Thursday, December 1, 2011

Joshua Slocum, Carpet Tacks and 'Just So'

I was first alerted to the existence of Joshua Slocum when I read a story about his voyage (which was the first single handed circumnavigation of the world) in a New Zealand Primary Schools "School Journal" a much underestimated and unsung state funded reading resource still being produced for New Zealand Primary Schools. I still remember the drawings of Slocum's converted oyster mans boat named "Spray" which showed a couple of wooden water barrels fitted carefully on deck. I thought those barrels were very shipshape indeed and a romantic hint of long distance provisioning and far off places - provisioning that was a far cry from the plastic bread bag of sandwiches and a water bottle that I would stow for a cruise on my 7 foot P Class. I was perhaps 12 years old at the time. The "Spray" was a real little ship with big wide decks, a yawl rig and had the uncanny ability to steer herself on any point of sailing. Over the years this boat has been romanticised and many have thought her the perfect world voyager. She is in fact far from being that ....... but talk of what constitutes a perfect dream ship.... is another story.

When I came home from school and told my father what I had seen he steered me to Joshua Slocum's book "Sailing Alone Around the World."
Needless to say I devoured that book not once, but twice. It was books about single handed circumnavigations from my dads vast nautical library that became my very own vicarious 'Boys Own' experiences - all my heroes had salt water in their veins and felt compelled to commune with the wind to a far horizon.

This painting that I came upon in the latest edition of Wooden Boat magazine is a painting by John Stobart of a particular well known incident on Slocum's voyage.
Slocums passage took him through the winding Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America. Inhabited by the fierce, nomadic Yaghan people, the area became known as Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) from their practice of burning small fires for warmth, even in their canoes. In this particular anchorage Slocum was worried about the Yaghan who were close by and observing him. During the day he had fended off attempts to board with a rifle but he was worried about what to do at night. At anchor, to give the impression that there was more than one person on board he kept coming and going on deck dressed in different sets of cloths and hats and at night he covered the deck with carpet tacks to discourage any boarding party. An attempt was made at night and apparently the carpet tacks worked very well, alerting Slocum and repelling the boarders.

Apart from the memories of Joshua Slocum that this painting invoke, I am attracted to the way John Stobart has painted her at anchor. This is exactly how a yacht sits at anchor in these conditions, as a slight cold breeze off the mountains ruffles the water - the boats sits, 'Just So,' and it is a testament to the painter that this authenticity of ambiance has been captured. The Spray will tug gently at her anchor. Slocum will wander the solid wooden deck of his little boat, pulling up the collar of his coat against the chill and have his eureka carpet tack moment. He has already traveled from the east coast of the United States down through the South Atlantic to Tierra de Fuego, he is far from home and he has a long way to go. (double click the painting to get an enlargement).

We all have our heroes as we grow up. Mine were always circumnavigators of the world in small yachts - Joshua Slocum, Harry Pidgeon, Alain Gerbault, Vito Dumas, Marcel Bardiaux, Jean Gau, John Guzzwell, Bernard Moitessier...... the list goes on and on - this was the psychological milieu that I was bought up in - perhaps that's why often I feel so restless. Hmmmmm.


Ben said...

Feeling so restless ... at least you have a yacht.
Brings me to the question do you carry carpet tags on board? For what reason Joshua Slocum could have taken carpet tags on board?
Anyway, another interesting book I didn’t know of, to read for me. Thanks. Since 1987 the book exists in the Dutch language that must be the reason I didn’t read it in my childhood.
Nice painting. John Stobart is quite a productive guy, I saw on the internet.
Talking about circumnavigation, the New Zealand – Dutch girl Laura arrived in Cape town last Sunday.

Alden Smith said...

Yes you are right Ben, at least I have a yacht.... perhaps I should just point it in the right direction.

Do I carry carpet tacks??? LOL .... well not yet, but maybe if I end up sailing anywhere near Terra del Fuego (or Somalia for that matter) I may carry a sack or two of them.

I am surprised that the book has only been translated into Dutch since 1987..... the person (s) responsible for this terrible oversight need keel hauling and should be made to walk a few metres over carpet tacks!

John Stobart is a productive guy as you point out and as a painter in the realist style he is obviously enormously talented.

Thats interesting news about Laura, I had not been watching her voyage very closely but I will now do some internet searching - she has done very well, what a brave girl Kiwi / Dutch is of course a good combination.... not far to go now.

Katherine said...

What a great post! An excellent combination of good writing, art and sailing :-)

Oh btw, we have the 10 Round the World Clipper 11-12 yachts in the marina here in Tauranga at the moment. Fab!

Alden Smith said...

Thankyou for your nice comments Katherine. How long are the clipper boats in Tauranga for? Do you know when they leave? When you say "11 - 12 yachts.." are you talking about their lengths?

Katherine said...

They left at 2.30 on the next leg Alden. The 11-12 refers to the years in which they sail...

Ben said...

Checked the internet for the type of race. Is this something for you in 2013-2014 Alden?

Alden Smith said...

Ben, that is a very, very, nice idea indeed! It would be very, very, very nice to do a race like that and there would be much to be gained from the intense shared struggles and sense of community that would evolve along the way with ones shipmates - BUT - at my age, the voyage I have planned is one where I stop off a lot of the time along the way to visit exotic places of interest - it involves a lot of running in warm seas and warm friendly trade winds (much more gezellig than high latitude sailing) - the classic circumnavigation route has much to recommend itself - and there is still plenty of excitement in that classic route for an old seadog like me.