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Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Entrepreneur as Voyager: The Story of Joshua Slocum

Who would cover his boat deck with carpet tacks, knowing full well that other people might step on them in their bare feet?

One man who did was Joshua Slocum—an intrepid, resourceful, forward-thinking adventurer. He was smart, too; one of the very few people who ever envisioned this particular, ancillary use for carpet tacks.

I see business people as much like Slocum–they are adventurers.Recall from your grade school history class that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is credited as the first person to organize a voyage to circumnavigate the earth. He did it in three years, from 1519 to 1522. Venturing out with five ships and 237 men, the expedition returned with just one vessel and a bedraggled crew of 18, minus Magellan himself, who died en route in the Philippines.

Nearly four centuries later, the Nova Scotia-born and naturalized American citizen Joshua Slocum sailed all the way around the world, also in about three years. It was a 46,000-mile voyage.

The difference was that Slocum arrived home with precisely the same number of vessels and crew he started out with—one apiece. He was the first person ever to traverse the globe entirely by himself. He did it from April 1895 to June 1898 in an old, single-masted sloop he rebuilt and christened the Spray, barely 36 feet long and a mere 14 feet wide.

During the course of his journey, Slocum was chased by pirates and accosted by hostile natives, buffeted by giant waves and blown about by fearsome gales and blinding rain and snow. He also visited with a King and dined on a Pacific island with the widow of famed Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.

A Famous Expedition

In 1900, two years after his return, he published a best-selling book. Titled Sailing Alone Around the World, it chronicled his world-famous expedition. It is regarded more than a century later as an enduring classic of travel literature. I dove into it recently during some down time on a holiday weekend. I recognized almost immediately how similar Slocum’s experiences were, metaphorically speaking, to what is commonly known as the entrepreneur’s journey.

Quite understandably, the reader may ask what a dangerous solo excursion on the high seas has to do with the relatively-safer course of a land-lubbing, profit-maximizing business man or woman.

Bear with me and you’ll see.

A Drive to Achieve

Slocum was born in 1844 within sight of the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia. From a very early age, he helped his father make leather boots for the local fishermen. However, as one biographer explains it, “the boy found the scent of salt air much more alluring than the smell of shoe leather. He yearned for a life of adventure at sea, away from his demanding father and his increasingly chaotic life at home among so many (ten) brothers and sisters.”

He was a free spirit, a risk-taker, a wealth-creator, and a trader, and he enjoyed every minute of it.Joshua’s life unfolded into five full decades of adventure from the day he ran away from home at the age of 14. At first, he sailed as a cabin boy and cook aboard a fishing schooner. Later he became a seaman on a British merchant ship bound for the Far East. After that he settled in San Francisco, earned his American citizenship, and dabbled in the salmon and fur trade of the Pacific Northwest. For 20 years, 1869 to 1889, he owned four ships and commanded four others in the lucrative trans-Pacific trade. It was in Sydney, Australia, that he met and married Virginia Walker in 1871. They had seven children, all born at sea or in foreign ports.

Once while sailing off Alaska, a ship captained by Slocum was wrecked in a storm. In a feat of heroism, Slocum managed to save his family, his crew and most of the cargo. Awed by his bravery and ingenuity, the executives of the shipping firm that employed him gave him a promotion and command of a bigger ship.

At Subic Bay in the Philippines, Slocum organized the construction of a 150-ton steamer. He took payment in the form of a 90-ton schooner, the first ship he was able to call his own. He sold it some years later and bought another, which was subsequently demolished in a storm off Brazil. Then he built another to sail himself and his family home. He christened it with the Portuguese term Liberdade (liberty), because it set sail on the very day in 1888 that Brazil abolished slavery.

The Love of Adventure

We haven’t come to the globe-girdling story of the Spray yet, but you can see a pattern here. Joshua Slocum loved adventure. He was a free spirit, a risk-taker, a dreamer. He was also a builder. He designed, constructed, sailed, bought, and sold ships. He was a wealth-creator and a trader and enjoyed every minute of it. Here you see in Joshua Slocum the same drive for achievement and fulfillment that motivates the great majority of entrepreneurs, from Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller to the forgotten man or woman right down the street who opens their first restaurant.

Near the beginning of Sailing Alone Around the World, Slocum writes,

I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea as perhaps few men have studied it, neglecting all else. Next in attractiveness, after seafaring, came ship-building. I longed to be master in both professions, and in a small way, in time, I accomplished my desire. From the decks of stout ships in the worst gales I had made calculations as to the size and sort of ship safest for all weather and all seas. Thus the voyage which I am now to narrate was a natural outcome not only of my love of adventure, but of my lifelong experience.

Now allow me to pivot for a moment.

The Attack on Achievement

Tenured, insulated, Left-leaning professors (who rarely captain an enterprise of their own) frequently depict business people in a pejorative light: They’re greedy s.o.b.s, besotted with materialist urges to boost their bank accounts. If they’re successful, it’s not usually because of any personal talents or skills they may have. It’s because of luck, accident, the exploitation of others, or just being born with a silver spoon in their mouths. We’re supposed to sneer at them, denounce their selfishness, and punish them with higher taxes. It’s all about money, which is bad when it’s a businessman earning it and good when it’s a politician seizing it.

“No king, no country, no treasury at all was taxed for the voyage of the Spray, and she accomplished all that she undertook to do.”But I see business people, at least the great majority of them and especially those who build a business from scratch, as much like Joshua Slocum. They are adventurers. Their personal satisfactions and fulfillment derive far less from the money they make (many work far past the age when they could have retired comfortably) than from the joy of creating something.

I hasten to note that the business people I admire the most, and recommend you emulate, are the many whose success derives from willing customers. The ones that use their political connections to secure special favors, subsidies, and protections from government are the disgraceful few who give capitalism a bad name. I love the pride that Slocum expressed on the last page of his book: “No king, no country, no treasury at all was taxed for the voyage of the Spray, and she accomplished all that she undertook to do.”

Contrast that attitude with the shameful performance of obsequious Detroit automakers before Congress in 2009, when they begged for government bailouts. So eager to curry the favor of hostile politicians, they couldn’t even bring themselves to explain that stupid government policies were partially responsible for their companies’ plight.

I’ve personally known many admirable entrepreneurs over the years. One was Orville Merillat, who started making quality kitchen cabinets in his Adrian, Michigan garage. He eventually transformed his operation into the largest kitchen and bath cabinet-making business in the nation.

Another is James Rodney, whose business (for 30 years until he sold it to his son) was Detroit Forming, which makes the plastic trays you pull out of bags of cookies you get at the grocery store. Another was Norval Morey, who parlayed a 6th-grade education into a small fortune and a thriving company. How? By designing and building machines to harvest trees and chip them into mulch.

One I didn’t meet but wish I had, and who died this past April, was Richard K. Ransom, the founder of the cheese-and-sausage retailer, Hickory Farms. I was so impressed with his obituary that I did a little additional research and wrote about him here. In a subsequent phone conversation with Ransom’s son, I learned that his father fit the same adventuresome, work-loving mold as Orville Merillat, James Rodney, Norval Morey and, yes, Joshua Slocum.

Things of the Spirit

It wasn’t the money that motivated these guys; it was, rather, what Calvin Coolidge termed “things of the spirit.” Things like leaving the world a better, richer, more productive place than you found it. Solving problems. Building great teams. Encouraging the best in people. Watching others enjoy something that wouldn’t exist if not for you. Going where no man has gone before, to borrow a phrase that every Star Trek fan will readily recognize.

The late Anita Roddick, a British businesswoman, put it this way: “An entrepreneur is very enthusiastic and dances to a different drum beat, but never considers success as something which equates to personal wealth.”

It isn’t the money that motivates entrepreneurs; it’s things like leaving the world a better, richer, more productive place.Another wealth creator, Stewart B. Johnson, said “Our business in life is not to get ahead of others, but to get ahead of ourselves, to break our own records, to outstrip our yesterday by our today.

Perhaps the entrepreneur’s creed was best expressed by American author Og Mandino when he wrote, “I would rather try to succeed and fail than try to do nothing and succeed.”

By the early 1890s when Joshua Slocum acquired and rebuilt the Spray for his dream voyage, he was already accomplished and celebrated. But as for any true entrepreneur, challenges beckoned. The work is never finished. It rarely ends when everybody else punches out at 5:00 p.m. and for Slocum, it didn’t conclude as he approached late middle age, either.

On April 24, 1895, at age 51, Slocum left port on the East coast of the United States on his solo journey. Ahead would be many surprises, some dangers, and fleeting second-guesses of the wisdom of his mission. Oh, and by the way, he never did learn to swim. In his mind, that’s what boats were for.

He sailed toward Gibraltar, intending to traverse the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, then spill out into the Indian Ocean. In the vicinity of the famous Rock, however, notorious pirates attempted to capture his boat and likely kill him. Flexibility, so important to entrepreneurial success in uncertain markets, was a Slocum virtue. To evade the pirates, he simply changed course and headed west, bound for the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. He avoided trouble by outsmarting it.

Read between the lines and it’s reasonably clear that Slocum possessed a healthy disdain for governments that put obstacles in the way of progress. Of his stopover in the Azores, he wrote this:

Islanders are always the kindest people in the world, and I met none anywhere kinder than the good hearts of this place. The people of the Azores are not a very rich community. The burden of taxes is heavy, with scant privileges in return, the air they breathe being about the only thing that is not taxed. The mother-country does not even allow them a port of entry for a foreign mail service.

He proceeded to lament that because of the official Portuguese government monopoly on mail service, it took nearly a week longer for his letters to get to the U.S. from the Azores than it took to get them to the U.S. from freer British-run Gibraltar.

For Slocum, dangers lurked at every turn. Success was never guaranteed. Setbacks were assured and unpredictable. An entrepreneur will tell you that’s par for the course. The winning ones will tell you they learned more from difficulties than they did from pleasantries. They don’t quit. They resolve to do better the next time. Here is Slocum’s account of the time he nearly lost his life when a massive wave struck the Spray:

The mountain of water submerged my vessel. She shook in every timber and reeled under the weight of the sea, but rose quickly out of it, and rode grandly over the rollers that followed. It may have been a minute that from my hold in the rigging I could see no part of the Spray’s hull…Not only did the past, with electric speed, flash before me, but I had time while in my hazardous position for resolutions for the future that would take a long time to fulfill. The first one was, I remember, that if the Spray came through this danger I would dedicate my best energies to building a larger ship on her lines, which I hope yet to do.

Courage or Insanity

To undertake such an arduous and risky venture required either courage or insanity. No one ever claimed Joshua Slocum was nuts. Entrepreneurship requires courage too. Management expert Peter Drucker spoke truth when he noted, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

To undertake such an arduous and risky venture required either courage or insanity.There were the windless days when the Spray drifted helplessly with the tides and nothing Slocum could do would fully counter the forces beyond his control. He narrowly escaped collision with a huge whale. Sometimes the fishing was good and there were even days when flying fish would break the surface and land on the deck in front of him. On other days, Slocum made do with the salted cod and biscuits he brought aboard. He miscalculated on one item, reporting that he “ran out of potatoes mid-ocean.” He had to constantly calculate and recalculate, not just the weather and his location but a long roster of other variables as well. Magellan’s prior experience wasn’t of much use on Joshua Slocum’s trip.

Resourcefulness is an element of entrepreneurship. Making the most of what you’ve got (or can figure out how to get) is basically what resourcefulness is all about. Slocum was blessed with a bounty of it.

At one of his stops in Brazil, he was warned about some nasty Patagonians who might try to commandeer his ship and steal his provisions as he rounded Cape Horn. He had a small arsenal with him, but never killed anything he didn’t absolutely have to. This is where the carpet tacks come in. He secured a large batch of them, which he described in his book as “worth more than all the fighting men and dogs of Tierra del Fuego.” Approaching the area of danger, he spread the tacks across the deck. He was awakened one night by the yelps of the unfortunate shoeless, who had intercepted the Spray while Slocum slept. They departed quickly. Here’s how Slocum himself describes the incident:

Now, it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it. A pretty good Christian will whistle when he steps on the commercial end of a carpet-tack; a savage will howl and claw at the air, and that was just what happened that night about twelve o’clock, while I was asleep in the cabin, where the savages thought they “had me,” sloop and all, but changed their minds when they stepped on deck, for then they thought that I or somebody else had them…I fired several guns to let the rascals know that I was home, and then I turned in again, feeling sure I should not be disturbed any more by people who left in so great a hurry.

Slocum’s stop in Samoa produced a couple interesting meetings. Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island fame), who had died on Samoa, left a widow still living there. She was delighted to meet Slocum and the two of them shared their experiences on the high seas. He was taken to meet the King of Samoa, who told him, for whatever the information was worth, that the island’s top job only paid $45 a month.

Arriving in Melbourne, Australia, Slocum was indignant at having to pay a fee based on the ship’s weight. To offset the cost, he engaged in a little entrepreneurship himself: “I squared the matter by charging people sixpence each for coming on board,” he wrote, “and when this business got dull I caught a shark and charged them sixpence each to look at that.” He even hired a local Irishman, who knew a lot about sharks, to answer audience questions. He noted proudly in his book that the proceeds from his “show” covered the customs house fee and then some.

One of the funnier moments in Slocum’s voyage occurred at the port of Durban in South Africa. There he met some local Boers who insisted the world was flat. Slocum attempted to convince them it wasn’t by showing them a map with a track of his journey. It “proved nothing to them,” he noted, “for it was on Mercator’s projection, and behold, it was flat.”

A Discovery Process

Forty years ago at my first FEE seminar, I listened rapturously to a lecture by Austrian School economist Israel Kirzner, still going strong today at nearly 87. Dr. Kirzner advised that we view a free economy as a place where a blizzard of $10 bills is raging just a foot above our heads. Every note represents an opportunity. Most people don’t look up and never see them. A few see them but for want of a little spunk, never jump up and grab one. It’s the entrepreneur who not only notices the bills flying by, he either jumps up or fetches a ladder and grabs one.

It’s the entrepreneur who sees the opportunities fluttering above his head and reaches for them.Was the perception of an opportunity at least partially behind Slocum’s desire to sail around the world by himself? If so, what was the opportunity? To write a book and make some money? To set a record? To prove it could be done? To get his name in the history books?

Perhaps it was one or more or even all of those. Or maybe it was nothing more complicated than the personal satisfaction (“psychic profit”) that would come from being the best and the only person willing to try. Whatever it was, I find it inspiring in Slocum as I do in so many of the men and women of business enterprise. I can hardly imagine the world without them.

There’s so much more to learn and infer from Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. So I recommend you read his book and I offer here a closing epilogue:

Joshua Slocum’s worldwide fame soared after Sailing was published. He earned a comfortable living through speaking and writing and showing up at public events. In 1901, he even hauled the Spray through the Erie Canal to Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition. He bought a small farm on Martha’s Vineyard but never grew accustomed to living on the land. In 1909, restless at the age of 65, he and his beloved Spray embarked on yet another voyage. Neither he nor the ship were ever heard from again.

As I reflect on the derision heaped on entrepreneurs these days, and all the talk of punishing them for their success, I shudder. What a sad day it would be to open the papers some morning and read a headline like, “American Entrepreneurship: Lost at Sea.”

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is