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Mariner’s Quest

December 2023
4min read

Between Columbus sailing west to see what might lie beyond an unknown sea, and a late-nineteenthcentury sea captain who, lacking gainful employment, went cruising aimlessly and alone all around a world whose last shores had been mapped and claimed, there is an immense gap. Yet it is by no means absurd to mention Joshua Slocum on the same page with Columbus, because all true voyages of discovery are basically alike. The voyager is concerned first of all with something in himself, if it is nothing more than the conviction that if he searches long enough he can make the world give him something he has not yet had.

Joshua Slocum was a Bluenose, which is to say that he was a native of Nova Scotia, a cold, hard man from the Bay of Fundy, who went to sea young, became a skipper of Yankee merchant ships, and in the i8go’s discovered that the world had moved out from under him. He knew precisely how to move a wind-driven ship through all the chances of tide and water. His only trouble was that the era in which men could be paid for doing that sort of thing had ended, the era of the deep-water sailing man was over, and here was a master of his craft surviving into a day when the craft itself was one with Nineveh and Tyre.

He was, in other words, a master mariner in sail at a time when nobody had any work for master mariners in sail. So he found a tubby little 37-foot sailboat which was rotting on the beach, spent the better part of a year rebuilding it, and then got aboard, took on such provisions as he could get, and then took off on a trip around the world, singlehanded, sailing off for the last horizon at a time when nobody in particular cared whether master mariners still survived. He went from New England over to Gibraltar, cut down across the South Atlantic to the Strait of Magellan, swung out across the Pacific to the fabulous islands under the sun, went on to Australia and thence to South Africa, and came plugging back four years later, a singlehanded circumnavigator of the globe who had done something fabulous but useless. And he wrote a book to tell what had happened to him.

The full story of his adventures is set forth in The Voyages of Joshua Slocum , by Walter Magnes Teller; a book which not only gives Slocum’s own background but reprints everything that he wrote about his experiences, and which somehow takes on stature simply because what the man did and what was in his mind when he did it tie in with the basic American adventure.

The Voyages of Joshua Slocum , collected and introduced by Walter Magnes Teller. Rutgers University Press. 401 pp. #6.00.

For Slocum resembled both Columbus and, in an odd way, Henry David Thoreau, who roamed to the farthest ends of the universe without actually leaving his own Massachusetts. He was devoted to solitude, which has been an American trait from the earliest days—consider Daniel Boone, and Richard Henry Dana, or if you choose, Abraham Lincoln—and he found in solitude what he had been looking for: a trace of the ultimate answer, a testing of himself, a mocking answer to the riddle posed by Aladdin’s lamp: “My fisherman’s lantern, which I got at Gloucester, has shown me better things than your smoky old burner ever revealed.” He sailed all around the world in an unseaworthy little tub which, a few years later, was the death of him, and he had fun at it.

It appears that he was a man who could make friends. Singlehanded, in a frowsty tub of a sloop, he puts in at Gibraltar—and, suddenly, a British admiral, no man to be impressed by a beachcombing sailor, makes him his guest, orders the resources of the Royal Navy put at his disposal, and sees to it that his fragile sloop is prepared for its enormous adventure. It is the same in Buenos Aires, in Punta Arenas, in the islands under the sun, in Australia and in Cape Town; he comes in out of the ocean and suddenly he knows everyone and everyone is glad to help him, and he goes around the globe alone, all but penniless, and lacking resources, but somehow everybody helps him and he comes home famous, a world figure, a master mariner to whom everyone will give a helping hand.

Why? Partly, as was said, because he had the knack of making people like him; but more, it would seem, because the quest he was on was something that touched everyone, something that still has its appeal, because he was not just performing a stunt—he was looking for something which the world thought it had lost, and because he looked for it so bravely and with such simplicity of mind the world discovered that it was still there, and he got it. His awkward sloop, the Spray , became one with the Golden Hind; and at the end, after four years of lonely wandering, he got back to New England, dropped anchor in his home port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and wrote a paragraph about what it might have meant:

If the Spray discovered no continents on her voyage, it may be that there were no more continents to be discovered; she did not seek new worlds, or sail to powwow about the dangers of the seas. The sea has been much maligned. To find one’s way to lands already discovered is a good thing, and the Spray made the discovery that even the worst sea is not so terrible to a well-appointed ship. No king, no country, no treasury at all, was taxed for the voyage of the Spray , and she accomplished all that she undertook to do.

Which was, specifically, what? To fulfill, probably, what her captain wanted; which is to say that the true voyage of discovery depends not so much on the new landfall that may be made, or on the perils met and surpassed along the way, as on what the captain himself has in his heart when the voyage begins. Slocum had what Columbus had left for him: nothing much in the way of physical discovery, but a complete, untouched universe that could be found only in the examination of loneliness and solitude, a gateway opening into the infinite, which is finally the meaning of America.

Slocum was restless after he got home. He exhibited his vessel, posed for a time as a celebrity, picked up a few odd dollars here and there, and at last took off once more on a voyage across the trackless ocean. He never came back. In the fall of 1909, at 65, he sailed for South America, with some vague plan for wandering up the Orinoco and down the Amazon, and he never made port. The Spray ’s ancient seams apparently opened up in some heavy sea and that was the end. Or, possibly, it was the beginning.

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