The name of Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) barely registers now, but a century ago, he approached what we would call celebrity today. Descendant of a loyalist family that fled to Nova Scotia after the Revolution, he led a life that would be impossible in our time: running away to sea in his youth, rising up the ladder as a merchant seaman, hauling cargo across the oceans in his own commercial vessel, sailing alone around the world.

It was that last distinction that made him famous. Chronically incapable of settling down ashore—he was married twice, and four children survived to adulthood—he set sail from Boston in 1895 in a 36-foot oyster boat called the Spray and, three years later, put in quietly at Newport having circumnavigated the globe, by himself, using only the anachronistic methods of dead reckoning for longitude and noonday sun-sights for latitude. The burghers of Newport were initially skeptical of the tale told by the lean, leathery, bearded man in late middle age, but he successfully explained his achievement. Slocum’s account of the adventure, Sailing Alone Around the World (1899), was a huge bestseller, ensured his notoriety, and remains a classic account of its kind.

As a writer, Geoffrey Wolff has specialized, to some degree, in plumbing the depths of elusive, irascible people—his con-man father “Duke” Wolff, John O’Hara, Harry Crosby—and in Slocum he has his work cut out for him. It is safe to say that men who instinctively take to the sea are, to some extent, escaping from the world the rest of us inhabit; and Slocum, while scarcely a misanthrope, was beset by certain demons which clearly fascinate Wolff but which (as he would be the first to admit) can never be fully comprehended. This is a deft, well-modulated, sympathetic account of a character who is at once intriguing and unknowable.

Slocum, for his part, thrived on his renown, but at some cost to mental equilibrium. In one curious episode in 1906, the 62-year-old Slocum was accused of rape by a 12-year-old girl who had taken a public tour of the Spray. Slocum was arrested and jailed and, while protesting his innocence, confessed confusion about the sequence of events, insisting that he had no recollection of the encounter. The girl, it was soon learned, had not been assaulted, and the court seems to have concluded that this was a likely case of indecent exposure, freeing Slocum. Three years later Slocum set sail on a solo voyage to the West Indies, and was lost at sea.

A century later it seems likely, in retrospect, that Slocum was probably innocent of any wrongdoing; but the arrest, trial, and jeering publicity took a measurable toll. Yet it is startling to report—“in an age of registered sex-offenders,” as Wolff puts it—that upon his acquittal Slocum sailed north to Oyster Bay, New York, to spend time with the incumbent president, Theodore Roosevelt—who sent his son Archie off with Slocum for a week-long cruise!

The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum by Geoffrey Wolff, Knopf, 213pp., $25.95

Next Page