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.