The Golden Age of Everything


A quick note about this section

Whether he realized it or not, Joshua Slocum’s whole life was a form of preparation for his defining adventure.

Written by
William Daubney Holmes

You’ve probably noticed that the golden age is upon us. The golden age of what, you ask? Pretty much everything. A casual survey of newspapers and magazines reveals we’re in a virtual epidemic of golden ages — travel, technology, spying, architecture, marketing, mountaineering, podcasting, creativity.

Many of these declarations are made in order to inspire you to begin something. There’s never been a better time to … and you can fill in the blank with whatever you want.

A golden age is often identified as a moment when tools become cheaper and easier to obtain than ever before. This leads to an explosion of people using them — people who couldn’t before. Thanks to digital photography generally and smartphones specifically, it has been said that more photos were taken in the past year than in the entire previous history of photography. When it comes to moving pictures, YouTube says 300 hours of video are uploaded to its site every minute.

Untold numbers of people learned sailing, the ways of the sea, navigation, and so on. Fortunes were made many times over. Yet during this golden age, no one sailed solo around the world. Incredibly, no one even attempted it.

Golden ages are also times of disruption, when previously reliable ways of doing things have broken down and established players have faded or been eliminated. Newspapers used to dominate the media world. Now anyone can publish “news” and reach an audience with little more than an Internet connection.

And yet one of the most daring and audacious adventurers of all time began his unprecedented feat once his golden age had passed and when the tools available to him were limited. Even at that, he didn’t bother to use most of them.

At precisely noon on the twenty-fourth of April, 1895, the wind off the coast of Boston was fair, as Joshua Slocum described it, so he started a journey no one had ever done before. He sailed around the world alone.

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At the time, the golden age of sail was in its dying days. But a golden age it had been. For decades, clipper ships and similar vessels dominated the globe’s seas as the fastest and most efficient boats ever conceived, transporting all manner of goods with them and transforming the world forever. New technology flourished. Untold numbers of people learned sailing, the ways of the sea, navigation, and so on. Fortunes were made many times over. Yet during this golden age, no one sailed solo around the world. Incredibly, no one even attempted it.

Only when the popularity of sailing ships began to wane in favour of steam did Slocum begin his journey, one which is still celebrated and emulated to this day.

To be sure, Slocum was a product of that golden age. He learned his skills at the height of it and learned them better than most. And once his life-defining journey had begun, he got everything he was expecting and more.

Slocum had been warned of the danger as he left Gibraltar. But he couldn’t escape it. The men in the small boat speeding toward him were no welcoming party. They were pirates, sailing faster than he could and closing the gap. “They were now preparing to strike a blow.” But Slocum was ready for them, especially the one man he identified as the leader of the small group. He felt “It would be better for me to be looking at him along the barrel of a gun.”

In the end, no shots were fired. The pirates were overcome by a wave and had to save themselves and limp back to shore.

Guns were just one of the many items he knew he would need on his voyage. He was also well-prepared for much else — everything from storms that shredded his sails to the demands of navigation, parties with diplomats, shark encounters, and cold weather. He was ready.

Slocum was the product of a golden age, but it was never conducive to his particular brand of risk-taking, innovation, and exploration.

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He needed the age of sail in order to learn the skills. But as a way of discovering something new, going where no one else has gone or doing something no one thought possible, golden ages are overrated.

Slocum’s voyage is a lesson for all of us. Rely less on the age. Rely more on yourself.

Slocum brought a lot, including a lifetime of experience that gave him the ability to assess risk. To determine the danger of a situation before he hit it and either prepare himself or get out of it.

Sometimes tools are overrated. As has often been said, cameras don’t take pictures. Photographers do.

He also brought preparation. Those guns, the types of food, the expectation that he would have to perform his own repairs on his sails and the boat itself.

And he brought the tools. His boat, a sloop called the Spray, had an uncanny ability to sail straight for long periods without requiring anyone to steer it.

Aside from the Spray, however, Slocum didn’t have impressive tools. He couldn’t afford them. There was no modern navigational equipment on board, not even by the standards of the 1890s. He used a tin clock and star observations to find his way. Even in his time, this was considered primitive. Yet his navigation was always perfect. When crossing an ocean to reach a small island, the smallest miscalculation can send you hundreds of miles off course. That never happened to Slocum.

Sometimes tools are overrated. As has often been said, cameras don’t take pictures. Photographers do.

One of Slocum’s most striking features, which shines through in his book, is how calmly he faces difficulties. Not just when encountering pirates, but also in other situations that could have easily induced panic in lesser men.

At one point after leaving Rio de Janeiro, he makes a serious mistake. As a storm moves in, he hugs the shore in order to stay out of the worst of it — too closely as it turns out, because he runs his ship aground on the sand. He has to launch his only lifeboat in the hopes he can use it to tow the ship back into deeper water. But it doesn’t work. The lifeboat capsizes. That’s when Slocum notes matter-of-factly, “I suddenly remembered that I could not swim.”

Whether he realizes it or not, his whole life was a form of preparation for this adventure.

He subsequently had to make four attempts to right the lifeboat, each time at risk of drowning or being carried by the current out to sea. Finally, if all that wasn’t enough, a local boy who discovers his beached ship tries to steal it by towing it away with a horse.

Through all this and more, Slocum never panics. He relies on his experience, skills, knowledge, and strategy to get him out of every bad situation. In each case, he knows what to do. Whether he realizes it or not, his whole life was a form of preparation for this adventure.

He could have chickened out at any time. Could have brought his boat into port and said “Enough!” One of the things that kept him going was to see each day — each moment, really — as a beginning. The start of the next ocean crossing, the start of the next meal, a rescue, or a repair.

Even in the middle of his epic journey, he’s somehow always thinking about beginnings. “I had time in my hazardous position for resolutions for the future that would take a long time to fulfill.” While in the thick of it, he’s dreaming up new journeys.

This attitude never left him. Even after successfully completing his trip, Slocum kept going. Years later, he began another epic sailing journey. From this one he would never return. He headed south from Martha’s Vineyard and was never seen again. He was willing to take risks long after he had nothing left to prove. The urge to begin another adventure — to take another risk — was too strong to resist.

To begin and never to end.

Joshua Slocum wrote a personal account of his voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World, in 1900, and it is widely considered one of the greatest adventure books of all time. It is still in print.

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