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Sailing into history
Geoffrey Wolfe discusses Slocum bio at Book Festival
Author Geoffrey Wolfe

Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail around the world alone. Geoffrey Wolfe has written a new biography about him, The Hard Way Around.

Not only is the book an entertaining account of Slocum’s historic voyage on the little Spray –– rigging the wheel on a primitive autopilot so he could sleep –– it’s an account of the garrulous, eccentric Slocum himself, who wrote his own chronicle of his voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World.

Geoffrey Wolfe appears this Saturday at the Savannah Book Festival. Here are highlights of our interview with him:

On his enthusiasm for his subject:

This is a real fan’s letter to him. As far as scholarship is concerned, there’s not much I uncovered that is brand new. The emphasis I’ve put on his writing may be a little different from the way he’s been approached in the past. I find him a grand, grand character and I love his writing.

On the Melville connection:

Inevitably there was a connection because Herman Melville was such a prominent part of the culture of their age. Melville said the whaling ship was his Harvard and his Yale. And the two of them educated themselves at sea in the most practical circumstances. Slocum had to learn a lot of math, a lot of biology, a lot of astronomy, geography, languages, all of that. For people who wanted to educate themselves there was hardly a better way.

On Slocum’s disappearance:

It was in some ways the most fitting death he could have experienced because it remained a mystery. He was embarked on a voyage somewhere, nobody knows exactly where. He had beaten himself up I think, emotionally –– certainly the cataclysm for him was his first wife dying.

Then there was the awful letdown at the end of such a strenuous journey he made around the world. He got back in the worst circumstances, at the beginning of the Spanish American War. He’d been hailed everywhere he went, then he gets back to the U.S. for, not ridicule, but worst of all, ignored. Suddenly it was over. He had done that thing and it couldn’t be done again.

What I’m certainly not tempted to do is have any thought that he took  his own life. I think his son’s hypothesis that he was run down in the steamer lanes makes a great deal of sense. We know he had to spend a great deal of time below. And you only have 20 minutes from the time a steamer appears on the horizon and it’s on an collision course before  impact. And he was below for hours at a time. He rolled the dice all through his life as a solo sailor.

On solo sailing:

All kinds of things demand complete attention. But there’s practically nothing that demands so much attention as sailing alone on the world’s great oceans. It took him out of his ruminations and into a concentration on right now: What am I going to eat, is that sail beginning to tear, is that line coming loose. I think it was a healing thing to have that kind of concentration.

If your anchor drags, you’re alone, it’s foggy, you have to pull it up and reset it. Slocum had to do that in the Strait of Magellan sometimes five or six times a day. He’d do it when the wind was coming off the mountains at 60 knots and he had 300 feet of chain. And he did this over and over and over again.

On Slocum’s personality:

He had this capacity for joy. When you read his writing, you will get a kick out it. You see there’s a real vitality and curiosity about him. He was certainly not unsociable at all, he just wasn’t worth a nickel at the land.

Savannah Book Festival

Festival Day: Saturday, Feb. 19 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. in Telfair Square

Geoffrey Wolfe speaks at 2:30 p.m. at Trinity United Methodist Church

Admission: Free