Monday, June 03, 2019

Review: Sailing Alone Around The World

Browsing YouTube you might think Adventurer / Storyteller was a millennial invented job. But I can tell with authoritatively this isn't so. I just finished listening to a book that would fit perfectly among its polished YouTube and Instagram peers. That story is Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum. The only reason it isn't featured highly on social media is that it was written in 1898!

That was the year that Captain Slocum finished the first known solo-around-the-world sea voyage. Even with my little knowledge of sailing I can appreciate how epic this feat was. This is the second sailing related book I've read in a row, and while my last book was modern, both voyages faced remarkably similar challenges. Storms, pirates, repairs, improvisations, loneliness, navigational hurdles, and even the dangers of coral reefs. And yet in Slocum's case, the challenges are complicated by both lack of technology and crew.

How does one keep a ship on course and yet sleep? How does one wake in the middle of the ocean and be confident of their position without GPS or at least an accurate chronometer? When storms overpower the vessel, how does one manipulate the sails solo? How does one protect oneself from hostile natives and pirates?

Overcoming any of these challenges would be impressive; Slocum navigated them all. What he lacked in technology and hands he made up for with skill and luck.

Listening to Slocum's journey was a pleasure. Like an episode out of HGTV, Slocum's adventure starts by restoring a washed up vessel by hand. We're then taken on a 3+ year cruise that crisscrosses the globe.

During this journey we experience gales and illness, natives and pirates, successes and failures. It's a great read listen. If I could offer one criticism though, it would be that Slocum's tone is just a bit too up beat. Yes he faced challenges, but he can't help but brush them aside. Like I said, he'd fit in with the Instagram crowd. I want to hear more details of the hard won lessons.

Of course it's his story, and his acts of courage and fortitude. If he wants to throw in a bit of humble bragging about his navigational skills, he's more than earned it. #thisboatsailsitself #2700mileswithoutsteering. And besides, I probably sound the same way when I recount trips I've taken. (Sure we missed the bus and spent 8 hours in a run down bus station, but I did get to try a new flavor of soda from the vending machine! It tasted terrible. But it was new! How insufferable. How me.)

The text for Slocum's book is out of copyright, so you can read it for free on There's also an impressive set of narrated Google Earth videos available on YouTube.

After listening to Slocum's account, I found this article detailing the search for details about Slocum's on-board clock. At the time, a sailor's clock would have been an essential navigational tool, and it's hard not to pause at Slocum's flippant selection. Think a modern day explorer opting to leave his GPS at home and instead bring along a novelty compass. I think the author has it right when he suggests Slocum's intention of bringing an inferior clock was to make a statement:

Modern technology was turning Slocum’s world around and turning him into a living anachronism. While he might have to give way to the new age, he was not going to concede without a statement. Slocum’s statement was his amazing voyage and the equipment he chose to take with him. He didn’t need an iron steamer, a polished crew or a fine timepiece to do what had never been done before.

There were many notable moments from Slocum's journey, but one that stayed with me was this exchange he had with a passing ship:

In the log for July 18 there is this entry: "Fine weather, wind south-southwest. Porpoises gamboling all about. The S.S. Olympia passed at 11:30 A.M., long. W. 34 degrees 50'."

"It lacks now three minutes of the half-hour," shouted the captain, as he gave me the longitude and the time. I admired the businesslike air of the Olympia; but I have the feeling still that the captain was just a little too precise in his reckoning. That may be all well enough, however, where there is plenty of sea-room. But over-confidence, I believe, was the cause of the disaster to the liner Atlantic, and many more like her. The captain knew too well where he was.

I love that: beware the trap of knowing your location too well. There's a life lesson in there, though I'm not exactly sure what it is.

Slocum was clearly an interesting fellow, and perhaps he was waging an unwinnable war against innovation. But there's no denying that he's an adventurer and story tell of the first order; a true model for all fellow Adventure / Storytellers to learn from and emulate.

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