Joshua Slocum’s fortean voy­age PETER BROOKESMITH

PETER BROOKESMITH finds some salty fortean nuggets in a clas­sic ac­count of sea­far­ing...

Fortean Times - - Contents - PETER BROOKESMITH was the evil mas­ter­mind be­hind part­work The Un­ex­plained and is the au­thor of sev­eral books on ufol­ogy. He is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to FT.

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.

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