Friday, October 24, 2014

Bernard Moitessier



"My intention is to continue the voyage, still nonstop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe. Please do not think I am trying to break a record. 'Record' is a very stupid word at sea. I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul."

In 1968, the owners of the Sunday Times of London had the brilliant idea, what they would have called a "brain wave", to sponsor a solo round-the-world sailboat race.  Naturally, it would attract a hearty collection of solitary and salty types on which the Times could lavish gallons of newspaper ink publishing thrilling yarns of their adventures in circumnavigation and use the paper's considerable resources to highlight with their advertisers the ability fully to cover stories anywhere in the world.  It really was a marvelous idea.  On paper, anyway.  Little did they realize what stories they would engender.

The thing is, while sailors who prefer to sail solo do so for a variety of reasons, they are almost universal in their discomfort and suspicion about the remainder of the human race.  In fact, some of them are just plain daft.  Circumnavigators are not going to behave in a manner appeasing to corporate officers and their accountants.  They tend to be unpredictable.

Nevertheless, on June 1, 1968, the race began.  Well, for some, anyway.  Over the next couple of months they would depart in a decidedly piecemeal manner, directed only by the lunar pull of the tides and the very different drummer they heard in their heads.  The word "motley" really does not do them justice.  Only nine responded to the challenge, with four of them not even making it beyond the Atlantic.

The first to leave did so from Inishmore, Ireland; John Ridgway in his boat English Rose IV, which was really designed for simple weekend coastal cruising.  Ridgway would eventually make it to Recife, Brazil before his boat began to reach a point of dangerous disrepair and he would abandon the race.

Chay Blyth, who was such a novice that he didn't know how to rig his own sails, followed shortly in his yacht, Dytiscus.  Despite having no previous experience sailing, he would make it as far as the southern tip of Africa before ending his quest.

[Interesting note: Two years earlier, Ridgway and Blyth had rowed across the Atlantic together in an open boat named English Rose III.]

Robin Knox-Johnston of Suhali, a tiny, 32-footer [Trust me, 32 feet in the middle of a lonely ocean is tiny], would leave from Falmouth in mid-June and, despite suffering some damage early in the competition, would be the race's eventual winner and the only competitor to complete the circumnavigation.  He was probably the most surprised of all of them at that.

Nigel Tetley of the Victress which, when not competing in this singular race, also served as his home, would be leading and make it to within 1200 nautical miles of the finish before the Victress would break apart and sink.  Tetley would be rescued within a day and almost immediately begin the quest to fund a second attempt at circumnavigation, only to succumb to demons never to be determined when he was found hanging from a tree in Dover in 1972.

Speaking of demons, perhaps the most infamous of the competitors was Donald Crowhurst of the Teignmouth Electron, a trimaran of his own design and construction.  According to his radio transmissions, Crowhurst was in the lead for much of the race.  In reality, he was sending out false signals as to his position to obscure the fact that neither he nor his boat were ready for the ardor of such a voyage.  Crowhurst sailed about the Atlantic basin, apparently planning on rejoining the race on its return leg, and forging a false log book to obscure his deception.  His mental state deteriorated during that time and the abandoned Teignmouth Electron would be found drifting near Jamaica by a merchant freighter in July of 1969, with Crowhurst the apparent victim of suicide.

The final competitor was also the favorite upon the start of the race.  In 1968, Bernard Moitessier was considered second only to Sir Francis Chichester as the world's most accomplished solo sailor.  Part of the reason for his success was that, while he was a French citizen his entire life, he grew up by the sea in French Indo-China [later known as Vietnam], a culture that not only supplied him with an appreciation of boats and water, but also with a decidedly non-Western view towards nature.

Instead of seeing the ocean as something to conquer, Moitessier viewed in a more Buddhist light.  While Robin Knox-Johnson would openly state that his reason for competing in the round-the-world race was because it was the last achievement still to be claimed, Moitessier had to be cajoled into doing so.  His response is what makes him a memorable icon to sailors of all types.

While still a young man, Moitessier had to begin his tutelage as a long-distance solo sailor in the manner traditional to such people.  Mainly, he had to attempt something foolhardy, nearly lose his life, and fail in a spectacularly gradual manner.  There really is no other way.

In the early 1950's, the 27-year-old Moitessier bought a small Vietnamese junk, a vessel better suited to coastal cruising, named her Marie-Therese after the patron saint of missions [aka impossibly optimistic actions], and set off from Indo-China to France.  It did not go swimmingly; perhaps I should say it went too swimmingly.

A leak required Moitessier, alone and in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to dive beneath his hull to repair it; a small typhoon blew him into the shores of Diego Garcia, an island that is also a U.S. Air Force base and, hence, off limits to non-military, especially non-American, personnel.  This meant that Moitessier had to be deported to the nearest French outpost, which happened to be on the island of Mauritius.

After three years in exile, he saved some money, built a new and more seaworthy boat, and set out for...well, that's a little hard to understand, frankly.  While his stated goal was St. Helena, the island where Napoleon was once exiled, he found himself again aground, this time in St. Lucia.  Clearly, celestial navigation and the notion that sailboats move both forwards and sideways were things he would have to take into consideration in the future.

[Note: This writer has been to St. Lucia many times, although only once in a sailboat.  It has very pleasant seas and a local delicacy known as banana ketchup.  While managing to be shipwrecked there is an accomplishment, there are worse places for that to happen.]

After working his way to France as a merchant seaman, Moitessier spent some time as an office clerk, saving his money to buy a proper, deep water sailboat and writing the first of his books about sailing, Vagabond des Mers du Sud.  With this volume, he began to craft what these days would be called his "brand", that of the seafaring tramp who traveled wherever the wind took him.  It turned out to be a better source of boat-building revenue than office work.

By 1963, married and with step-children in boarding school, Moitessier and his wife left the south of France in his new, and rather well-equipped, 39-foot, steel-hulled boat, the Joshua; named for Joshua Slocum, the Massachusetts seaman who was the first, in the late 19th century, to circumnavigate solo.  These adventures took Moitessier and his wife, Francoise, hither and yon from North Africa to Tahiti.  Without even realizing it, Moitessier set the record for the longest non-stop sailing passage in history; a full 126 days at sea.  When he arrived back in France in 1966, he found himself the toast of the sailing community and the inspiration for the round-the-world race.


I always thought the Joshua looked designed not only for a modicum of comfort, but so that it could capsize and still remain afloat.  Comfort and buoyancy are actually the twin themes of French philosophy,too, in my opinion.

Naturally, if such a race were to be held, it would not only include Moitessier but recognize him as its "patron saint" and the favored contestant.  However, as he was now well-established in that singular community, and as he no longer needed to work in a conventional job in order to support himself, he was not all that enamored of competing in the race, especially as it would mean doing so without company and with the intention to place himself against others.  So reluctant was he that he was the last of the competitors to join the race, over two months after Ridgway's departure.

From August of 1968 to February of 1969, on a passage from Plymouth, England to Cape Horn on the southern tip of South America, Moitessier received no radio communication as to his position in the race or those of the other sailors.  By the time he entered the Pacific and was traveling north by the Galapagos, the absurdity of the race, its commercialism and newspaper-hyped ballyhoo, became onerous to a philosophically-minded Frenchman raised in the midst of Eastern religion.

During the voyage, Moitessier had begun to communicate with the Sunday Times through a singular technique, and it was in this way that he forwarded what became the most famous sentence uttered in the race and one that is still known and sometimes repeated with passion by the solo sailing community.

When passing freighters and other merchant ships, Moitessier would launch a message from his deck to the other ships' by using what continentals call a "catapult", but what is known to any kid who's grown up in America as a sling-shot.  So, in the spring of 1969, with the race still in progress, Moitessier fired off to the Sunday Times his resignation from the competition with the stirring statement, "...parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon ame."  I still try to imagine how that message was received in the London newspaper office three weeks later.


In addition to knowing how to hand, reef, and steer, it's good to practice a little yoga.

And save his soul he did.  Now liberated from the artificial constraint of a managed race with commercial appeal and obtuse rules, Moitessier continued his circumnavigation, setting yet another record for non-stop length of time at sea when he covered over 37,000 nautical miles in 40 weeks.  What makes this of particular interest to sailors is that most of Moitessier's passage was made through the infamous "Roaring Forties", an area of strong winds and notoriously moody weather that abides along the latitude of 40 degrees on a nautical chart.  This he did not for the fame and prize money that the race would have guaranteed, but as a spiritual quest; a test of the harmony possible between a human being and the wildest of wild nature.


Just another day at the office for Bernard

When he finally decided to make landfall, after nearly a year solidly at sea, Moitessier, like his countryman Gaugain before him, settled in Tahiti.  Of course.  From there he lived an idyllic life on shore and a fulfilling life in and around the south seas, becoming a rather maladroit farmer, delving into the concerns of the early environmental movement, and writing books on his relationship with the sea and his role in what became the most famous sailboat race of the 20th century. 

Whenever I'm in a port city, whether it is one associated with sailing or with other aquatic pursuits, if there is a bookstore around [increasingly rare in U.S. territory, as we now prefer to buy books electronically], there is always a section devoted to the spiritual aspects of sailing, surfing, fishing, whatevering.  It is perhaps the most tedious set of shelves in any bookstore as it generally contains the most mundane of observations marketed to an increasingly secularized culture that still, despite resistance, desires a spiritual connection to the greater world.  While most of the volumes are nothing but literary dross, an excellent primer in this sub-genre of literature would be the works of Moitessier.  Regardless of what this niche culture has become, Moitessier's vision of the life aquatic as a spiritual quest with, rather than against, nature is compelling and true.

Moitessier would die in 1994 and be interred in a quiet graveyard in Brittany in his home country.  While the cemetery is ordinary, his grave can always be located as it is not only the frequent goal of traveling sailors wishing to pay their respects to the "vagabond des Mers du Sud", but, in a homage to his preferred medium of communication, it is decorated with slingshots.


Oh, and puka shells.  Did I mention the puka shells?

Although it did sink after a minor misadventure and had to raised in the 1980's, the Joshua is currently on display in a maritime museum in France.

Moitessier wrote many books about sailing and spirituality, the best of which is The Long Way, which recounts his experience in the round-the-world race.  Other competitors in the race have written volumes, too, notably the winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, but they tend to the technical and, when attempting to speak of the more liminal experiences of sailing, fall rather short of Moitessier's lyricism and true spirituality.

A general volume about the race itself, A Voyage for Madmen, is also still in print and recounts not only the very different adventures of Moistessier and Knox-Johnston, but also those of Crowhurst and the others, including the behind-the-scenes drama at the Sunday Times home office.

Although it has changed sponsors many times, and has attracted a decidedly non-amateur collection of sailors and boat-builders, the race is still held and is, as of this writing, currently in mid-competition.  As the prize money as considerably more than it was in 1968-69, and the competitors far less interesting, it tends to be followed only by those with a close affinity to the sport.