On the chilly Sunday morning of the 14th of November,1909, a 65-year-old experienced sailor and world famous author, Joshua Slocum, began his last journey.
On that morning, in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Joshua Slocum cast off the dock lines of his 37 foot wooden sloop, “Spray,” as he had hundreds of times. As usual, he was alone on board.
Alone, out at sea, the wind caught his sails and Slocum set his course South, leaving New England, passing New York, the Jersey shore, and then past the Eastern Atlantic States, until he was seen off the coast of Miami Florida, or, at least some people thought they saw him. His destination was the Orinoco, Rio Negro and Amazon Rivers, where he had sailed before.
And that is the last time anyone saw or thought they saw Captain Joshua Slocum. He and the “Spray” totally disappeared and were never seen again. In his wake, Slocum left us some gifts: books he wrote about his strange and fascinating voyages. They include “The Voyage of the Liberdade,” which I have recorded and published as a Listen 2 Read audiobook:
and his second and most famous book, “Sailing Alone Around The World,” recounting the true adventure of being the first man to successfully circumnavigate the world by himself, without a crew of any kind.
It took awhile for people to realize that Slocum had not been heard of for a long, long time. Finally, seven months after he sailed out of Martha’s Vineyard, in July 1910, his wife, Hettie Slocum, told the newspapers she believed her husband was lost at sea. He was declared legally dead in 1924.
Over the years, people have speculated about what could have happened to Slocum. A well-known authority claimed to have once examined the “Spray” and stated that it could dangerously capsize if it heeled past a shallow angle, making Slocum just lucky that the “Spray” had not capsized earlier.
Really? Slocum sailed the “Spray” over 40,000 miles around the world, in every kind of weather. His survival had to be the result of skill, not luck.
Someone claimed Slocum disappeared to provide insurance money for his wife. But Hettie, his second wife, had to wait 14 years after he disappeared before he was declared legally dead. After her adventure with her husband on the high seas, told in “The Voyage of the Liberdade,” Hettie remained on dry land for the rest of her life.
The most considered opinion was that Slocum piloted his “Spray” down the eastern coast of America, and that somewhere south of Key West, in the night, perhaps in the Bermuda Triangle, his small boat was hit, capsized and destroyed by a large commercial steamship that probably didn’t even know it hit him.
If that is true, it is a strange twist of fate, since the advent of steam power seemed to be Slocum’s enemy. Slocum had an incredible knowledge of traditional wind powered sailing ships; he totally supervised the building of a commercial cargo ship from scratch.
Slocum had commanded large sailing ships, the so-called, tall ships. In fact, he had commanded and partly owned the largest sailing ship of its time, “The Northern Light”. He was considered an expert at Captaining tall ships, using only the wind for power. And he could handle the tough crews too, as evidenced in “The Voyage of the Liberdade,” when he single handedly stopped a mutiny.
Unfortunately for Slocum, the advent of steam lessened the importance of those skills. It was much easier to maneuver a steam-powered ship than one powered by the wind, as he did spectacularly when he delivered an old worn out battleship to the Brazilian Army in “The Voyage of the Destroyer,” (included in my recording of the “The Voyage of the Liberdade”). And steam ship crews were smaller, needing less supervision.
Sadly for Slocum, after the destruction of a ship under his ownership and command in Brazil, which led to the adventure of “The Voyage of the Liberdade,” ship owners considered Slocum a risky choice for Captain.
Like so many people today, the very gifted Slocum became a man with a skill set no longer needed. Perhaps that is why he tried to reinvent himself by circumnavigating the world, writing and lecturing about it.
Nobody really knows how Slocum died, but if he was killed at sea in a crash with a giant steamer, as many suggest, it was as if new technology not only changed his life, but also took his life away.
Oh, and there was one more thing: with all his experience at sea, Joshua Slocum never learned to swim.
You can see pictures of Captain Joshua Slocum and listen to a sample of “The Voyage of the Liberdade” audiobook at:
Download or purchase “The Voyage of the Liberdade” audiobook, here on my website or from your favorite audiobook retailer.
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