Exploration Mysteries: The Disappearance of Joshua Slocum

From 1892-1895, Joshua Slocum became the first person to sail alone around the world. The feat — and his book, Sailing Alone Around the World, one of the classics of travel literature — made him famous. He was one of the most experienced seamen of his generation. But in 1909, he vanished during a routine voyage on his boat, the Spray

Slocum grew up in an ordinary working-class family in Nova Scotia, Canada. From an early age, Slocum longed to live a more unconventional life on the high seas. He ran away from home as a teenager and got jobs as a cabin boy, cook, and seaman.

While he didn’t have a formal education, he had picked up enough of reading, writing, and mathematics to serve him. At 18, he earned his qualification as a Second Mate. He continued climbing through the ranks, and eventually, at 25, he captained his first ship.

While at the helm of several vessels, he engaged in various trading ventures. Acquaintances and friends described him as level-headed, a great problem solver and hard working. He married and started a family who accompanied him on his sailing adventures. However, his career took a downturn after the death of his wife Virginia. 

Bad luck

Throughout the 1880s, bad luck plagued the seafarer. After marrying his cousin Henrietta, the pair and the children saw hard times. Their financial situation took a bad turn. Then they were shipwrecked in Brazil in 1887. Slocum built a boat from scratch to sail back to the United States. This incident left them almost broke and very unhappy. 

The Spray. Photo: Wikipedia Commons


In 1892, he began a great passion project when he acquired a rotting boat. He restored it at a great cost of time and money, christening it the Spray. It was 11.27m long by 4.26m wide, made of oak and yellow pine.

Over the next three years, the Spray took him over 74,000km around the world. He braved such nautical hazards as hurricanes, disease, and pirates. This solo circumnavigation was the first of its kind. However, preoccupied with major world events such as the Spanish-American conflict, the media paid it scant attention.

Only later did the grandeur of his accomplishment sink in. Slocum’s use of crude navigational instruments, his in-depth knowledge of currents and waves behaviors, and general professionalism made what happened next seem very strange. 

In November 1909, he set off in his boat from Massachusetts for the Caribbean and South America. He was supposedly last seen resupplying in Miami. Afterward, he vanished without a trace. 

Theories of his disappearance

While it was not uncommon for people to perish at sea at that time, Slocum’s skills and reputation for seafaring expertise do not add up with his disappearance. During his great circumnavigation, he proved himself reliable and resourceful under stressful and even life-threatening situations. It’s unlikely that he perished because of a lack of ability. 

Joshua Slocum on the ‘Spray’. Photo: Sailing Alone Around the World


Some speculate that Slocum left his family deliberately. While he was fond of his children, he was supposedly unhappy in his marriage to Henrietta. She had come to openly dislike sailing, after several traumatic episodes with shipwrecks, storms, and pirates.

It is widely accepted that he married Henrietta mainly to fill a void that his first wife Virginia had left. It is possible that he left the dreary and unsatisfactory life in New England for warmth, adventure, and belonging. He did mention how much he enjoyed being in the Caribbean and among its people. Yet he loved his children and would not have just left them like this. 

Another possibility is drowning. Although a skilled mariner, Slocum could not swim. Perhaps on his voyage, he fell overboard during a storm or his boat sank. Some witnesses who knew Slocum stated that his boat looked unstable before he left New England. 

Some point out that he disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, with its unexpected and violent storms. His alleged appearance in Miami makes this possible. 

More than a decade later, he was officially declared dead. The Spray was never found.