Moitessier: The Logical Sea Tramp
[Text from Don Holm's 'The Circumnavigators' , ch. 25]
IN EARLY MARCH 1969, THE FRENCH-COLONIAL SINGLE- handed circumnavigator Bernard Moitessier, aboard his unique 39 foot steel ketch Joshua, rounded Cape Horn and stood to the north "outside" the Falkland Islands for the long run uphill to England to finish first and fastest in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race around the world.(2)
Joshua was so far ahead of the other entrants that winning was almost a certainty, barring any unforeseen emergency-and there were few exigencies that the capable and versatile Frenchman could not handle, including Cape Horn, which Moitessier had now doubled twice in his long sailing career. Waiting for Moitessier would be the cash prize of $25,000, the trophy, and the inevitable storm of noto- riety, adulation, and perhaps a million dollars in books, endorse- ments, public appearances, emoluments of all kinds to say nothing of the nationalistic pride of beating the English at their own game, and winning the Legion d'honneur.
Joshua at the moment was a shoo-in. Then something happened. Moitessier changed course, headed eastward along the Roaring Forties (after having already crossed his outbound track) on a second nonstop circumnavigation, automatically dropping out of the Times race.
In his log, and in a long letter composed for his publisher, which he hoped to give to a passing ship, Moitessier's reasons were although he professed to be of sound mind weird in the extreme, incomprehensible at best. He was in a region noted for phenomena and hallucinations, which had affected many lone voyagers such as Captain Slocum (for whom Joshua was named), Al Hansen, and Vito Dumas. Had he succumbed to some strange mental unbalance? Had he just plain gone nuts?
But no. How could anyone understand? It is this thing, this strange cosmic dimension, which time takes. You feel as if you could sail on for a thousand years....
Yet, to have not done what he did, Moitessier would have been out of character. His actions were completely logical for a man whose kinship with the sea was as nearly complete as is possible for a land mammal.
As his friend Jean-Michel Barrault wrote of him in Match:
Bernard Moitessier was born in Saigon in 1925 of a well-to-do colonial family, and grew up in the colonial pattern of aloofness from the native, conservative in politics and religion, set in ways, rigidly conforming to social convention, narrow and bureaucratic of mind, dedicated to proper physical activity and to evening soirees on the veranda cooled by swaying fans manned by servants. In this atmo- sphere, he had an easy and delightful childhood, learned well the arts of social intercourse, and became an accomplished swimmer and tennis player, drinker, and flirt.(5) Because of the accident of birth, he was too young for World War II, and anyway the Japanese quickly ran over all of Southeast Asia in the beginning. In the political upheavals following the war, when France tried unsuccessfully to cling to its colonial empire in this region, young Bernard was pre- pared to find another world, one more suited to his imaginative and romantic instincts. He was one of the early dropouts of his genera- tion, to whom nothing made any sense, except one's own free spirit.
Thus, on September 4, 1952, Bernard Moitessier, bachelor, French colonialist, free spirit, found himself alone on the Siamese junk Marie-Therese, eighty-five days out of Singapore on the Indian Ocean, somewhere near the Chagos Reefs, bound for he knew not where. He was not even sure of where he was at the moment, as he did not have aboard even a chronometer or a transistor radio with which to determine his longitude. But he was happy. Behind him was a life of crumbling estates with vast lawns, a procession of tutors, pink teas and delicate women in lace and floppy hats, and politics which he detested. He was young, a robust and wiry athlete who had just won the 100-meter freestyle of all Southeast Asia. He spoke several languages and dialects including French, English, German, Dutch, Vietnamese, and Siamese. He was well-read, and particularly conversant in the classics, and had a talent for writing, although he had not published anything of importance as yet. He had long been fond of sea classics, and especially the accounts of voyages in small boats, such as those of Slocum, Pidgeon, Bernicot, Gerbault, and Dumas.
Although he did not know where he was, he was not concerned. His ship had already become a part of him, and he felt himself to be more of a sea creature than a land animal, partly mesmerized by the continual oozing of fragrant tropical oils from the ancient timbers of his graceful Siamese junk.
Now it was night. The moon had just begun to dip to the west when a sudden lurch threw him against a bulkhead. He rushed up on deck in time to grab the mast as the sea swept over the deck. To his horror, he found Marie-The'rese locked on a reef in three feet of water, some distance off Diego Garcia, with the tide falling and the sea making up.
Getting ashore with some of his belongings, he hiked down the beach for help. Coming to a shack, he hammered on the door and was greeted by a glowering, half-drunk black. Bernard spoke to him in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Malayan without success. Then he tried French, with was understood. He had happened upon the land of the Mauritian copra company on Diego Garcia.
At daybreak, with a large crew of natives, he and the manager of the company went out to rescue Marie-The'rese, but the junk had disappeared into the sea without a trace. To Bernard, it was like losing a loved one by drowning.
After six weeks on Diego Garcia, Moitessier got to Mauritius via a British corvette. There began a happy interlude on this friendly island, with many friends, working at various jobs, first with the idea of working a passage to France on a ship, then persuaded to stay to earn money to build a boat. He began writing at the suggestion of the local newspaper editor, lectured to groups with slides, became a charcoal burner, then a commercial fisherman with scuba gear. He found the underwater world full of fish which he could sell for good money at the local market. In three days, his equipment was paid for. In one month, he was able to buy a secondhand Renault 4CV. He brought in from 80 to 150 pounds of fish a day, all of which sold readily. On January 22, 1953, according to local newspaper stories, he was attacked by a shark, which tore off part of his foot. He escaped and was operated on at the clinic, and recovered nicely. A month later, he could walk normally and wear flippers. Next he was engaged to manage the local fishing and guano business. His bank account grew, and finally he was able to start work on Marie-Therese II, a double- ender of his own design, 28 feet overall, with a 10 foot 9 inch beam, and ketch-rigged. She was launched nine months later, and on November 2, 1955, Moitessier was ready to sail to more adventures.
Durban, South Africa, was as far as Bernard got. There he entered another happy interlude during which there gathered one of the most unique groups of sea wanderers ever assembled. Three of the most famous French singlehanders were in the yacht club harbor at the same time: Jean Gau (a naturalized American, but still essentially French), Marcel Bardiaux, and Joseph Merlot of Atom, Les Quatre Vents, and Korrigan respectively. And now another, the erstwhile colonial, Bernard Moitessier on Marie-Therese II. The bull sessions these four were to hold that winter, usually aboard Korrigan, would become legend.(6)
In Durban, Moitessier also met Henry Wakelam of Wanda fame, and hit it off immediately with the energetic Britisher. Together they went to Cape Town when they had exhausted Durban's resources, spending a year or more in balmy South Africa. From Wakelam, Moitessier seems to have learned much about scrounging and living off the land, including cormorants and penguins killed by slingshot in the harbor. The two young men made alliances with a couple of local belles and a delightful foursome emerged. They salvaged nylon warps discarded by whalers, untwisted them strand by strand, and rewound them into halyards.
From Cape Town, the two yachts sailed and raced across the Atlantic, stopping for several weeks on St. Helena, visiting Ascension and Fernando de Noronha, and making a landfall at Trinidad. On Martinique, Bernard lectured before the Alliance Francaise meetings, scraped the bottom and repainted, corresponded with his girl friend, Joyce, who was trying to join him by ship. On March 26, 1958, he sailed for Santa Lucia with a young Argentinian named Adolfo. Having no word from Henry Wakelam or Joyce, and feeling alone and depressed, he decided to go to Grenada and wait. On the way, tired and exhausted from standing watch for hours, he fell asleep at the tiller one warm tropical night. At two o'clock, he was wakened by a violent crash. Marie-Therese II had sailed up on the rocks. He managed to escape again.
Once more he was stranded and penniless, this time in the West Indies, half a world from the scene of his first disaster. Now he descended into the depths of mental depression, spending much of his time in saloons, begging drinks. In this state, he conceived the idea of building a paper boat and sailing it to France. The editor of the local newspaper offered to supply the paper, and volunteered a stake of $100 as soon as the boat was launched. Bernard actually began building this vessel. Fortunately, the Norwegian consul called him in and offered a job aboard a freighter bound for Europe. Within minutes, Bernard had rushed back to get his sea chest.
The tanker was sailing for Stockholm via Hamburg, where the ship was scheduled to go into drydock for repairs. Moitessier left here and took the train to Paris. Back in his homeland, Bernard now felt out of place, but he found a job as a medical "detail man," calling on doctors. Next he became a boat salesman, and at the same time completed his first book, Un Vagabond des mers du sud.(7)
The book was a best-seller, appealing not only to the reading public of the time, but also to a large and eager audience of would-be bluewater sailors for its intimate details of life at sea and practical information on small-craft sailing. It made him more money than he had ever seen before. More important, it established Bernard as one of the elite bluewater sailors of the world, the singlehander, and attracted the attention of many influential people in the yachting world. One of these, besides his publisher, was the well-known naval architect, Jean Knocker, who approached Bernard with a plan to design a new boat incorporating his practical experience. For a year, the two wrangled over details. Then a manufacturer named J. Fracaul, head of a 250-employee metal-working firm and a yachts- man, asked Bernard to come see him. Fracaul had a new technique for building steel boats and wanted to build one for Moitessier for just the cost of the materials.
The result was that Knocker and Moitessier designed 39-foot steel Joshua, (8) which was in due time launched and operated out of Marseilles as a sailing school boat for three seasons. During this period, Bernard met again an old childhood sweetheart, Francoise, now grown up and with three children by a former marriage. The two ex-colonials were married and Bernard became the father of a ready-made family.
On October 20, 1963, the children having been sent to boarding schools and relatives, Bernard and Francoise set sail for Tahiti on the first leg of a circumnavigation. The first stop was Casablanca to spend the winter. There Francoise got a job in a hospital to earn a little money. In May, they departed for the Canaries, and their children came down to Las Palmas for a long visit. The harbor was crowded with yachts from all over the world. Among the sea gypsies were an- chored fifteen yachts with English, American, German, Dutch, Nor- wegian, and Australian flags. Waiting there were friends like Pierre and Cathy Deshumeurs on Vencia, and none other than Bernard's old friend, Henry Wakelam, and his bride, Ann, on their new 55-foot ketch.
On November 9, Joshua departed for the West Indies. In Trini- dad, the fleet was already there, now including new additions. The boat was careened and repainted here. After the holidays, during which time the news came that the Smeetons had been rolled over and dismasted near the Horn, Bernard and Francoise sailed to Panama, arriving in late Feburary 1957. The passage through the locks was handled easily, and they paused at Balboa for more refit- ting. It was here that they decided they would not circumnavigate, but return to France from Tahiti via Cape Horn "the logical route," as Bernard called it. He took advantage of Balboa's worldwide chart service to stock up on everything he would need later.
On March 14, they left for the Galapagos Islands, arriving on March 26. Here they spent a leisurely six weeks visiting remote anchorages, skin diving, lobster fishing, and exploring. They visited with the German, Belgian, Swiss, and American settlers on Santa Cruz, and on June 1 headed out for the long trade wind passage to the Marquesas.
They spent several weeks in the Marquesas, and in August sailed through the Tuamotus for Tahiti, stopping along the way. On August 20, Joshua came to anchor in Papeete harbor alongside Fred Debel's Tereva. In Tahiti, their little dog, Youki, brought all the way from France, was run over by a car. Bernard met the legendary William Robinson and was invited aboard Varua, where Robbie gave a graphic account of his fight with the survival storm near Cape Horn. When they were ready to depart, Joshua looked more like a submarine, with the decks clear and a special enclosed steering station made with a plastic dome reached from inside. The lifeline stanchions were raised, the bow pulpit strengthened, and a steering vane improved.
After only two and a half months in Tahiti, Joshua was ready. Supplies and water were aboard to last three months. From Papeete, they sailed to Moorea for a restful holiday, then on November 23, 1965, they slipped out of Cook Bay for the 15,000 mile nonstop sail to Gibraltar, the hard way. On December 10, they were at 40 32' S- in the Roaring Forties. In the first of many gales, Bernard experi- mented with various types of drogues, warps for trailing astern, and sea anchors, analyzing the techniques of many who went before him, such as Dumas, Slocum, and Smeeton.
It was during the worst one of these gales, with its monstrous seas, that Bernard conceived a bold technique. After a long weary stretch at the helm, while dragging warps to prevent broaching or pitchpoling, it came to Moitessier that Joshua was essentially a trade winds vessel, entirely out of place in these latitudes. He tried to recall what Dumas had said, but could not remember. He called down to Francoise to look it up in the book.(9) The secret was there somewhere. Francoise read aloud to him. Then they came to it. Dumas had followed the Roaring Forties all around the world, not by dragging warps (the Slocum school of thought), but by carrying sail and running with the seas (the Dumas school of thought). His technique was to take the seas at an angle of 15-20 [deg] instead of straight on the stern. That was it!
Bernard immediately cut loose all his warps and let Joshua run. As a big comber came up roaring behind him, Bernard would put the helm down and present Joshua's stern at about a 15 [deg] angle. The vessel would heel over sharply but respond perfectly to the rudder, and the comber would break harmlessly alongside.
He had discovered the secret of Dumas, and it had worked! From then on, the passage around the Cape was easy going.(10)
On January 13, they were well past the tip of South America and east of Staten Island. They changed course to the north and beat between the Falklands and Patagonia. On February 22, their noon position put them 50 miles north of the equator, 91 days out of Moorea. On March 14, a swallow circled the boat and flew off toward Madeira. For two days, they heaved-to in a storm (something they would not dare do in the Southern Ocean), and on March 25 brought up Gibraltar to port at 6:30 A.M. On March 29, they were becalmed off Alicante and were almost run down by a trawler. At 3 A.M., the wind freshened and they put into Alicante, 126 days and 14,216 miles from Moorea.
Bernard had lost four pounds. Francoise was as fresh as a spring breeze. She took a train to Marseilles to be with the children. Bernard stayed behind to look after the boat, and later joined them for the summer holidays. In the harbor at the time were many fellow yachtsmen, admirers, good friends, and fellow sea birds.
By now, Bernard was a national hero. Like Gerbault, he had become a legend in his time. His book was still selling well. Now he wrote another one, Cape Horn: The Logical Route, also an instant success. (See Bibliography. )
Joshua, which had been the epitome of all his dreams and practical experience, had proved to be the ultimate vehicle for a sea gypsy. She was fast, easy to sail, immensely strong, and comfortable. Also, Bernard now had a wife and family, plenty of money to indulge any whims, and a unique status among the yachtsmen of the world. He was in demand for books, articles, and lectures during a period when the round-the-world mania had been stimulated by Chichester and Rose, inflaming a whole new generation of romantics and adven- turers.
It was while "Chichester fever" gripped the United Kingdom that the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was conceived and organized. At least ten erstwhile voyagers entered the race immediately, or announced their intentions. Among the possibilities, everyone turned to Bernard Moitessier. What would the legendary Frenchman do?
"Bernard Moitessier of France, among long-distance sailors, was already a legendary figure. He was regarded as the man to beat. He had already completed the longest nonstop Voyage by a small sailing boat . . . A sensitive and literate writer, he had written two classics of the sea . . . Like Crowhurst, Moitessier had a Colonial back- ground. A strong man, wiry, by temperament a ro- mantic".(11)
Under such pressure from the world yachting press, Bernard felt pressed to enter, which he did after his visit in January 1968 to the French Boat Show. He then left for Toulon to complete several months of outfitting, as Joshua was now five years old. On August 21, he departed Plymouth. Somewhere between this date and the spring of 1969, after rounding the Horn for the second time in Joshua, some- thing happened to him. Within sight of the prize, he suddenly changed his course to the east and started on the second nonstop circumnavigation, having crossed his outbound track.
When word of this came to Francoise, she knew what had happened. The months of solitude, she told reporters, had tempo- rarily unnerved Bernard. He would be all right. Just let him play this one out. But it was not likely that many in the world whom Bernard had left behind would really understand.
"When Bernard hauls in a tuna for food," wrote Barrault, "it is something akin to regret, for the tuna although food was also his friend. Gandhi of the sea? Explorer of the body and the mind seeking the limits of human endurance? Extraordinary sailor and possibly the greatest of all time?" Bernard would deny it.
How can anyone understand when he himself does not. A man of two worlds-East and West-perhaps he can accept only one infinite universal goal: truth and humility. Perhaps it is just that he longs only for those carefree days of Marie-Therese I and II, fishing among the sharks in the underwater world of remote reefs, bull sessions with fellow sea gypsies in exotic ports, long weeks of serene life aboard on passages, to read and think and marvel at the sea of which he feels a part.
"Do not think I am mad," he writes in his log. "But I have the impression that there is something that resembles not the third dimension, but the fourth . . . I am in very good health."
2. By a quirk of fate, another colonial, Donald Crowhurst, was in the same area at the same time, trying to win the Golden Globe Race fraudulently.
3. In a letter to his publishers, Flammarion, Paris, explaining why he was dropping out of the race.
4. The Spray, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Spring, 1969.
5. At the same time, Crowhurst, another colonial, was growing up in nearby India
6. See 'Sailing to the Reefs' by Moitessier for the further details of these bull sessions on the Korrigan. Among other subjects, that of sea anchors came in for a most stimulating analysis by these experts.
7. Flammarion, Paris, 1960.
8. Joshua's specifications were: 39 feet 6 inches, loa; 33 feet 9 inches, lwl, 12 feet beam, 5 feet 3 inches draft; ballast 6,615 pounds- displace- ment 13 tons; sail area 1,100 square feet.
10. In spite of Moitessier's bold experiment, the Dumas school of thought on running before the seas of the Southern Ocean is considered foolhardy by many deepwater sailors, including Robinson, Hiscock, and the Smeetons. It definitely is not for amateurs without adequate life insurance.