thinking outside the tank

Joshua Slocum in Google Earth: Christmas Island to Keeling Cocos

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Follow Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World at:

It’s 550 miles to the Keeling Cocos island group from Christmas Island. The atoll represents a low-lying target less than ten miles across, so Slocum is aware that careful navigation is required. With his old tin clock that has only a working hour hand this will clearly be a challenge.

Using decades of sailing experience, he reads the future in the sky and in the waves. Seeing high cloud that cuts across the trade-wind pattern, he deduces that a storm is brewing in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope and adjusts his course accordingly to allow for the different combination of wind and current that this brings.

Five days later, his intuition is rewarded when he sights the coconut trees of Keeling Cocos ahead while he is half way up the mast. The relief is so great that he slides down the mast, sits on the deck, and “gives way to his emotions.” He has achieved a remarkable feat and part of it belongs to the Spray‘s ability to hold a course :

I didn’t touch the helm, for with the current and heave of the sea the sloop found herself at the end of the run absolutely in the fairway of the channel. You couldn’t have beaten it in the navy!

Slocum stays on the islands for five weeks; remember he’s allowed himself a leisurely pace so he doesn’t arrive too soon off the Cape of Good Hope. Apart from that, why shouldn’t he linger here? After all: “If there is a paradise on this earth it is Keeling.”

The Spray is hauled ashore for some routine maintenance; then his attempt to haul her afloat fails, and the children of the island are delighted to think that a kpeting (a crab) is holding her down by the keel.

Later, Slocum decides it would be a good idea to ditch a few tons of cement ballast and in its place to carry away some of the giant clams called Tridacna. What isn’t such a good idea is to set off across the bay with one of the locals in:

…a rickety bateau that was fitted with a rotten sail, and this blew away in mid-channel in a squall, that sent us drifting helplessly to sea, where we should have been incontinently lost. With the whole ocean before us to leeward, I was dismayed to see, while we drifted, that there was not a paddle or an oar in the boat! There was an anchor, to be sure, but not enough rope to tie a cat, and we were already in deep water. By great good fortune, however, there was a pole. Plying this as a paddle, with the utmost energy, and by the merest accidental flaw in the wind to favour us, the trap of a boat was worked into shoal water, where we could touch bottom and push her ashore.

After this escape, he presses on with his Tridacna plan but uses a safer boat to gather them.

The section of Joshua Slocum’s journey reported here opens Chapter XVI of Sailing Alone Around the World, and this post is a trailer for the adventure that I am retelling in Google Earth at:

Copyright © Colin Hazlehurst, 2012

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