By most accounts, the
acclaimed and charismatic
writer lived life— and
sailed — impetuously
and on the edge
In the early 1900s, Jack London read a book that altered his life: Joshua Slocum’s recently published Sailing Alone Around the World, in which the seasoned sea captain made voyaging in a 37-foot boat seem simple and minimally risky. London was inspired: He decided to set out on an equivalent adventure. At the time, he’d attained considerable popularity and some acclaim as a writer: In only
six years, he’d published 16 books. Two of these – The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf (1904) –
sealed his reputation. He was in high demand as a lecturer, and he commanded top prices writing for the
nation’s magazines. He planned to write while he sailed.
London began by building his dream boat, one he deemed perfect for his planned voyage: Snark, a
55-foot cutter-rigged ketch of his own design. He entrusted his wife’s 60-year-old uncle, Roscoe Eames,
a former ferryboat captain, with many of the design details and construction supervision. London wanted
his boat to be built of the finest materials.
London could have – and probably should have – purchased one of the many boats for sale in his
area near San Francisco, California; had he done so, he would have saved a small fortune. He originally
planned to spend $7,000 building Snark; the expense eventually totaled $30,000 (in today’s U.S. dollars, more than $750,000) – which placed him on the edge of bankruptcy. But sailors follow dreams, and
London wanted a boat to suit his purposes. He called the ketch rig “a compromise between a yawl and
the schooner.” He had never, he confessed, even seen a ketch. Apparently, he relied instead upon his reading to design a boat he hoped would balance well in the storms he expected to encounter.
From the beginning, Snark was plagued with problems. Three months after construction began in January
1906, San Francisco was nearly leveled by an earthquake. As a result, the price of materials skyrocketed, as