In 1908 newspaper readers in the United States were horrified when Jack London, inspired by Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (available from The Narrative Press), announced that he would be sailing across the Pacific and teaching himself navigation on the way. His account of the adventure, The Cruise of the Snark, is a slight, charming work, saturated with the writer’s personality and a wonderful display of his eye for poetic and ironic details. From the start he makes it clear that he embarked upon this particular adventure out of a spirit of “I Like!” and so he could say, “I did it!”
Here is London’s account of the day the Snark left San Francisco in April of 1907:
And right away things began to happen. — I had forgotten to calculate on seasick youth, and I had two of them, the cook and the cabin-boy. They immediately took to their bunks and that was the end of their usefulness — But it did not matter very much anyway as we quickly discovered that our box of oranges had at some time frozen; that our box of apples was mushy and spoiling; that kerosene had been spilled on the carrots, and the turnips were woody and the beets rotten, while the kindling was dead wood that wouldn’t burn, and the coal, delivered in rotten potato-sacks, had spilled all over the deck and was washing through the scuppers.
But what did that matter? Such things were mere accessories. There was the boat — she was all right, wasn’t she? I strolled along the deck — and that deck leaked, and leaked badly. It drowned Roscoe out of his bunk, and ruined the tools in the engine-room — the sides leaked and the bottom leaked and we had to pump her every day to keep her afloat. — Then those magnificent water-tight compartments that cost so much time and money — well, they weren’t water-tight after all. The water moved free as the air from one compartment to another; furthermore, a strong smell of gasolene — leads me to suspect that some one or more of the half dozen tanks there stored have sprung a leak — then there was the bath-room with its pumps and levers and sea-valves — it went out of commission inside the first twenty-four hours. Powerful iron levers broke off short in one’s hand when one tried to pump with any of them — And the iron-work on the Snark, no matter what its source, proved to be mush —
London expected to re-create some of Slocum’s experiences and during his trip across the Pacific he waited in vain for the flying fish that had filled Slocum’s decks; London was forced to stick to his stored provisions. While for the most part the trip was filled with good weather and island-hopping, sometimes it was quite dangerous. Many of the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands were still head-hunters, and he recounts:
When the Minota first struck, there was not a canoe in sight; but like vultures circling down out of the blue, canoes began to arrive from every quarter. The boat’s crew, with rifles at the ready, kept them lined up a hundred feet away with a promise of death if they ventured nearer. And there they clung, a hundred feet away, black and ominous, crowded with men, holding their canoes with their paddles on the perilous edge of the breaking surf. In the meantime the bushmen were flocking down from the hills, armed with spears, Sniders [rifles], arrows, and clubs, until the beach was massed with them. To complicate matters, at least ten of our recruits had been enlisted from the very bushmen ashore who were waiting hungrily for the loot of the tobacco and trade goods and all that we had on board.
He navigated by feel more than by skill, surfed in Hawaii, and hung out with “The Nature Man” in Typee (the first hippie!). “Martin”, one of his crew, turns out to be Martin Johnson, who went on to gain fame in his own right as a nature photographer (see Camera Trails in Africa available from The Narrative Press). Occasionally some descriptions seem a tad too detailed, but he assumes that we are interested in how the mind of an adventurer works. London claimed that sailing the Snark gave him a far greater sense of personal accomplishment than writing a book, yet we are glad that he penned this diverting account for us.