The minimum sailor writes about the maximum sailor

July 25 1964

The minimum sailor writes about the maximum sailor

July 25 1964

The minimum sailor writes about the maximum sailor

MY LIFE AT SEA was like Joshua Slocum’s in the same way that the buffoon you see in the wavy mirror outside a midway fun-house looks like somebody you know. In his own day Slocum's exploits were the talk of all the oceans; mine were something I kept quiet about for several years, while I grew a thicker skin. But we have always been too quick in Canada to shrug off our lesser heroes, or so it seems to me. and since Slocum and I were both born here I have made up my mind to reveal a further mild footnote to history. The truth is that the forgotten Nova Scotian. Joshua Slocum, was the maximum mariner. I was the minimum one. We are the definitive cases of knowledge and ignorance at sea.

The trouble with superlatives like these is that they can rarely be verified, but in this case 1 can justify both contentions from the record. Between 1895 and 1898 Slocum made the ultimate voyage. He circumnavigated the globe, by himself, in a small sloop. As far as I know, no sailor had even contemplated the feat before Slocum. Sailing Alone Around the World, the book he wrote afterward, is good rough-carpentered stuff in the old logbook tradition of the swashbucklers Hawkins and Drake. The book is a minor classic that avoids at least one of the vices that most good sea stories have. Somehow Slocum resisted the usual sailor’s superstitions; he never makes a storm at sea sound like the wrath of God instead of a meteorological accident, which is bad enough. Toward the end of his life he became a sort of ’longshore snake-oil peddler, drumming the curious aboard his sloop Spray and selling them rubberneck tours, curios, and salty reminiscences. But the vicarious adventure his medicine show' had for sale was genuine; when his spiel turned to the nature of the contest between a sailor and the sea, he knew what he was talking about better than any man before or since.

“Night closed in before the sloop reached the land, leaving her feeling the way in pitchy darkness.” (Slocum is here describing his passage around Cape Horn. As he entered the Pacific Ocean a storm drove him back to the south and east, and he circumnavigated the

wildest part of Tierra del Fuego. This passage is unmatched in the annals of the sea; foxy old Ulysses, who trembled and turned back at Gibraltar, would cheerfully have been turned into a pig along with his crew before he’d have tried sailing Slocum’s route.) “I saw breakers ahead before long. At this I wore ship and stood offshore, hut was immediately startled by the tremendous roaring of breakers again ahead and on the lee bow ... 1 kept off a good bit. then wore round, but finding broken water also there, threw her head again offshore. In this way, among dangers, I spent the rest of the night. Hail and sleet in the fierce squalls cut my flesh till the blood trickled over my face; but what of that? It was daylight, and the sloop was in the midst of the Milky Way of the sea, which is northwest of Cape Horn, and it was the white breakers of a huge sea over sunken rocks that had threatened to engulf her through the night.”

Rereading this a few weeks ago I came to a paragraph that begins. “To a young man contemplating a voyage I would say go. The tales of rough usage are for the most part exaggerations, as also are the stories of sea danger.” This was true for Slocum, although he had several ships wrecked under him. right up to the end of his life. Then he put to sea in his old sloop for one last stunt — a voyage up the Orinoco and down the Amazon to circumnavigate, as it were, Brazil — and disappeared.

What Slocum had said about hardship and danger at sea turned out fifty years later to be true for me, too, but for reasons that would have chilled his pragmatic marrow. He knew the sea too well to worry about it; crapshooter's luck followed me wherever I went on water, and I was never really worried by a dangerous sea because 1 never really saw one. We were the distorted image of each other, as I’ve said, in other ways. “My voyages were all foreign.” Slocum wrote. So were mine. The maximum mariner shipped before the mast on a full - rigged cattle drogher sailing from St. John's to Dublin when he was sixteen and tough. I was nineteen and confident, a somewhat different thing, when I shipped from Galveston, Texas, for Yokohama. Neither of us went home again. Slocum stayed at sea for fifty years. He was second mate of a Java-seas trader at eighteen, captain of a toreign-going barque at twenty-six, master and part owner of the three-decked ship Northern Light, "the finest American sailing vessel afloat." before he was forty. I stayed at sea for three years, off and on, and worked my way down from deckhand to main greaser. ("Main," here, signifies the greaser who oils the main bearings; the most important greaser is called the donkeyman.) Slocum once put down a mutiny by shooting two men to death with a rifle. He rescued castaways at sea, killed whales from an open boat, salvaged treasure from wrecks and sailed the first torpedo boat from New York to Brazil, where he was commandeered by the revolutionaries the warship was on its way to suppress.

THE MAXIMUM SAILOR The boat above is Spray, and the man below is Joshua Slocum, the immortal but almost forgotten Nova Scotian. Slocum sailed* his sloop around the world, single-handed, between 1895 and' 1898, the first man in history to make the voyage alone. He is an authentic minor hero

My close calls at sea were harder to classify. There was the night on the South China Sea when four or five of us were sitting around drinking Dutch gin in the saloon of the S.S. Adelanto, a tramp running down from Hong Kong to Djakarta. The chief engineer, a Eurasian from Singapore who was an unusually likable man, and a fast one w'ith a pint of Dutch gin. bet the captain fifty Straits dollars that he could climb through one of the saloon's portholes. We all w'ent out on deck — for some reason he seemed to think it would be easier to climb in than climb out — and the chief took off his shirt. He stuck one arm through the porthole. Then he tucked his head into his armpit and got his head through, too. How' he got his other arm through is hard to say, but he did, possibly by throwing his shoulder out of joint. That left him draped by the belly across the porthole's rim. with his feet six inches off the deck and his upper body dangling into the saloon on the other side of the bulkhead. Shoving with his arms, he tried to jam his hips on through. They were too big. "Take off my pants.” he said. We pulled them off; then we lifted his legs, two men to a leg, and rammed him as far as he'd go.

"Sweet mother, STOP!” he said. "1 can't make it.”

“Damn right." the captain said. "Give me my fifty bucks.”

“Haul off," the chief said. "British Board of Trade regulations say that every porthole has to be big enough for a man to pass through."

"Up the British Board of Trade,” the captain said. "This ship was built at Newport News, Rhode Island.”

"I'm coming out,” the chief said. He tried it with both arms reaching past his head, like a dancer playing a dying swan. He stuck at the armpits. He tried it again, snaking one arm back through the porthole. This time he stuck at the ribs. It struck the chief that there might be worse news that night than the fifty Straits dollars he stood to lose to the captain. "Pull me out." he shouted. We pulled till his joints cracked. We talked about cutting him out with an acetylene torch. We rigged a table from the saloon under his legs, to take some of the weight. We had a few shots of Dutch gin. Three hours later the captain's Chinese mistress, who usually stayed up in the cabin behind the bridge, came down to sec what was keeping him. She got a pound of butter and smeared it over the porthole rim and the chief's upper body. Four men pulled from the deck and two men pushed from the saloon. Slowly, slowly, he slicked out. If he hadn't we would have had to sail the rest of the way through the China Sea to Singapore without a chief engineer.

When Joshua Slocum lost part of a crew to cholera, smallpox, or his own gun. he sailed on. He sailed on, in a way, even when he lost his ship. The second time this happened, on the Brazilian coast in 1888, he had his wife with him and his two sons, one grown and one a small child. He built a thirty-five-foot sailing canoe out of timber he salvaged from the wreck of his ship and logged in the local rain forest. Then he sailed his family home, five thousand miles to New England.

The sloop he sailed around the world a few years later. Spray, was a little over thirty-six feet long. Slocum rebuilt her from a derelict hull that had been rotting on the beach at New Bedford, Massachusetts, for seven years. He began by taking the derelict as a gift ("somc-

THE MINIMUM SAILOR The boat in this photograph is Shoestring, and the man at the far left, below, is Ken Le folii. He and the three other men sailed in 1952 from Norway for either Samoa or Tasmania and found the coast of England, Given their sailing style, they considered themselves lucky

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“A fisherman pulled us off the shoal. Next day he came to take the Shoestring as his salvage”

thing of a joke on me") and ended by building an entirely new boat. In 1952 I was one of a four-man crew that rebuilt a ketch in Norway and renamed her Shoestring. She was a little bigger than Slocum's sloop and almost as old. She'd come off the ways in the 1890s as a lifesaving boat, and had spent the last years of World War II tied to a Norwegian pier as a getaway ship for two German officers who thought they might make it to Argentina when the time came but never did. The only thing we had that Slocum didn’t was an engine, a single-cycle diesel. To start it you held a blowtorch to the head until the head was red hot, spun a huge iron flywheel until the engine caught, and then shoved a wedgeshaped shingle nail under the slack old spring that regulated the fuel-injection valve. If you didn't shove the nail in far enough the engine stalled because it wasn’t getting enough fuel; if you shoved the nail in too far the engine stalled because it was flooded. You could say that like Slocum we depended on sail.

This was all right with me. Slocum and I both liked sailing partly because it is as unpredictable as love or art. The first time Slocum put into port on his cruise around the world he had no more idea whether he could stop his boat before he hit something than I did every time we rammed a dock with the Shoestring. “The bay was feather white as my little vessel tore in, smothered in foam,’’ Slocum wrote of arriving at Gloucester, Massachusetts. "Old fishermen ran down to the w'harf for which the Spray was heading, apparently intent upon braining herself there. 1 hardly know how a calamity was averted, but with my heart in my mouth, almost, 1 let go the wheel, stepped quickly forward, and downed the jib. The sloop nat-

urally rounded in the wind, and just ranging ahead, laid her cheek against a mooring pile at the windward corner of the wharf, so quietly, after all, that she would not have broken an


Slocum would have recognized his own style when we entered a port or left one in the Shoestring, although our results were never the same as his. There was always some confusion, for one thing, about where we were going. The idea had been to make a passage through the Panama Canal, from there to the Samoan Islands in the southern trade-wind belt, and then an easy downhill run back to Vancouver on the northern trades. During the last few weeks in Norway, though, we had been given a boatload of provisions and several navigating instruments by Norwegians who had the idea that we were going to attempt the classic Scandinavian endurance test for small boats, sailing around the world from Tasmania back to Tasmania without stopping. They had picked up this idea from Mike Fitzjames, the charter member of our crew, who had discovered with pleasure that it brought out a remarkable streak of generosity in the Norwegians. By this time he had used the story so often that he was beginning to believe it himself.

“That voyage ended on the rocks”

This is why, when we left Risor on a calm day making about four knots with the old engine, we were arguing about whether the first entry in the log should read “destination Samoa” or “sailed today for Tasmania.” That particular voyage ended, as it happened, about twelve miles out of Risor, where a rip tide pushed us up on a shoal of rocks after the engine stalled, permanently. It was a clear night, and the sea was so calm we could see the red Baltic jellyfish clustering around the hull, which was grating quietly on a shelving rock. Fitzjames, with whom enterprise always counted more heavily than thought, tied himself to the mainmast with a long rope, jumped into the

midget dinghy we had aboard, and tried to pull us off by rowing straight out to sea. The Shoestring weighed six tons and the rip tide setting us against the rock was a strong one. We watched Fitzjames churning up the water with his oars for a while, and then broached the single bottle of wine we had aboard and silently toasted what 1 believe to have been one of the rarest spectacles ever seen at sea. 1 hen we elected Fitzjames, since he was off in the dinghy already, to row down the coast looking for somebody who might pull us off.

He came back at about two in the morning with a fisherman whose heavy outboard dory couldn't move us an inch at the first try. The sea was rising under a fresh wind; by morning the ketch would be staved in against the rocks. The fisherman seemed to be motioning us with his hands to climb up the mainmast, an odd way to react, it seemed to me, in an emergency. He got annoyed and started shouting at us in a mixture of Norwegian and waterfront English to get up that mast before he went home. To humor him we swarmed up the mast to the crosstree and hung there like a team of acrobats looking for a trapeze. The Norwegian gunned his motor, the leverage of close to half a ton at the top of the mast forced more of the buoyant hull into the water away from the ledge we were shelved on, and the ketch floated free. We tried to apologize to the fisherman for laughing at him, but he wouldn’t even turn his head to look at us. He towed us back into Risor harbor, cast us off, and left without saying a word. The next day he came around to claim the Shoestring as salvage, but settled for thirty dollars cash.

The second time we sailed from Norway for Samoa or, possibly, Tasmania, we cleared the rocks and got out into the middle of the Skaggerak, beyond sight of land. For the next ten days we had no idea where we were. We took turns shooting the sun with one of our two sextants and making astral observations at night, but our calculations usually placed us

up a mountain somewhere. At dusk on the eleventh day we sighted the yellow-and-black checkerboard hull of a lightship, one of the vessels kept at anchor in fixed positions by the North Sea nations to help fishermen find their way home. The lightship turned out to be German, and none of us knew how to read the flags that spelled out her position. Our edition of the navigators’ manual may not have included this information, or perhaps we couldn’t find the right chapter. We tacked in under the German’s hull and shouted “What is your position?’’ at the two men who were leaning over the rail watching us with interest. They shrugged. On the next pass we counted one, two, three and shouted in chorus, “Wo sind wir?” They turned their backs to us and waved their amis. Two more men joined them at the rail, and all four leaned over to get a better look at us. We tacked around the ship for another half hour while they watched us and we shouted at them. On the last pass Fitzjames clambered out on our bowsprit. He hooked an arm over the mainstay to brace himself, brought both hands up to his mouth, and bellowed, “Shine a light in the direction of Enggggland,” ¿äftj.the same cadence on the last \vorcf mar "Lau'reucw-Obvier used for his movie version of Prince Hal’s battle cry. The Germans waved at him. He kept shouting the same phrase for several minutes. Nothing lit up. and after a while we sailed on. The Germans seemed sorry to see us go.

When Joshua Slocum — who, like us, carried no chronometer — wanted to know where he was he made an intricate set of calculations based on sun shots and lunar observations. The lunar tables once used by navigators for this purpose are no longer printed, and one modern expert claims that it takes at least three men to make the observations Slocum wrote about. But Slocum never missed a landfall and once, when the position he'd calculated with the help of the lunar tables didn’t agree with the one he'd arrived at previously by dead reckoning, he made some further calculations and found a mistake in the book of logarithms he'd been using. A few years later, when he was showing tourists over his boat at a quarter a head, an

old tin alarm clock that had been his chief aid to lunar navigation was one of his featured attractions.

When the lightship let us down we adopted a less sophisticated system of navigation on the Shoestring. Judging the direction by the sun and our uncorrected compass, which tended to point at a heavy iron hoop mounted just in front of it, we steered roughly south by west. Our theory was that we’d either run into the coast of England or run right down into the Eng-

lish Channel, where we could hardly miss sighting one coast or the other provided we didn't slip right through in a fog. We reached a point between the Dover Light and Cap Gris Nez beacon on a clear midnight, as it happened, which seemed to us at the time to bear out our theory of North Sea navigation. At about three in the morning we made Dover, where we tacked rakishly around the breakwall and heard a metallic voice boom over a loudspeaker, “Stop and identify

yourself.” So far we hadn't given much thought to stopping — our problem up to now had been how to keep moving — and we weren’t unanimous when we did. Two of us dropped the sails, which came down in a free fall and covered the deck like a canvas cocoon. The other two let the anchor go. During the next half hour, while the customs launch waited more or less politely alongside. w>e handwinched the anchor back on deck, turned the blowtorch on the head, and

the engine started. Then the launch led us through more hreakwalls into the inner harbor.

“Tie up over there." a voice from the launch said, "alongside that yawl."

“What yawl?" I said.

“That yawl," the voice said, and a light from the launch picked out a boat fifty yards away.

"Got you," 1 said.

We hit the yawl a glancing blow and tore some of its rigging with our bowsprit, but the next morning the

owner told us to forget it. Worse things can happen at sea, he said. Joshua Slocum probably would have said the same thing. He might have mentioned the time when he was being chased by Moorish pirates in a heavy gale. The wind took away part of his rigging and broke short his main boom. “How I got the boom in before the sail was torn I hardly know," he wrote. "I hoisted away the jib. and. without looking round, stepped quickly to the cabin and

snatched down my loaded rifle and cartridges at hand; for I made mental calculations that the pirate would by this time have recovered his course and be close aboard . . . The piece was at my shoulder when I peered into the mist, but there was no pirate within a mile. The wave and a squall had dismasted the felucca outright. I perceived his thieving crew, some dozen or more of them, struggling to recover their rigging from the sea. Allah blacken their faces!”

Captain Slocum sailed the Spray with spirit until he sailed out of sight, fearing nothing the sea could do to him, in 1908. Mike Fitzjames sailed the Shoestring on to Vancouver, learning what the sea could do to him along the way. We remaining members of the crew left the Shoestring to Mike; I think about her less often these days than I once did. but when 1 do I remember to be thankful that at my most ignorant 1 was also at my luckiest. ★