Captain Joshua Slocum is a well-known seaman in nautical tales and history, yet one of his most extraordinary exploits remains little known. Slocum had been master of many fine square-rigged ships but the great depression (another one!) of the last quarter of the 19th century saw him without a ship. He therefore undertook to sail around the world by himself in a 12m. sloop he built. If interested, google the captain.

The exploit I mentioned shows his tough-mindedness, the absolute courage of his convictions and his mastership of navigation. Captain Slocum was broke when he undertook his long voyage and he could not afford a ship’s chronometer I describe elsewhere in this site. All he had was an old alarm clock without a minute hand and after he had boiled the thing it kept some kind of time.

When the captain rounded South America through Magellan’s Strait he undertook to cross the Pacific Ocean. Not many people are aware of the enormity of this sea when sailing through the centre. Slocum’s craft was one of the finest sea-boats ever built. He was never at the wheel, a sail adjustment now and then when he collected the flying fish on deck while his sloop ‘Spray’ sailed on and on, day after day, week after week, steady on her course as if on rails.

The captain was down below, reading, he had embarked a great stock of books. At night he observed the stars, at times took some lunar observations and worked out his position that checked with what he thought was right.

After 42 days, yes reader, forty-two days! of this kind of navigation he began to approach the islands he wanted to visit. The captain threw up his sextant again to establish the moon’s and other star’s positions, just to make sure he was where he thought he was. Don’t ask me how he did his lunarian calculations, it’s difficult and I never learned to do it without a chronometer.

Then!.. His calculations showed he was much further west than he had anticipated. He probably said, “shit” but took another set of observations that, once worked out, still put him too far west for his liking. Most navigators would have accepted this new position, after all, 42 days at sea without a landmark, sailing more or less by estimation…etc.

The one and only Slocum refused this easy way out. I find it unbelievable what he did but he did it. He set out to check the logarithmic tables he had used in his calculations and ,”Thar she blows!” found the error in a four figure number.

The captain didn’t make much of this anecdote, just tells us that some time later the publisher of the tables heartily thanked him for being told about the error. I should bloody well think so. Here is a man in a tiny craft on an almost immeasurable ocean and a printing error in a Baltimore published official book would have put this man half a millimetre further on a large chart. Captain Slocum wouldn’t have it, he knew what he knew.

Category: sailing

One Response to The captain who sailed without a chronometer

  1. Jack says:

    Keep it up Nick, love it.

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