Before Joshua Slocum could become the man we remember today–the one who invented bluewater cruising by sailing around the world singlehanded in a rebuilt oyster smack named Spray–his prior life first had to be unmade. Identifying such turning points is sometimes an arbitrary business, but in Slocum’s case there is little doubt about when his world was first turned upside down. The date most certainly was July 25, 1884, when his first wife, Virginia, age 34, died after a brief illness aboard the family’s 138-foot bark Aquidneck in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Slocum had met Virginia Walker in Sydney, Australia, 14 years earlier when he was a young, up-and-coming commercial sailing-ship skipper. They married after a short whirlwind courtship and she at once joined him at sea, living with him aboard his commands and, in one instance, in the jungles of the Phillipines after he accepted a commission to build an inter-island trading ship. They were more than just partners. Their life together was an adventure and a love affair, and when Virginia died, as their youngest child Garfield later described it, Slocum became “a ship with a broken rudder.”
Suddenly a widower with four children to care for, Slocum coped as best he could. He left his three younger children–Benjamin, Jessie, and Garfield–with his two sisters in Boston and with his oldest son Victor as first mate continued to carry cargo aboard Aquidneck between the U.S. East Coast and South America. Eager to restore some semblance of normalcy in his life, he then married a young cousin, Hettie Elliott, age 24, in February 1886, less than two years after Virginia’s death. Just six days after the wedding, he again set out for South America aboard Aquidneck, this time taking his new bride and 5-year-old Garfield along with him.
At the end of the following year, after some disappointing misadventures in the South American coastal trade, Slocum’s career abruptly ended when he lost Aquidneck on a sandbar at the mouth of Paranagua Bay in Brazil. In more ways than one it was a mortal blow to his fortunes. He never again was offered a commercial command and Aquidneck, his sole asset, was uninsured. He was now in all respects–financially, professionally, and emotionally–a ruined man.
An exit strategy
Did Slocum immediately grasp that he now had to reinvent himself? It is tempting to think so. He could easily have got his family home aboard one of the ships on the coast commanded by friends of his. Or he could have accepted the offer made by the U.S. consul at Rio de Janeiro to repatriate the family at government expense. Instead he decided to sail them home himself in a new craft of his own devising.
In part, no doubt, this reflected a stubborn independent streak in his nature. He may also have nurtured a genuine academic interest in the sea-keeping ability of small boats. But implicit in the scheme, too, was a realization on Slocum’s part that he now needed to find new ways to stay afloat as a sailor. The age of commercial sail was coming to an end, the age of steam was well underway, and men such as he were quickly becoming irrelevant.
Legend has it that Slocum built his new boat from scratch on the beach where he lost Aquidneck, but in fact the circumstances were much more civilized. The boat, a new tender for Aquidneck, construction of which had already begun prior to the shipwreck, was assembled in a small shipyard on the west side of Paranagua Bay. The shipyard owner graciously put the family up in his house while work on the boat was completed. Much of the heavy labor, particularly the sawing of planks for the hull, was performed by local workers hired by Slocum with funds raised from the sale of the wreck.
Slocum, ably assisted by Victor, did display much ingenuity in creating his escape pod. The supply of tools was limited, and the two were often forced to improvise. Charcoal pounded to dust and mixed with water served as chalk for marking lines. Holes were burned instead of drilled with a heated jack-stay iron. Clamps were made from wedges and twisted bits of guava trees. Fasteners were salvaged from the wreck, or, very often, forged from scratch or manufactured from cheap copper coins.
The design itself was utterly unique. Measuring 35 feet overall, with a draft of 2’6” and a beam of 7’6”, the boat’s hull form, as Slocum described it, was “got from my recollections of Cape Ann dories and from a photo of a very elegant Japanese sampan which I had before me on the spot.” The rig consisted of three fully-battened junk sails. The cabin house was of bamboo and canvas. This slim, quite stylish craft, called by Slocum a canoe, was launched on May 13, 1888, the day on which Brazil emancipated all its slaves, and hence she was named Liberdade, which is Portuguese for “liberty.” Slocum himself never remarked upon it, but the term might have referred just as easily to him as to the slaves.
A new kind of sailing
After spending more than a month provisioning Liberdade and shaking her down in Paranagua Bay, Slocum and family struck out for home on June 24. They at once encountered challenging conditions, as there was a large breaking sea on the coast left over from a strong pampeiro gale.
Slocum, it seems, was not undaunted. “It required confidence and some courage to face the first storm in so small a bark, after having been years in large ships,” he later wrote in Voyage of the Liberdade, his account of the journey. But the boat behaved well, and Slocum quickly learned not only to trust her but to revel in handling her. “The old boating trick came back fresh to me,” he wrote, “the love of the thing gaining on me as the little ship stood out: and my crew with one voice said: ‘Go on.’”
Liberdade also proved suprisingly fast. On the very first leg of the journey, a jump up the coast from the Paranagua bar to Santos, she made good 150 miles in 24 hours. Soon afterwards she logged one 180-mile day, her very best effort of the voyage, and subsequently did better than 170 miles on at least one other occasion. The robustness of the boat’s construction was quickly confirmed, too, on the second leg, from Santos to Rio de Janeiro, when Slocum accepted the offer of a tow from a friend, Captain Baker, who ran the local mail steamer.
Hettie and young Garfield rode aboard the steamship, and Slocum and Victor stayed with Liberdade–Slocum tending the helm, while Victor crouched forward under a tarp with an axe, ready to cut the tow rope on an instant’s notice. Tearing along at 13 knots at the end of a 500-foot tether, Liberdade rode safely over a “high and dangerous” sea. In spite of the fact he ended up thoroughly drenched in oil that Captain Baker had cast on the water in an effort to quell the waves, Slocum pronounced this “the most exciting boat-ride of my life.” As he later explained it: “I was bound not to cut the line that towed us so well: and I knew Baker wouldn’t let it go, for it was his rope.”
Soon afterwards the crew of Liberdade suffered what seems to have been the most anxious moment of their journey. While anchored near Cape Frio, north of Rio de Janeiro, the family was disturbed while at dinner by a 50-foot whale that surfaced right under the boat. “We expected instant annihilation,” wrote Slocum. “The voyage, I thought, was about ended, and I looked about for pieces of bamboo on which to land my wife and family.” But the whale soon disappeared, and apart from a lost anchor and a damaged keel that was soon repaired, no harm was done.
By mid-August Liberdade had climbed in short stages up the Brazilian coast as far as Bahia, where she was hauled out for a quick refit. From there her route around the continent’s easternmost extremity at St. Roque and on to Barbados took her through a region of steady trade winds and her passages grew longer–5 days non-stop from Bahia to Pernambuco, then 19 days, the longest single passage of the entire cruise, from there to Carlisle Bay in Barbados.
During these passages Slocum and Victor stood alternate four-hour watches. The only hard part, according to Slocum, “was the intense drowsiness brought on by constantly watching the oscillating compass at night.” To make sure he could rouse Victor to relieve him at the helm, Slocum tied a line to the boy where he slept in the cabin and led it out to the cockpit. One pull meant it was time for the watch to change; three quick pulls meant Slocum wanted help shortening sail.
In most other respects, Slocum’s account of the cruise seems almost unremarkable. The details on which he most often dwells–the stranded flying fish collected for breakfast, the encounters with friends aboard other vessels in port, the telling exchanges with locals ashore, the clever things uttered by the child aboard–are no different from what one might find in an account of a modern family’s cruise through the tropics.
Which is, of course, the genius of the thing. Slocum was palpably aware that what he and his family was doing was quite unusual, but he likely never guessed they were blazing a trail down which many other families would later follow.
After laying over at Barbados for over a month, Liberdade again sailed north on October 7 and in 5 days, after a very pleasant transit of the Lesser Antilles, arrived at Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. From there she struck out direct for North America, pausing only briefly to take on water at a small Bahamian cay overseen by an officious but friendly lighthouse keeper. She made landfall at Cape Roman, South Carolina, on October 28. In all, Slocum and his family had spent a little over 53 days underway aboard their little ship and had covered just over 5,500 nautical miles.
That this had not been some survivalist ordeal, but in fact a proper cruise, was pointed up by the fact that the crew did not immediately bolt their vessel on reaching native soil. Instead they did what families often do after they return from a season of living aboard in the tropics and are uncertain of what comes next–they just kept cruising for a while.
Drifting north through the Carolinas in coastal waters, Slocum discovered Liberdade’s virtues as a shoal-draft gunkholer and very much enjoyed the folks he met along the way. At Southport, North Carolina, perhaps anticipating the construction of the Intracoastal Waterway a few decades later, he gamely resolved to borrow a shovel and dig his way through the marsh from New River to Bogue Sound. Fortunately, he was spared this labor when he met a friendly man who offered to pilot Liberdade across the marsh down a ditch dug by his grandfather.
Christmas was spent cruising Chesapeake Bay, after which the family wintered over in Washington, D.C. The following spring they sailed Liberdade north to New York, where they attracted much attention from the press.
It may have been at this point that Slocum first realized he might make a name for himself as a small-boat voyager. If nothing else, he must have learned by now that his second wife Hettie would never be the companion Virgina had been. Asked by a newspaper reporter whether she had enjoyed the journey, Hettie replied simply: “It is an experience I should not care to repeat.”
She was as good as her word. Three years later, when Slocum proposed that she join him in his latest venture, a voyage around the world aboard a hulk of an oyster boat he planned to rebuild, Hettie’s reply was short and to the point. “Joshua,” she told him, “I’ve already had my voyage.”
And so it was that Joshua Slocum, like more than a few of the men who have since followed in his wake, resolved to go sailing anyway, with or without his wife.
Liberdade: An ocean-going canoe
Liberdade’s construction, particularly as to the distribution of weight aboard, was carefully considered. To ballast the boat, her bottom was laid in ironwood, a very stiff and heavy hardwood, and her topsides were constructed of cedar, which is much lighter and more supple. To help keep weight low, Slocum also used bamboo above the waterline where ever possible. The cabin house was a simple bamboo frame with canvas stretched over it, the battens on the junk sails were all bamboo, and, more significantly, Slocum installed large bamboo sponsons along the gunwales of the boat. These, he believed, made the craft absolutely buoyant and self-righting.
Great care, too, was taken in the storing of gear and provisions aboard. Light items were stored in the ends of the boat; everything heavy was placed below the cabin sole, as low as possible. The accomodations, therefore, were quite cramped, and inside the cabin itself there was only sitting headroom–4 feet at most. As the child Garfield noted at the time: “Mama! This boat isn’t big enough to pray in!”
Slocum likewise was very circumspect in selecting his rig. Knowing most of his route would have him sailing off the wind, he was very willing to sacrifice windward ability for the ease of handling offered by junk sails. He considered it, he wrote later, “the most convenient boat rig in the whole world.” In this respect, he anticipated some modern designers, such as Blondie Hasler, Tom Colvin, and Jay Benford, who later installed junk rigs on more contemporary craft.
The fate of Liberdade remains a mystery. After sailing her up to New York and New England the year after he returned from Brazil, Slocum sailed her back to Washington, D.C., in 1890 and donated her to the Smithsonian Insitute. According to some accounts, she is still buried somewhere in the Smithsonian’s vaults. According to Victor Slocum, however, Slocum retrieved her from the Smithsonian in 1909, intending to use her as tender to Spray. She was, he claimed, disassembled and stored somewhere near New Bedford, Massachusetts, but then went missing after Slocum was lost at sea aboard Spray later that same year.
UPDATE: Since posting this, I’ve heard from the Smithsonian. Check here to find out what really happened to Liberdade.