'The Hard Way Around': Geoffrey Wolff's story of the first man to sail around the world alone
Book review: Geoffrey Wolff's "The Hard Way Around" tells the true story of the fantastic adventures of 19th-century seafarer Joshua Slocum, who became the first person to sail around the world alone. Wolff discusses his book Nov. 1 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Geoffrey WolffThe author of "The Hard Way Around" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum'
by Geoffrey Wolff
Knopf, 213 pp., $25.95
Joshua Slocum, born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran off to sea to escape a cruel father at age 13. The boy signed on as a fishing schooner's cook but was jettisoned to return home since he "couldn't cook hot water ... " When his mother died in 1860, Slocum fled for good. How this youngster whose education ended in third grade rose quickly from the rank of ordinary seaman to master of a vessel in 1869, then went on to command several clipper ships before becoming the first person to sail around the world alone, makes for a fascinating true story in the hands of award-winning novelist and biographer Geoffrey Wolff.
Almost 50 years ago, Wolff notes, he read Slocum's "Sailing Alone Around the World," published in 1900. Though he went on to write other books ("The Duke of Deception"), the story and writing impressed him so much, he remained entranced.
Something — Wolff admits in a press-kit interview that he isn't sure what led him to tell this story — prompted him to tackle Slocum's biography about five years ago. And what a rich portrait he assembles, using quotes and material from Slocum, other writer/sailors like Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, and scholars such as Walter Teller, Slocum's first biographer, and Victor Slocum, one of Slocum's seven children.
Slocum had a natural gift for navigation and was forced to grow up quickly among the rough company aboard ships. Officers soon noticed his intelligence and ambition, and promoted him. Before he was 21, he had sailed around the world and studied many prerequisites for command, from geometry and navigation by lunar observation to carpentry, sewing, law and medicine.
For 13 years, Slocum's home port was San Francisco. His second command was a schooner that brought wheat to Seattle, then returned south with coal. His third ship took him to Australia, where he fell in love with Virginia Walker. He married her in 1871, and she accompanied him on his voyages for 13 years until her death in Buenos Aires.
Wolff describes their lives and work, travels, successes and failures. Slocum, he explains, loved sailing ships but hated the steamships that were rapidly replacing them. He struggled along in a series of clippers until the Aquidneck, which he couldn't afford to insure, ran aground in 1887. Age 45 and broke, unwilling to command a steamship, he was offered a free derelict oyster sloop, which he rebuilt into the Spray. It would carry him around the world.
This voyage of more than three years and 46,000 miles is beautifully summarized by Wolff. But as with many great journeys, tragic difficulties appeared after the challenge was met. Slocum, who had set off with $1.50 in his pocket, "was greeted as a hero in foreign ports and ignored or disbelieved at home."
Unable to cash in on his adventure, he gave lantern lectures, wrote and farmed on Martha's Vineyard. But the sea was his true calling. At 64, he was last seen in mid-November of 1909, sailing alone toward Venezuela. The Spray vanished. Slocum had never learned to swim.
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