Sunday, July 3, 2011


Spray, November 14, 1909.

In 1892, unemployed veteran sailing-ship captain Joshua Slocum was given a ship that "wants some repairs." Slocum found that that "ship" was the wreck of an old oyster sloop named the Spray, rotting in a field. This old salt took that prank as a challenge and totally rebuilt her.

Then, between 1895 and 1898, he proceeded to sail the Spray around the world, to become the first person to circumnavigate the world single-handed. (He re-rigged her as a yawl along the way.)

In November 1909, Slocum sailed in the Spray from Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, for South America via the West Indies. He may have been on his way to explore Orinoco, Rio Negro, and Amazon.

Slocum stopped in Miami for supplies, from where he set sail on November 14. (Sources disagree on whether that was the day he sailed from Martha's Vineyard or from Miami.)

After that, neither he nor his trusty boat were ever heard from again. Along with the Spray, he vanished in the Bermuda Triangle. (Winer, Devil's Triangle, pp. 124.)

Slocum was the best sailor who ever lived or shall live, and his Spray was the best sailboat ever built or conceivably possible to build. Therefore it's unthinkable that he could have fallen victim to any ordinary accident.

As nothing short of supernatural powers could have defeated a superman like Slocum, the fact that he vanished with his Spray in the Bermuda Triangle proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there are supernatural powers at work in said Bermuda Triangle. That's at least the mystics' line.

Winer gets extra points for including the story how Slocum passed out sick on his voyage around the world and awoke to find at the helm, holding the Spray steady in the storm, a ghost in old-fashioned clothes that introduced himself as the pilot of the Pinta. You know, Pinta as in Columbus.

Nothing to do with the Bermuda Triangle, but some added mystery at no charge. Oh, I forget, it was between the Azores and Gibraltar, so it was "on the fringe of the 'Devil's Triangle,' " Winer's enlargement of the Bermuda Triangle, a trapezium four times the size of the Bermuda Triangle conveniently running to Cape Hatteras, the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," including half the Caribbean, and stretching almost all the way to the Azores. Silly me.

Winer truly got all bases covered. The fringe of that Devil's Triangle takes us well-nigh to Africa, and the fringe of the fringe no doubt to China, in case anything mysterious has been going on there. I'm sure we can fit The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor somewhere in here. Then of course, sailing single-handed, Slocum is the only witness that it ever happened.

Opinions are divided on whether the Spray was a terrific or a terrible design. Some say Slocum completed his voyage around the world not because of, but in spite of the Spray. (Kusche, Bermuda Triangle Mystery, p. 52.) Maybe a bit of both is true:

Iconoclast designer John G. Hanna, known as the sage of Dunedin but perhaps better known as the designer of the Tahiti ketch, said of Spray, "I hold that her peculiar merit as a single-hander was in her remarkable balance of all effective centers of effort and resistance on her midship section line." Hanna nevertheless felt it necessary to warn prospective circumnavigators looking for a suitable vessel that "Spray is the worst possible boat for anyone lacking the experience and resourcefulness of Slocum to take offshore.

Slocum was sixty-five years old when he vanished, and some felt he was getting old. So he may not have been up to the demands of this peculiar vessel anymore, no longer able to by his skills keep her from turning from a dreamboat into a deathtrap:

Slocum's mental health deteriorated during his later years. Visiting Riverton, New Jersey, in May 1906, Slocum was charged with raping a 12-year-old girl. After further investigation and questioning, it became apparent that the crime was indecent exposure, but Slocum claimed to have no memory of any wrong-doing and that, if anything had happened, it must have occurred during one of his mental lapses. Slocum spent 42 days in jail awaiting trial. At his trial he pleaded "no contest" and was released for time-served. The judge at his trial told him, "upon request of the family, I can deal leniently with you."

The Spray, too, was going downhill:

A few weeks after his conviction in New Jersey, Slocum and the Spray visited Sagamore Hill, the estate of US President Theodore Roosevelt on the north shore of Long Island, New York. Roosevelt and his family were interested in the tales of Slocum's solo circumnavigation. The President's young son, Archie, along with a guardian, spent the next few days sailing with Slocum up to Newport aboard the Spray, which, by then, was a decrepit, weather-worn vessel.

So the Spray may simply have rotted away from under Slocum. Which would have been no good at all: "Despite being an experienced mariner, Slocum never learned to swim and considered learning it to be useless."

Or Slocum may finally have found a storm that could defeat him. He may have died of old age or blacked out again and fallen overboard, with the pilotless Spray foundering later, self-steering into a storm or onto some rocks. His oil-burning lamp may have set the Spray on fire. (Group, p. 35.) He may have fled his wife to spend his final years on some island in the sun.

Or the Spray was run down by a big ship at night. A sailboat's already dim lights were sometimes obscured by its own sails, and the crew of a big steamer would not even have felt a bump from that tiny tub. (Kusche, Bermuda Triangle Mystery, pp. 50.)

According to Edward Rowe Snow, that is exactly what happened. Slocum was indeed seen one last time after he sailed from Miami, when he visited Turtle Island in the Lesser Antilles and its owner, planter Felix Meinickheim. Meinickheim later told the story to one "Captain Charles H. Bond of Wollaston, Massachusetts, a master mariner whose statements are unimpeachable," in Snow's opinion, at least.

Before Slocum sailed from Turtle Island, he told Meinickheim of his plans to sail to South America, up the Orinoco River, into the Rio Negro, all the way into the Amazon, and down that river.

It is indeed possible to sail from the Orinoco into the Rio Negro / Amazon, via the Casiquiare Canal or Casiquiare River:

The Casiquiare river is a distributary of the upper Orinoco, which flows southward into the Rio Negro, in South America. As such, it forms a unique natural canal between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems. It is the largest river on the planet that links two major river systems, a so-called bifurcation.

Two nights after Slocum's departure, Meinickheim was about to board a 500-ton, 125-foot mail steamer. Then and there, "he noticed a deep cut in her stem, just above the water line." The captain told him that the ship "had run down a native boatman the night before." The captain felt sure it had been a native: "Who else could it be?"

Meinickheim now had a terrible, ominous feeling. He inquired as to when the incident had taken place. He was told it had been during the graveyard watch, the midnight to four AM watch always taken by the second mate.

Meinickheim then interviewed the second mate, who admitted that it had been an unusually dark night, overcast, and at the moment of contact with the other craft, there definitely was no one at the wheel of the other vessel. As for the Captain's claim that they had run down a native boatman, the second mate made the following statement:

"In the few seconds when I saw the other craft, I made out that she was not a native of this area."

As Slocum "was the only outsider anywhere in the immediate vicinity," everybody, including Snow, jumped to the conclusion that it was Slocum who had been run down. (Snow, Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast, pp. 182.)

Now, obviously this assumption is not much better than what you get to hear from the mystics, even though it is used to propose as rational explanation. Did all the outsiders have to sign in before they entered those waters? How can they know there was not another? Thus, this solution far from solves the case, although it remains a possibility, though unproven.

Anyway, there are plenty of reasonable explanations possible for the vanishing of the Spray. Unfortunately, Kusche feeds the mystics by concluding his relevant chapter: "The fate of Joshua Slocum and the Spray is truly a mystery of the sea." Of course the mystics latch onto that: "See, it's a mystery after all, so the Bermuda Triangle mystery is not in fact solved." One should add that it's another "we don't know which one of the many possible rational solutions is true" mystery, not a "no rational explanation is possible, so we got to drag in the Martians or the Atlanteans" mystery.

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