Around the World in the Sloop Spray

(Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum)

Wednesday 2010 10 27

1903 Edition that became "Sailing Alone Around the World"
1903 Edition that became "Sailing Alone Around the World"

For at least five years, six of us, now five, meet each Wednesday morning for ninety minutes of conversation over tea in Howard Barbour’s one room cabin next to his elaborate and productive vegetable garden, just above his house, shop and outdoor brick bread oven, fenced to keep out the deer and with raspberries covered with netting to keep out birds and raccoons. Twenty-one gallons of raspberries, Howard reported, in two crops this year.

Howard offered coffee today, as well as tea, an experiment, he said, but it had no takers. Bob Harris and his wife Megan had moved to Eastsound from their longtime home on the ridge several hundred feet above and were some of the first people we had gotten to know on Orcas 13 years ago. Bob had taught our son James to sail during our first summer on Orcas. The retired architect and then aspiring novelist was now recuperating from spinal surgery in a Friday Harbor nursing home. He’d had marginally successful knee surgery two years before and then over time was increasingly out of touch. The problem, Megan explained one Sunday at a Unitarian service, was that a constriction in his spinal column interfered with the circulation of spinal fluid. That was now presumably fixed and Bob’s mind had brightened up but his walking hadn’t. An ornery, idealistic octogenarian, Bob found commingled beauty and stupidity everywhere he looked.

Captain Joshua Slocum
Captain Joshua Slocum

Howard, an Englishman and Sheila Gaquin, his wife, had taught school in an Alaskan Inuit village just south of the Arctic Circle for nine years, coming down to Deer Harbor summers for sailing, sun, and warmth. David Sarver, a Hoosier with business and law degrees, had moved from California with his wife Maxine and was now president of the Medical Center Foundation Board. Chris Thomerson, another Englishman, had been an electrical engineer in England and later an organizational consultant here; like Howard an avid sailor and with wife Lynn had cruised in the Broughton’s this summer. Brian Cleary, a retired Oregon Forestry professor and entrepreneur, had sailed to the South Pacific a number of times and up and down the Northwest coast, now lived alone, not by choice, missing his beloved wife Judy who I never met.

I had a topic: Would they be interested in doing an annotated ebook version of Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World? I had a specific reason for raising the question.

Title page
Title page

For more than a year I’d been pursuing an idea to create electronic versions of literary classics that would have a layer of annotations underneath the layer of the author’s words, accessible from highlighted passages in the text that served as links to notes that provided explicitly the context modern readers lack but the author’s contemporaries knew. The notes would be a kind of reader’s assistant, an expert at their elbow who had the answers the reader might ask as well as advice about what to look for and notice. The notes would address arcane vocabulary, the historical context within which the story takes place, and insight into what the author was up to in particular passages – and for the work as a whole. Like having an interesting literature teacher in the book you could call on at any time.

A retired literature professor who lived on Orcas and taught popular classes on nineteenth century British literature (and some more modern, American, and German) was enthusiastic about the project. I created the software to make and manage the annotations and then convert them – with the author’s text – into an electronic book for publication for Amazon’s Kindle (a proprietary format) as well as the generally accepted ePub industry standard format. After a great deal of hard work and experimentation we published our version of Jane Austen’s Emma in June. Seeing it in Amazon’s Kindle catalog was very satisfying. Now we could test various marketing approaches and get some feedback, in terms of customer reviews on Amazon, to understand whether readers were interested and whether we had created something they could use easily.

But two weeks after publication, the annotator withdrew from the project and insisted I pull the book from the Amazon catalog. He wrote that he was ashamed of it. I didn’t and don’t understand. I bought a copy while it was available, have shown it to friends and family, and they find it attractive, interesting, well written, and a snap to use. David Sarver read it and a friend of his read it. Yvonne is reading it now. All agree it’s excellent. Whatever.

After this setback David and Chris and I (they’ve been involved almost from the beginning) decided the idea was too good to give up on. I recruited Jens Kruse, a Wellesley German professor who has a house on Orcas, to do an annotated version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a fascinating, difficult, and popular novella. I simplified the software, with Chris providing some suggestions and sent it along with Jens when he and his wife Susan headed back to Boston in September. They would be back on Orcas for part of the winter to get a feel for whether full-time retirement here might be an appealing plan for the future.

In order to recruit more annotators and get more books in the pipeline and to finally really test the idea in the marketplace, we needed more books. Where would they come from? In 1895 Slocum was the first to sail solo around the world. His 37 foot Spray is one of the best known sailboats of all time and a replica docked in Deer Harbor for the Wooden Boat Festival this September. The book is well-written and tells a story almost inconceivable today when GPS, radio, satellite telephone and Internet connection, desalinization system, fiberglass hulls in exotic shape, and high-tech masts and rigging system seem necessary components of any solo circumnavigation attempt. Not that others haven’t and do follow in Slocum’s wake, sailing simple. But he was the first and he told the story in a compelling way.

The sloop "Spray"
The sloop "Spray"

Why couldn’t we created an annotated ebook version of Sailing Alone? Brian, Chris, and Howard knew sailboats and blue water sailing. I know a little. David volunteered to read Slocum and highlight the passages he’d like annotations for. Chris said he would figure out how we could use Google docs, on-line, to collaborate on the project. Howard said he knows someone who might be interested in doing research and writing. The goal: to publish early in the year. Rather than list us individually as annotators (with Slocum of course as the author), Brian suggested “annotations by the Greybeards,” our way of identifying our Wednesday morning group of retired guys who like to get together and have stimulating conversations. OK!

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