Joshua Slocum: South Coast Global Mariner

When September breezes spank the spinnakers and unfurl the sails to lean the masts into the windward harness of forward motion, they pass in panoramic review along the shoreline toward the end of summer. They also pass by landmarks of shipyards, town wharves, and nautical landings that are lasting cornerstones of an ages old seafaring history. It all began with the landing of explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, perhaps blown here in 1602, followed by a favorable western trade wind that landed the Mayflower in Plymouth in 1620.

A hundred years later, the South Coast would sail into the future of a whaling industry that was to light up the world and navigate to all seven seas of the globe. When the whaling industry was about to subside another hundred years later, a single individual named Captain Slocum would cast off from here in 1895 to sail alone around the world. His mission was to single-handedly overcome a declining interest in the public eye for the whaling culture with his global adventure. He purchased a derelict 37-foot sloop called the Spray that was deserted in the Oxford Shipyard section of Fairhaven. It symbolically lay abandoned on its side right next to the alleged site of the grave of John Cooke who had come over on the Mayflower.

The cost of rehabilitation was little more than $553 as Slocum himself cut down nearby oak trees to overhaul the keel, hull, frame, and centerboard. His boat building expertise would hold the Spray together for a three-year, 36,000-mile cruise. It was the most remarkable shipyard and seamanship feat in history. His subsequent book, Sailing Around the World, alone earned him the title of a literary sea lion, congratulated in person by President Teddy Roosevelt. However, in 1909, again in the Spray, he set sail toward the Amazon in South America never to be seen or heard from again. As in the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart, family and friends were left without closure to wonder what happened to a loved one and if they were somehow still alive.

I recall this feeling with the sudden loss of my 28-year-old cousin Robert Bockius who disappeared in 1962 in a ship called the Windfall that was in the Bermuda race from coastal Connecticut. He and the crew were last reported in the vicinity of the Bermuda Triangle, infamous for nefarious surging waves from swirling winds, and a shifting compass of varied longitude gravity pull. Every successive day dawns with thoughts of an emotional image of rising and falling tide of hope and grief in the human ocean of thought possibilities.

We are left to honor the endeavor of those that go down to the sea in ships, only to offer this literary tribute to them in a local flagship of Southcoast news, appropriately entitled The Wanderer.

By George B. Emmons

One Response to “Joshua Slocum: South Coast Global Mariner”

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  1. John Rousmaniere says:

    Dear Mr. Emmons,

    Your September 13 column is fascinating article, but I have a question. As the historian of and a regular sailor in the Newport Bermuda Race (my history, A Berth to Bermuda, was published in 2006 by Mystic Seaport Museum), I am well aware of the race’s risks, but your comment at the end is a surprise. I regret the death of your cousin, Robert Bocius, but it was not during the 1962 Bermuda Race, which was held in a calm and had no serious accident. There has been just one death in the race’s 112-year history, and that was in 1932. Could he had died during another voyage to or from Bermuda? (Incidentally, the race starts off Rhode Island, well east of Connecticut.).

    Thank you,
    John Rousmaniere,

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