November 3, 2009

Inspired by Slocum

I HAVE LONG THOUGHT how lucky we are that the first man to sail around the world alone was also a splendid writer.

I first read Captain Joshua Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World, as an impressionable teenager and what struck me then was his modesty, his humility and his very obvious enthusiasm for the sea, even when it wasn’t being very kind to him. He made single-handed ocean sailing sound … well, if not easy, then at least very manageable and businesslike.

I later learned that my hero Slocum was not exactly an angel. He once shot to death a pirate who threatened him, and in later life he served jail time for indecently exposing himself to a 12-year-old girl.

Nevertheless, Slocum made it plain for the first time that it was possible for a small boat with a crew of one to sail clean around the world without the drama and exaggeration normally found in the yachting literature. In this way he inspired many timid souls to follow his example. At any given time today, hundreds of small boats — and by small I mean anything under 40 feet — literally hundreds of small boats are sailing around the world, many of them manned by husband-and-wife teams or families with small children.

Although Slocum’s book was written more than 100 years ago, it retains an enthusiastic freshness that’s wonderfully infectious. To enjoy this book you don’t need to know port from starboard or a pintle from a gudgeon. There are, inevitably, some incidents that have to be explained in technical terms, but they’re few and far between and you can skip over them without losing any of the sense, or urgency. In fact, Slocum writes much more about the land and the ports he visited than he does about his ship and the seas they traveled over.

For me, reading Sailing Alone Around the World as a teenager aroused the feelings of restlessness and adventure so common to youth. I wanted to build my own boat, as Slocum had done, and indulge my curiosity by travel under sail to exotic faraway places. But, like so many others, my plans were long thwarted by a combination of family commitments and cold feet. I did start building my own wooden yacht once, but soon abandoned it when I realized the size of the task I’d set myself. I simply wasn’t up to it.

But Slocum wouldn’t let me rest. He kept me awake year after year with visions of a sailboat running swift and true through the trade winds toward some distant palm-fringed shore. Finally, when I was 50, I crossed an ocean as the skipper of my own boat, with my family as crew.

It was a fiberglass boat, I confess, and one that I bought, not built. I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t a circumnavigation, either; but I felt proud enough when it was over, and very grateful to Captain Slocum. Given my limitations, I thought I’d done my best; and a man can’t ask for more than that.

Today’s Thought
Most happy he who is entirely self-reliant, and who centres all his requirements in himself alone.
— Cicero, Paradoxa

“Did I tell you about the cruel blow that fate struck my parents in New York?”
“No — I thought you were born in Seattle.”

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