Challenged by an expert who said it couldn’t be done, Joshua Slocum, a fearless New England sea captain, set out in April 1895 to prove that a man could sail alone around the world. A little over three years and forty-six thousand miles later, the proof was complete. This is Slocum’s own account of his remarkable adventures during the historic voyage of the Spray. Whether Slocum was more accomplished as a writer or sailor is hard to say. His writing style is fast paced, witty, and exhilarating, an absorbing match to his harrowing adventures - adventures that included being chased by Moorish pirates off Gibraltar; escaping a fleet of hostile canoes; being submerged by a great wave off the Patagonian coast; an encounter with Black Pedro, “the worst murderer in Tierra del Fuego”; and foiling a nocturnal attack by savages by strewing carpet tacks on the Spray’s deck. Captain Joshua Slocum (1844–1909) was the first person to circle the globe alone entirely by sea. This remarkable achievement made Slocum the most famous North American sailor of all time.
“[A] literate and absorbing yarn…A convincing tale of the intelligence, skill, and fortitude that drove a master navigator.” (New York Times) “One of the most readable books in the whole library of adventure.” (Sports Illustrated) “A classic book…Slocum’s writing is as elegant as his thirty-seven-foot sloop, Spray, whose crossing of the Atlantic he describes vividly.” (New Yorker)
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As a long-time consumer of recorded books, I’d rate Sailing Alone Around the World as one of the most enjoyable examples of the genre that I’ve ever encountered. By the time Captain Slocum had laid the deck of his aptly named schooner, the “Spray”, in Chapter One and launched her into her natural element, I was completely hooked and my admiration grew throughout the book. Slocum’s narrative style – direct, unaffected, informative – along with his self-deprecating humor, reminded me of another American writer named Samuel Clemens, and it engenders the same feeling of likability. Captain Slocum would surely join Mr. Twain, as one of the ten people I’d most like to invite for an evening of dinner and conversation. Slocum’s account of his voyage is an intriguing blend of introspective, travelogue, and adventure. Contrary to what one might expect (particularly a non-sailor like myself) the captain spent a great deal of his time at sea reading in his cabin, leaving the Spray to find her own way. This wasn’t as reckless as it might seem. Far from land and the major trade routes, with many fathoms of water beneath her keel, a blue water sailor like the Spray could cruise safely and reliably for mile after mile without a hand at the wheel, maintained on her course by the balanced impulses of wind and water on sails and rudder and hull. An experienced seaman like Joshua Slocum could remain comfortably below decks, out of the elements, and read – or even sleep! – confident that he would sense any significant change in conditions or the behavior of his craft. This is evidently what he did during many long stretches, which answers one of my more pressing questions. How did a man with his modest educational background, who had spent most of his adult life working at physically demanding jobs, become such a graceful, imaginative, and appealing writer? The answer is that he learned by reading great writers who had preceded him. Only a few specific titles in his library are mentioned, and these are primarily classics of nautical literature; but it’s evident that Slocum stocked his tiny cabin with scores, if not hundreds of books of all kinds, replenishing these with new volumes whenever he had an opportunity. The results of this immersion are obvious in almost every line that he wrote. Indeed, I’d be pleased to be judged half the writer that Slocum became in his later life, when this book was written. Slocum stopped frequently during his voyage in ports around the world, often remaining for prolonged visits, during which he explored the countryside, sampled local culture, and met a variety of native people, as well as expatriate Americans and Europeans. His journey took place at the end of the nineteenth century, during the last heyday of European colonialism. Consequently, as news of their endeavor preceded them, Slocum and the Spray were welcomed wherever they went, particularly by elements of the world’s great navies, which maintained bases in many foreign ports. As a result, Slocum rarely paid port fees or docking charges and was frequently provided with repairs to his boat, as well as provisioning at no cost. On a number of occasions he was even towed by naval vessels, whose captains were only too glad to help him out of difficult situations. Far from sleeping aboard his vessel in port, he was routinely entertained, often in grand style by ambassadors, port officials, and other representatives of European power, anxious to demonstrate their good will toward this adventurous Yankee. One couldn’t do this sort of thing nowadays, when sailing around the world is almost a commonplace; but Slocum was the first ever to undertake a solo circumnavigation and the people he met, especially sailors and naval personnel couldn’t do enough for him. It must have been delightful; but, to his credit, Slocum didn’t allow special treatment to go to his head. The modesty and good humor that are evident in his writing must have been reflected in the way he behaved in life, and these characteristics seem to have ingratiated him with everyone he met. This is not to say that sailing a small boat single-handed around the world was either easy or uneventful. For every pleasant interlude that the captain spent relaxing in some friendly port, there were harrowing, often life threatening experiences that taxed nerve, wit, and resolve to the ultimate degree. He was obviously a man of considerable physical strength and endurance, not to mention exemplary seamanship, yet on many occasions these qualities were barely enough to ensure his survival. In fact, without considerable luck to go along with his other resources, Captain Slocum and the Spray might never have made it back to New England. Through it all, whether battling mountainous waves to outrun Barbary pirates, clinging to the Spray’s masthead, while the entire boat vanished beneath roiling seas, or threading his way through the deadly shoals of the Magellan Straits during a night of gale force winds, Slocum retains the stoicism and calm acceptance of a man who is used to hard knocks and strenuous exertion as a part of everyday life. If his descriptions of events weren’t so vivid, one would hardly know how often he escaped disaster or even death by the thinnest of margins. By the time he anchors the Spray in his home port after more than two years of sailing over many tens of thousands of miles of the world’s oceans, it’s clear that he has taken us on one of the most extraordinary adventures in the history of the sea. Performance art is an amalgam of the writer’s original conception and the performer’s interpretation of it. The combination isn’t always a happy one, but in this case it works perfectly, which is actually rather strange. Joshua Slocum was a Yankee, born and bred, so we can assume that he spoke with a typical Yankee inflection. Since he wrote his account in the first person, one might think that having someone with Bernard Mayes’ aristocratic English diction narrate the book would seem incongruous. This is not the case. Mayes’ rendition is pitch perfect in both tone and style; and his accent is so pleasant that I’m not sure I would like the book as much, if it were read with a more “authentic” northeasterner’s twang. As a matter of fact, I’m considering buying several other audiobooks simply because Mr. Mayes is the reader. I finished listening to Sailing Alone Around the World a couple of months ago with that curious mixture of pleasure and regret that attends the conclusion of memorable experiences. I can't exaggerate how much I enjoyed the book, especially in audio format, and I recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes a good yarn, expertly told.
Beautifully written, delightfully understated, with a gentle humour Joshua Slocum recounts his great adventure.
The days of sail are being replaced by steam and one man rebuilds a small small sailing ship and sails alone around the world. Throughout he honours his sloop The Spray and recounts her charm in calm and tempest alike.
While a few have indeed followed his lead, this is a great listen to a book recounting the voyage completed before 1900.