A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2010 Dec 29, 20:47 -0800
I've been reading Geoffrey Wolff's "The Hard Way Around" on and off for the past couple of weeks. Even before buying a copy, I exchanged a couple of emails with the author (note for the end of the year 2010: this is the first book I have bought in an electronic format). I'll start with the weak parts, which happen to be relevant to NavList, and save the praise for a later paragraph.
Wolff's descriptions of Slocum's navigation are unfortunately incorrect almost every time, and specifically he makes the all-too-common mistake of suggesting that Slocum was able to make his circum-navigation thanks to his skills as a lunarian. He calls him a "genius", as you noted, who was being overly modest when describing his simple methods of navigation. He imagines that, because he had studied from it, Slocum must have understood every word and every detail of mathematics in Norie's Epitome of Navigation. This is just modern misunderstanding. Lunars had been honed to simple cookbook methods that anyone could learn even a century before Slocum's circum-navigation, and the observations themselves required no extraordinary skill. By the end of the nineteenth century, lunars were nearly forgotten and practiced only by a few eccentrics. Slocum himself shot one lunar, on one pleasant afternoon in the Pacific when he was approaching the Marquesas, and by writing about that experience in "Sailing Alone Around the World" he had composed a fine "epitaph" for lunars, but they were not important to the voyage at all.
In the realm of navigational trivia, Wolff repeats the modern "folk etymology" which originated in the 1920s that suggests "dead reckoning" is derived from the phrase "deduced reckoning".
Just to be clear, Wolff did not write a biography here, by which I mean that he did little or no original research. He's written a "synthesis" based on his reading of Slocum's own books and those proper biographies written by Teller and Spencer and also the first-hand story of Joshua Slocum's life written by his Victor Slocum. His confusion regarding navigational matters apparently comes mostly from Victor's book. When I emailed him, he happily replied and said that if there is ever a second printing, he hoped to edit those sections.
But I don't want to complain anymore here about a very enjoyable book. The small details of navigation are minor points in this story of Slocum's life (the word "lunar" and its variants appear a grand total of ten times in the book). Wolff's approach is to put it all in a somewhat wider context so his descriptions of Slocum's life at sea are mixed with quotes from Melville and Dana and other literary and historical accounts of life at sea in the nineteenth century. Wolff is a retired English professor and that naturally influences his approach. He's interested in Slocum's fine native writing talent and the place of "Sailing Alone..." in a broader literary context.
I found Wolff's description of seasickness fascinating for its empathy. As he notes most people see seasickness in about the same category as gout. There's no pity for it. But Wolff talks at length about what it must have been like for Slocum's wife to give birth and raise babies (and watch them die) while suffering under the slow torture of a rolling vessel at sea.
As I say, I'm only half-way through "The Hard Way Around" but it's been enjoyable so far. Of course, anyone interested in Joshua Slocum should start with his own prose in "Sailing Alone..." if you haven't read it yet. It's available in numerous editions online and also in a number of recent re-printings at very low prices.
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