An arresting moment in Sailing Alone Around The World

2023 02 07

This was an essay I wrote for the class Travel Literature taught by Professor Janis Bellow. The essay was a based on the book Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum with the intention to focus on an arresting moment. The passage occurs just before the end of chapter 11. At the end I include a discussion question I asked the class.

When traveling alone one will likely come across a situation where given evidence that contradicts an internal feeling or belief the traveler must make a decision that determines their next course of action. Should the traveler accept the external information and go against their gut or should they trust themself to know what they are seeing must be in error? As they are alone they cannot check any rationale they may have with anyone but themself. The passage I chose reflects such a situation faced by Slocum as he sails into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He ultimately trusts his experience and knowledge to keep himself from making a radical course adjustment and potentially getting lost.

The passage opens with Slocum describing how “even under the most favorable circumstances” crossing the Pacific leads one to “realize the vastness of the sea”. He then describes how “slowly but surely the mark of my little ship’s course on the track-chart reached out on the ocean and across it”. The reader can picture a map with a small dotted line extending into the blankness of an Ocean. Slocum then tells us that he has been on this course for forty-three days and includes a side note that this is “a long time to be at sea alone”. This establishes solitude first in terms of scale and then in terms of time. There is an implication of how terrifying this could be, and is meant to preface the final discussion of the paragraph about keeping track of where you are in the “vastness”.

Slocum describes his sense of wonder at having two forms of measurement, calculating position via sextant or dead reckoning, agree within five miles of each other. It seems that Slocum assumes the reader is familiar with the types of navigation described, but any reader can understand that being able to so accurately locate yourself in this “vastness” after forty-three days is, no doubt, impressive. He hints that he needed to “wrestle” with the lunar tables in order to achieve it. Slocum, with humility, qualifies his measurements by stating that both readings “might be in error”, but with confidence he predicts that he will sight land shortly based on his position. This turns out to be correct and based on the identified islands he can confirm his location to be between the two aforementioned measurements, which demonstrates that he was right to trust himself. Clearly the reader can see how this is “extraordinary” as he describes given that “all navigators may lose or gain more than five miles in her sailing-account”.

Ever modest, Slocum quickly assures the reader that he does not “lay claim to cleverness” with this achievement. He was not doing any “slavish calculations” to account for all the possible factors that may affect the readings, but has instead relied “mostly by intuition”. Indeed, Slocum explicitly states that the log “is only an approximation … to be corrected by one’s own judgement from data of a thousand voyages”. This sentence makes it clear to the reader that Slocum insists that technical skills alone will not necessarily help you to avoid getting lost at sea - you need to have the experience in order to truly understand your observations and incorporate them into decision-making while traveling.

Slocum then expands on the “wrestling” with the lunar tables. He remarks that based on his initial lookups with the tables, verified with multiple measurements, that he should be hundreds of miles west of where dead reckoning placed him. This seemed to be startlingly off and he “knew that this could not be correct”. He then writes “I asked myself why, with my boasted self-dependence, I had not done at least better than this”; he has no one else to consult while traveling so he must consult himself. Slocum also feels the need to defend his claims of self-reliance to the reader in order to maintain his humility. Trusting himself and his knowledge to be in the right he was able to find that “an important logarithm was in error”. Upon correction he obtained the close match of positions described earlier. We have been led, in this passage, to believe such accurate navigating, especially done alone, is generally unheard of. So, it is not surprising to see Slocum express this sense of pride. The phrase “tickled my vanity”, further characterizes his humility as it places himself as a passive participant in the accomplishment; he is not outright sure of himself that his skills were responsible for the feats, but rather that having made the astounding measurement his sense of vanity may increase. Slocum avoids the accomplishment from getting to his head by stating that it simply may have happened by chance. Still, he is proud “as one of the poorest of American sailors” to be able to have done it. This passage stands out as it is one of the rare times in the book that Slocum expresses pride for a feat he accomplishes instead of merely focusing on the description of an event.

Slocum was faced with a conundrum of confounding observations and needed to determine a course of action to avoid getting lost in the expanse of the Pacific. Rather than linger in uncertainty he trusted his intuition and experience that something about the measurements must be wrong. Throughout the situation he never expresses fear, which in turn never makes the reader anxious for the outcome. Slocum achieves this sense of calm through run on sentences chained together by many commas that follow his stream of consciousness, which is calm and self-assured throughout the scenario. The reader can take away from this passage that when faced with conflicting information while traveling, one can generally find their way by trusting their own “thousand voyages” to intuitively know what must be right and then follow their own chain of thought to determine definitively what the correct decision should be.

Opening question for discussion: Slocum has described how having experience ensured that he stayed on course and did not get lost in the Pacific ocean. This makes a compelling example that one should have experience before setting out on a travel. However, one must gain experience in order to have experience. How does Slocum put himself into new situations where his experience only gets him so far, and must one necessarily put themself into a risky situation with limited experience in order to have an interesting adventure?