Tim Bowler was born in Leigh-on-Sea, the setting of his first novel, Midget. After studying Swedish at University, he worked in forestry, the timber trade, teaching and translating before becoming a full-time writer. He has written nine novels and won 13 awards, including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for River Boy. His novel Frozen Fire has won five awards to date. His most recent novel is Bloodchild and he is currently working on the sixth book of the Blade series, a contemporary story about youth culture and knife crime. Tim has been described by The Sunday Telegraph as 'the master of the psychological thriller' and by The Independent as 'one of the truly individual voices in British teenage fiction'. Here he writes about Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around The World.
Tim Bowler on Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum
When I was a boy, my family and I spent several holidays with a family called the Wheatleys. Grahame and Stella Wheatley were close friends of my parents, and my brother and I became (and remain) close friends of their daughter Amanda. Over the course of the years and especially during my teens, I spent many hours at the Wheatleys' house in Westcliff, and during those hours, in snatches of ten minutes here and five minutes there, I often dipped into a book that sat on the shelf in their living room. It was Sailing Alone Around The World by Joshua Slocum and it became very special to me.
I was born in Leigh-on-Sea and spent much of my boyhood sailing. Slocum's book gripped me from the first page. He tells his story with warmth, wit, humanity and skill. He was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran away to sea at the age of 14, and after decades of working in various ships, he found himself in 1892 ready for the challenge of his life. He had long had an ambition to sail single-handed around the world, something that had not been achieved at that time, but the only problem was that he was broke and didn't have a boat. A friend heard about his predicament and said, 'Come to Fairhaven and I'll give you a ship.'
The 'ship' turned out to be the local joke. She was called the Spray but she was a wreck propped up in a field. Everyone assumed that Mr Slocum and his friend had come to break her up for firewood. Slocum, however, rebuilt her and set off on his epic voyage; and it was truly epic. He was chased by Moorish pirates, suffered delirium and hallucinations in the midst of a storm, and was nearly wrecked on more than one occasion. For me, however, the most memorable section of the book concerns his adventures in the Straits of Magellan. These are treacherous waters and in those days the banks were populated by dangerous Fuegians living in desperate poverty and not averse to piracy and murder if a vessel came along which they felt they could overwhelm. As a man alone in a small boat, Slocum was advised not to attempt the passage through the Strait.
Typically he went ahead and when Fuegian canoes hove into view, he set about creating a deception.
Now, I was not for letting on that I was alone, and so I stepped into the cabin, and, passing through the hold, came out at the fore-scuttle, changing my clothes as I went along. That made two men. Then the piece of bowsprit which I had sawed off in Buenos Aires, and which I had still on board, I arranged forward on the outlook, dressed as a seaman, attaching a line by which I could pull it into motion. That made three of us.
This only fooled the Fuegians for a short while, however, and he soon had to resort to his gun, firing not to kill but to scare. Gradually he made his way through and out into the Pacific, only to be driven by a storm down to Cape Horn and forced to traverse the Strait a second time. It was during this second passage that he had his closest encounter with the Fuegians. But as before, he was a match for the situation. A friend, mindful that the Fuegians went barefoot, had given Slocum a large bag of carpet-tacks and these he sprinkled on the deck, 'business end up', whenever he was forced to anchor for the night.
Now, it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it... and that was just what happened that night about twelve o'clock, while I was asleep in the cabin, where the savages thought they 'had me', sloop and all, but changed their minds when they stepped on deck, for then they thought that I or somebody else had them. I had no need of a dog; they howled like a pack of hounds. I had hardly use for a gun. They jumped pell-mell, some into their canoes and some into the sea, to cool off, I suppose, and there was a deal of free language over it as they went. I fired several guns when I came on deck, to let the rascals know that I was home, and then I turned in again, feeling sure I should not be disturbed any more by people who left in so great a hurry.
Every page of this book is warm with Slocum's spirit. When he finally breaks free from the Strait, he braces himself for the Pacific and the next stage of his voyage.
One wave... larger than others that had threatened all day... broke over the sloop fore and aft. It washed over me at the helm, the last that swept over the Spray off Cape Horn. It seemed to wash away old regrets. All my troubles were now astern; summer was ahead; all the world was again before me. The wind was even literally fair. My 'trick' at the wheel was now up, and it was 5 p.m. I had stood at the helm since eleven o'clock the morning before, or thirty hours. Then was the time to uncover my head, for I sailed alone with God.
Reading this book in my early teens in Grahame and Stella Wheatley's living room had a profound effect upon me, and this was deepened when one day Grahame walked quietly across, took the book from my hands, inscribed it and gave it back to me, to keep. Inside he wrote: 'To my friend Tim, with best wishes for many a happy voyage. Grahame Wheatley.' The dedication looks up at me now from the open book on my desk. Sadly Grahame and Stella both passed away before I could show them a copy of my novel Starseeker. In it, the character of Mr Harding inscribes a book for the teenager Luke with the words: 'To my good friend Luke, wishing you a safe and happy journey. Best wishes, Graham Harding.' It is a small homage to a kind man.
As for Joshua Slocum, he returned home in 1898 after a voyage of 46,000 miles. He wrote his book, which became a bestseller, then in 1909, at the age of 65, he set off again in the Spray on another solo voyage, this time to South America. Neither Slocum nor the Spray was seen again. When I first read this, I remember a feeling of desperate sadness, yet the more I reflect upon it, the more I feel that this is how Slocum would have wished to go. And as Arthur Ransome, another childhood hero of mine, puts it in his introduction to Slocum's book, 'the Spray sailed on her last voyage, but she and her captain have joined the immortals and are sailing still, and will sail on and on so long as men can read his lovable and simple-hearted book.'