Joshua Slocum’s fortean voyage PETER BROOKESMITH
PETER BROOKESMITH finds some salty fortean nuggets in a classic account of seafaring...
Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World is a classic of seafaring literature, and for good reason. It’s stuffed with maritime adventures – hurricanes, doldrums, horse latitudes, braving it through the Straits of Magellan, hairy encounters with savages in canoes, sails shredding and booms jibing, to mention but a few. Slocum endured all this to become the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo. He covered over 46,000 miles (74,000km) at sea in the gaff-rigged sloop Spray, 39ft 9in (12m) in length, of just nine tons unladen, and which he had rebuilt himself virtually from scratch. The ship had no engine. Warned at Gibraltar of the dangers of pirates in the western Mediterranean, he decided to make his voyage east-west from there, against the prevailing winds.
Slocum’s book has a natural attraction for me, son of a squarerigger seaman and, thanks to him, not unacquainted with offshore sailing myself. The old man went round Cape Horn four times: the sea was a dead flat calm on every occasion. Go round the Horn under sail, the old salts used to say, and you can piss fearlessly and unsullied off the weather side of a ship. He was never so injudicious as to put this fabled faculty to the test. (It’s an acquired characteristic; it isn’t heritable. I know. Fortunately the breeze was very light.) I mention this because Slocum implies he took the Spray round the Cape, but in fact did not.
Slocum’s story is famous among forteans for his account of having been piloted through fierce seas by a ghost. But there are other little mysteries in the book. Why he chose to sail single-handed around the world, he doesn’t make quite clear, other than that he (along with many others) was finding work as a master mariner in short supply. One learns elsewhere that he was sending an account of his adventures home for magazine publication, and had surely publicised his intention before setting sail. But he doesn’t tell us this.
Besides his ghostly helper, Slocum had one fortean experience and one nonexperience. The latter occurred when he stopped at St Helena, Napoleon’s ultima thule, and was put up in a famously haunted room by the governor (who alleged he had seen a spook or two there) in his residence. “I saw only furniture, and the horseshoe that was nailed over the door opposite my bed,” reported Slocum. Quintessentially fortean, however, was the rain of blood, “the first of the kind in many years”, that fell while Slocum was in harbour at Melbourne, Australia, in the (southern) summer of 1896–7. Ever the rugged pragmatist, he wastes no wonder on it: “The ‘blood’ came from a fine brick-dust matter afloat in the air from the deserts. A rainstorm setting in brought down this dust simply as mud; it fell in such quantities that a bucketful was collected from the sloop’s awnings, which were spread at the time. … Sailors no longer regard [such rains] with superstitious fear, but our credulous brothers on the land cry out: ‘Rain of blood!’ at the first splash of the awful mud.” That rather puts landlubber He was put up in a famously haunted room by the governor Charles Fort in his place, what.
Worth noting too is Slocum’s brief meeting with Paul Kruger, then President of the Transvaal. The interview was a bit of a disaster, as Slocum was introduced as “sailing round the world”. “In the world,” Kruger corrected him, and full of umbrage said no more. The world’s most famous Boer was a convinced, lifelong Flat Earther.
One can’t not mention the famous encounter with the pilot of the Pinta (he didn’t give his name), one of Columbus’s ships on his first transatlantic voyage. A couple of days southbound from the Azores, Slocum had partaken of white cheese and plums, and was seized by stomach cramps with night falling and a storm threatening. He double-reefed the mainsail, set the jib, and lashed the wheel. Properly set up, the
Spray could sail forever with no one at the helm. Slocum went below and became delirious. At some point in the night he came to, or thought he did, to find a heavy sea running and a tall piratical-looking character in a red hat at the helm. Slocum “wondered if he had come to cut my throat. ... ‘ Señor,’ said he, doffing his cap, ‘I have come to do you no harm.’ And a smile, the faintest in the world, but still a smile, played on his face, which seemed not unkind when he spoke. ‘I have sailed free,’ he said, ‘but was never worse than a contrabandista. I am one of Columbus’s crew,’ he continued. ‘I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, señor captain,’ he added, ‘and I will guide your ship tonight. You have a calentura [fever] but you will be all right tomorrow.’” And he indicated that the Pinta was ahead, and they should overtake her. He then lectured Slocum on the folly of eating white cheese. Soon, the helpful helmsman burst into song, and Slocum forthrightly bade him be silent. Slocum finally regained consciousness to find the gale moderating and the Spray still going “like a racehorse”, having covered 90 miles (145km) overnight. In his half-rational, post-delirium state, he “felt grateful to the old pilot, but I marvelled some that he had not taken in the jib.” Next night the Spaniard appeared to him in a dream, remarking that: “I should like to be with you often on the voyage, for the love of adventure alone.” This last is intriguing, for while Slocum doesn’t report any further visits, he does remark that after braving a hurricane on the very last leg of his trip, as he was making for New York: “After this storm I saw the pilot of the Pinta no more.” Hmm.