Alone at Sea: The Adventures of Joshua Slocum
by Ann Spencer

ISBN 1-55209-394-8, 322 pages, and an additional 22 black&white photographs, many of them full- page size, on glossy paper. Soft cover edition: US$16.95.
Published in the USA by Firefly Books Inc. in 1999.

Reviewed by Barend Migchelsen

The book is a reprint of an earlier publishing by Doubleday, Canada in 1998.

Because Joshua Slocum was the first man to circle our globe single handed, a lot has been written about this SAILOR (yes, all capital letters) and his legendary sloop the “SPRAY” in books, magazines, and, last but not the least, in the newspapers of that time all around the world. The trip started in April 1895, and it took him just over three years to return to his berth of depart.

What makes this manuscript different from all the other publications is that Ann Spencer has tried to find out what made the man “tick.”

To come to a realistic picture of him, she has done a lot of research. Not only into what was already written about Joshua Slocum, but also from the many, some never - published - before letters to and from Joshua with his family and friends. She interviewed as many persons as possible, which had known him personally.

She visited the places where he was born, the Annapolis Valley north of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Brier Island, the birthplace of his mother, at the extreme northwest tip of Nova Scotia. It is the southern shore of the entrance of the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Here Joshua grew up as the fifth child of a family of eleven children. He was born on February 20, 1844. No birth control at that time.

At age 14, Joshua shipped out on his first trip as a cook on a fishing schooner. Since he did not know how to prepare food aboard of a ship that trip was cut short fast.

He had to wait another two years before, at age sixteen, he could escape the dreary existence of his father’s sea-boot repair shop onto another schooner.

He had left elementary school at age ten. But at that time a good deckhand could still become a captain the hard, practical way and with self-study. He must have been very good at it because in October 1865, at age 25(!), he got his first command of a 75-foot coasting schooner on the west coast of the USA.

Two years later, in Australia, he met his first wife who was American by birth. She took immediately to the sea. In an extremely happy marriage, she became the driving force behind a successful captain. Together they roamed all the oceans until her death 14 years later.

From that tragic moment, it was as if the rudder of the course of Joshua’s life had been broken. From then on it was all downhill.

Joshua remarried in 1886 but this second marriage was a failure. A mutiny on his ship left one of his crew dead, and another severely wounded. Storms damaged his cargos. His crew was stricken by a contagious, fatal sickness; several crewmembers were buried at sea. Several cities closed their port to his ship. On a later trip, his ship stranded on the Brazilian coast.

Although he could sell the wreck on the spot, and pay off his crew, the financial setback ruined him.

In Brazil, partly from salvaged parts of his wrecked ship, with the help of his wife and two sons, he built himself the “Liberdade”, a small boat that carried three masts with junk sails. He called her a canoe. Actually, she was “a strange blend of Cape Ann dory, Japanese sampan, Chinese junk and native canoe designs.” She had just enough space to get the family of four home. But not without a lot of further mishaps. Later, Slocum called it “the most exciting boat-ride of his life.” After that, his wife Hettie never set a foot aboard of a sea-going ship.

Times were changing. At the end of the 1800s the time of sail was over. Joshua could not, or was too stubborn to make the switch to (mostly partial) steam power.

His historic, single-handed trip around-the-world in the “Spray” was actually a desperate effort from a down-and-out sailor on his last legs to make himself a living from the publicity this would get him from the news media of that time. Afterwards he did some single-handed – in his own words – “hustling for a dollar” between the Cape Cod peninsula (Martha’s Vineyard) and the Caribbean Islands until the “Spray” miraculously disappeared in the fall of 1908. It caused many speculations about the place, the cause and the exact time of this accident.

It is interesting that Ann Spencer mentions one of these twists to what happened on pages 247 and 248 of her book. The story was published in 1959 in the “Patriot Ledger” of Quincy, Massachusetts. If this story is true, it should not be too difficult to locate the spot of the grave of the “Spray” and it’s larger-than-life master, captain Joshua.

Although this book is not a thriller that will hold you breathless in suspense, I found that I had a hard time putting it down. I finished it in three successive days.

What would help to make the book more attractive in my personal opinion, are two maps: One with the location of Brier Island at the north-west tip of Nova Scotia, and one of the Cape Cod peninsula including Martha’s Vineyard.

All in all, it is an attractive X-mass present for somebody who is interested in the history of boats and sailing. If you are a boat builder, the story of the “Liberdade” alone is worth the not-expensive price of the book.