. He might have been without a crew, but he was hardly alone; he had the magical Spray for a companion: a vessel that could literally steer herself for hundreds of miles at a time while he reclined contentedly in his book-lined cabin eating salt cod and reading “Don Quixote.” For a landlocked teenager who had both nautical and literary ambitions, Slocum was almost too good to be true.

I also developed an early appreciation for the writer
Geoffrey Wolff, whose 1979 book “The Duke of Deception” remains one of my favorite memoirs. When I learned that Wolff had written a biography of Slocum, it seemed an ideal pairing. But a disturbing doubt began to creep into my consciousness. Did I really want to know more about Joshua Slocum? No real person could possibly measure up to the narrator of “Sailing Alone Around the World”. And as Wolff writes in one of the many fascinating notes in his new book, there is no accounting for how a reader will react to the subject of a biography. “The responses of book reviewers to subjects of biography are as unpredictable as the responses of a friend to someone introduced with the assurance ‘You’ll love her.’ ”

I needn’t have worried. “The Hard Way Around” is the best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story. As it turns out, Slocum’s back story is just as enthralling, if not more so, than anything that happened to him aboard the Spray. Indeed, portions of his life read like a novel by
Robert Louis Stevenson. Instead of subjecting Slocum to the needless third degree, Wolff approaches his subject as an unapologetic fan. At one point, he recounts his initial, completely unexpected response to an early passage in “Sailing Alone Around the World”: “I stumbled on this run of language, bearing its load so easily, and the emotional burden it discharges so cunningly. Taking my breath away, it made me feel what I can only describe as love.”

Wolff does not fall victim to the modern obsession with having to find a new, never-before-glimpsed scrap of useless information about a time-worn topic; he is content, and self-confident enough, to provide his own view of the existing record. Instead of being intimidated by the many researchers and writers who have come before him in the search for Slocum, he embraces their labors. He even concludes with a passage from another author. After finishing this little book (which I did not want to end), I decided it was worthy of the admonition the British children’s writer
Arthur Ransome directed toward prospective readers of Slocum’s narrative: those “who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once.”

Part of what makes Slocum, who was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, such a mesmerizing figure was his determination to be a sailor at a time when steam power was clearly where the maritime future lay. Was Slocum, a willful anachronism, being foolhardy or simply true to an imperishable ideal? Wolff has fun with exploring the issue: “Doesn’t everyone know that in our beginning is our end? But So what doesn’t account for his plunge off the deep end. Almost any calling that might be considered — poet or autoworker or jazz pianist — seems from the perspective of common sense to be quixotic and probably doomed. Maybe it is enough to say So what?”

Which raises the question: Was Slocum’s golden age of sail all that golden? Well, yes and no. Many of the crews of these big and beautiful square-riggers were, according to at least one account, filled by “moronic bipeds” — drunken, violent lowlifes with no other options. And yet, Wolff points out, the skills required to work these ships were considerable. “Anyone who has struggled — from the comfort of a cozy easy chair in front of a cheering fire — to comprehend the names and purposes of the parts aboard one of
Patrick O’Brian’s ships will appreciate the complexity of a novice seaman’s task.” In the end, Wolff, like most of us with a soft spot for the sea, cannot contain his enthusiasm for the bygone days when huge commercial sailing vessels paused briefly in the harbors of the world like “greyhounds straining sleekly at their heavy chain leashes, about to weigh anchor and fill the sky with canvas and go to the other side of the earth at speeds more appropriate to a locomotive than a boat.”

At the age of 26, during a stop in Sydney, Australia, Slocum fell almost instantly in love with the pretty and determined Virginia Walker. In two weeks’ time they were married. Thus began one of the great, ultimately tragic love stories of the sea. Virginia followed her husband from command to command: fishing for salmon in the northern Pacific, building a boat in the boa-infested jungles of the Philippines and standing at his side as he spectacularly shoehorned the 100-foot bark Amethyst into the crowded anchorage at Hong Kong under the very nose of a British admiral. Not long after, Slocum became part owner and master of one of the largest and most beautiful sailing vessels afloat, the Northern Light. Slocum considered this command to be the highlight of his career, but not Wolff, who rightly points out that “hardheaded prudence often enjoys a holiday when sailboats are being considered.” Although big and beautiful, the Northern Light was anything but well built — an essential fact that Slocum seems to have stubbornly ignored. A poisonous combination of breakdowns and crew problems soon ensnared him in a variety of legal difficulties that ultimately forced him to sell his share of the vessel.

With the prices of large, antiquated square-riggers plummeting, Slocum managed to buy the 138-foot Aquidneck at auction. Soon after, however, while the ship was anchored off Buenos Aires, Virginia succumbed to what may have been a congenital heart defect and died at the age of 34. Slocum had lost the love of his life. “Father’s days were done with the passing of mother,” his son Benjamin, who was one of four children, remembered. “They were pals.”

Wolff’s account of his hero’s subsequent, more familiar career as a solo sailor is adroitly and economically told. Wolff speaks of the “imperviousness of Slocum’s emotional bulkheads, tightly sealed against the penetration of despair or complaint.” But as he also points out, “grief is not date-stamped,” and the sadness hidden within Slocum during his globe-girdling voyage is what drives much of the emotional energy of “Sailing Alone Around the World.”

After the publication of his narrative, Slocum’s sadness got the better of him. He purchased a farm for himself and his second wife, Henrietta, on Martha’s Vineyard but seems to have spent most of his days continuing to sail alone on the increasingly dilapidated Spray, heading south in the winter and cruising the Cape and islands in the summer. He was last seen departing the Vineyard in November 1908. What happened after that will never be known. One theory holds that he and the Spray were run down and sunk in the shipping lanes by one of the iron-hulled steamers he so despised — “that in effect,” Wolff writes, “he was murdered by modernity.”

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