“Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast”: The fate of Joshua Slocum. And wine.

mysterious tales slocum

Last summer (2015), in a quest for subjects for pulse-pounding blog articles to entertain you all, I bit off a little more than I could chew. I decided to “live-blog” two books at once that I was reading, and experiment with some new wines at the same time…after all, what can be more relaxing than reading a good book with a glass of wine in hand? I read, and managed to finish, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, thanks to some great wine suggestions by Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog, but the other book I was reading, the 1962 pop history book Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast by nautical historian Edward Rowe Snow, fell off the radar screen. I did my last entry on MTOTNEC on July 28. It’s a new summer now, and I thought I might actually try to get back to it, for there are still lots of mysterious tales to recount, and new wines to sample!

In this installment, admittedly opening cold after nearly a year of being idle, I opened up Mr. Snow’s magnum opus pretty much randomly to Chapter 13, titled simply “Joshua Slocum.” I had heard the name Joshua Slocum (not to be confused with General Slocum), and knew he had something to do with nautical lore, but reading Chapter 13 it’s interesting to note how our folk heroes have changed in America: at the time of his greatest fame, in the 1890s and 1900s, Slocum was a household word, a hero to kids everywhere and the celebrity author of a best-selling book, Sailing Alone Around the World, which summarizes Slocum’s claim to fame. Today’s heroes are very different. Have you heard, for example, of Laura Dekker, a 16-year-old girl who did the same thing Slocum did in 2012? Anyway, I digress. Slocum, an experienced sailor, left on his famous trip from Nova Scotia in July 1895 and finally returned to Newport, Rhode Island in June 1898. He’s the first person to have circumnavigated the globe alone. He did it aboard his famous (at the time) ship, the 39-foot sloop Spray. Snow gives us this background, and a lot more on Slocum, before finally getting–in the last two pages of the chapter–to the “mystery” that justifies the story’s inclusion in this book: the circumstances under which Slocum mysteriously vanished in South America in 1909.

spray pd

Honestly, the Spray, Slocum’s boat, looks a little rickety. It’s a wonder he made it around the world in this thing.

After his famous voyage, Slocum went around to various places on the Spray, searching for a new nautical adventure that would presumably keep him in the headlines and keep copies of Sailing Alone flying (if that’s the term) off bookstore shelves. He didn’t have much success at this. According to Snow, he admitted to his own son he was just “hustling for a dollar.” Slocum’s final proposed adventure was to work his way up the Amazon River in South America, and he planned to start in the Orinoco River in Venezuela. He sailed from New England in November 1909. Then, sometime in the middle of month, somewhere in the Caribbean near South America–Snow is maddeningly vague–Slocum and the Spray disappeared. He was never seen again and no wreckage of the Spray was ever found.

Snow begins his chapter by telling us that Slocum’s disappearance is “one of the world’s greatest sea mysteries” and, sensationally, that it “has apparently been solved by a recent revelation.” He then carefully sandbags this “sensation” until the very end, spending most of the chapter on the totally non-mysterious, well-known facts of Slocum’s life. Although interesting, I guess, the “mystery” is kind of tepid. On page 183 Snow tells us that someone named Felix Meinickheim, a planter of some kind who lived on Turtle Island in the Lesser Antilles, told someone else, Captain Charles H. Bond of Wollaston, Massachusetts, that he (Meinickheim) was about to sail on “a little mail steamer” in the Caribbean. When the steamer, which is not named, came to the dock, Meinickheim noticed a gash in the ship’s hull right near the stern. He asked the steamer’s captain about it, who said they had run down a native boatman on the coast the night before. Meinickheim believed there was more to the incident than this, and the ship’s second mate supposedly admitted to him that the boat they ran down “was not a native of this area.” The implication is that the boat must have been the Spray. Why this story took more than 50 years to get out Snow doesn’t really explain.

To my surprise, this documentary, made about 2012, corroborates Snow’s theory about what happened to Joshua Slocum. It’s 45 minutes long, but if you click at this point you’ll see the relevant section.

Honestly, this is kind of anticlimactic. And given Snow’s penchant for spinning second- or third-hand hearsay from New England old timers into supposedly true stories, like what he did with that ridiculous Civil War amnesia thing, I decided to check out the story. According to the Wikipedia page on Slocum, a Smithsonian Institution historian believes the Spray was unstable and it was only a matter of time before it capsized. Nothing is said about being run down by a mail steamer. However, I also found a fairly recent documentary on Slocum’s life (embedded here) where the narrator refers to Slocum’s most recent biographer, Ann Spencer, who says she found evidence of a particular Caribbean mail steamer who ran down the Spray. I haven’t read Spencer’s book, but from this brief explanation I was surprised to find that it seems that Snow’s theory is right!

As my selection of this chapter was largely random, I thought my choice of wine should be too. I went down to my local wine shop and browsed their “$10 and under” shelf, which in this shop is always an interesting adventure. I selected an Angeline Winery California pinot noir, 2014 vintage. You’re really playing with fire if you try any pinot noir under $20, and my first sniff of the wine had me skeptical–it had an unusually caustic alcohol aroma for a pinot and no terroir I can speak of. Drinking it, though, it’s not bad. There’s no real richness or depth to it, but at least it’s smooth and restrained, and has a little bit of smoky cherry flavor on the finish. While it can’t compete with pinots at a higher price point, it’s a lot better than any other $10 pinot noir I can remember having.

angeline wine

Jumping back into Edward Rowe Snow’s Mysterious Tales after a year hiatus, I’m not expecting miracles, either from the book or from the wine. We get none here, but at least Snow got history right (for a change), and the wine, though not an award-winner by any stretch, committed no major blunders. I’m going to call this a successful cold-restart of the Mysterious Tales series, and I will do more this summer, so stay tuned!

The header image is not the cover of any real edition of Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. I created it myself from public domain images. The wine photo is by me, (c) 2016, all rights reserved. All other images are in the public domain.
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3 Comments

  1. Actually I had heard of the theory that Slocum’s craft was run down by a steamer, but there was another theory that Joshua was trying to find a place to spend out the last days of his life in quiet and peace in South America. I’m inclined to think he was lucky never to have tried that trek in the spray down the Amazon, as he was too old for such a journey, and plenty of people have gone into the Amazon jungle and never been heard from again (does the name of Col. Percy Fawcett ring any bells? He vanished in it in 1928, with his oldest son and a third man – and Fawcett had journeyed through the Amazon rain forests several times).

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