The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm



- 22 -

Thunder Out of Brittany

         I was a stubborn lad, a fighter, eager to redress
         wrongs, touchy, shy, idealistic, a whole-hogger.
         I recoiled from telling lies and hated liars. At
         the age of fourteen, my education had provided
         me with a number of over-simplified principles
         which I accepted as absolute.(l)

the Maginot Line and rolled across France, the invaders interrupted
the entrance examinations at the Naval School for a young man
named Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin, who was more annoyed possibly
at the Germans for this distraction than for the invasion. Like most
Bretons, he was a practical man first and a patriot second, and
Brittany had seen invaders come and go for centuries. No, young
Toumelin had set his mind upon sailing around the world in his
own ship, and the war was merely a minor annoyance, something to
get over, like the German measles. He had crammed hard for the
Naval School exams, because of his plan, which was to get into the
navy, save enough to buy his own boat, while at the same time dis-
charge his military obligations and learn something of ocean naviga-
tion. For a twenty-year-old Breton, this was a practical and well-
organized plan.
  When the Germans came, he had no intention of falling into their
hands, so after helping refugees for several days, he became one
himself. He and his best friend pitched a tent in one of the shooting
preserves, fishing and hunting to feed themselves.(2) Soon they decided
to try for Arcachon and there to steal a boat and escape to England.

   ~ 2O9 ~

They set out on foot, but were overtaken by the Germans and sepa-
rated. Alone, Le Toumelin made his way back to Brittany.
  Unable to get to the Free Zone, he did the next best thing to
entering naval school; he transferred to the School of Hydrography at
Nantes, where he completed his theoretical work in 1941. He needed
then only a ship to qualify for his mate's certificate. Meanwhile, he
had purchased a copy of Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua
Slocum, and like Alain Gerbault, after reading Jack London's Cruise
Of the Snark, he now had a sense of direction as well as a purpose. He
needed only money, opportunity, and a ship of his own three pre-
requisites that seldom deter a dedicated circumnavigator.
  Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin came from a long line of Bretons who
had been seamen for centuries. His father was a sea captain before
the war, had made long voyages in square-rigged ships, and was a
reserve navy commander. His mother came from St. Malo, home of
the ancient granite fortress from where Cartier, Duguay-Trouin,
Surcouf, and other famous courtiers and corsairs had come. Centuries
before, the Gauls had massacred the Legions of Julius Caesar in this
coastal area and wiped out the Druidic wisdom. The original name of
Brittany, in fact, was Armorica, which means ar mor, the seas.(3)
  The sea is an inseparable part of life in Brittany, and life itself is
regulated by the ebb and flow of the tides. There is a saying that
every Breton, no matter where he is or how far removed, has this call
of the sea in his blood.
  Le Toumelin had missed being born there, the event having
happened while the family sojourned in Paris. He passed some of his
boyhood in the city, but he hated the place and lived for the summer
period when he could go back to Brittany by the sea. He had no
memory of learning to tie a square knot, scull an oar, or reef a sail.
These came instinctively. By the time he was fourteen, his schooling
had managed to oversimplify the principles by which he had been
taught to live his belief in his God, his country, and himself were
  As a Breton, he was also stubborn, single-minded, and idealistic.
He hated the sophistication of society and politics and set out to do
something about it. He joined radical groups and demonstrated
against authority. By the time he was fifteen, he had been thrown in
jail and been the object of much publicity. A lenient court, taking his
age into consideration, acquitted him as "having acted without dis-
cernment," one of those delightful and practical applications of logic
for which the French are known. But the episode turned the lad

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against the sordid trappings of politics and he became a dropout,
spending the next months sailing, fishing, and hunting before he had
to return once more to the gloomy boarding school. On the wall of
his cubicle at Le Croisic, he had copied from Jose de Espronceda's
Cancion del Pirata:

       My ship is my all, my only wealth
       My God, my liberty....

  He became ill and missed his October exams. The next school year
he was sent back to Paris to the Lycee Louis le Grand, but that spring
he became ill again, and returned to the seacoast to recuperate. It was
during the 1937 school year that he heard about Captain Bernicot
and his exploits in Anahita, and determined he would obtain a ship
of his own and sail around the world and "never return to Europe."
  After the invasion, when he had completed his theoretical work at
the School of Hydrography, he went out with the fishing fleet off
Mauretania in the trawler Alfred. From 1942 to 1945, he fished the
coastal waters of Le Croisic in sailing smacks. He acquired a two-ton
cutter, Crabe, for fishing. One day, returning to port, he encountered
a neat new fishing vessel named Marie. In his diary, he wrote, "I shall
set out alone in a craft like Marie."
  That fall, Le Toumelin sold Crabe and delivered her to the buyer
in Nantes. Then he returned to Le Croisic to begin construction of a
vessel, and to pass the time while waiting for materials, he shipped
out to the West African Coast on a trawler. It was a hard life, but he
managed to save some money. He next made a brief trip to Senegal,
and returned to France with a tidy stake.
  Now he bought a half-decked cutter named Marilou for fishing. In
the spring of 1943, he obtained permission at last to build his dream
ship. Because of shortages, he had to get the keel cast in Quimperle
and shipped to Le Croisic, where he dragged it by hand to the
shipyard. Other materials were just as difficult to get. He obtained
the anchor in Paris, and when he tried to board the train with it, the
conductor stopped him.
  Finally, on May 20, the start was made. On October 28, 1943, she
was launched. After rigorous inspection by the Germans, he was
allowed to enter in the fishing trade. He called his ship the Tonnerre,
which is French for "thunder." Now he was relatively happy, sailing
and earning a little and laying in stores and arms for the time when
he could escape. At last, with only a few hours to go before he

  ~ 211 ~

planned to set out, with only some boxes of food and arms to bring
aboard, he learned that the Allies had launched the invasion of
  France immediately became a wild, disorganized country, swept by
waves of hatred, of vengeance, of guerrilla bands looting and raping,
of refugees again. Le Toumelin could not leave now. He had to find
out what happened to his family, so he set off on a rented bicycle for
Paris, with a few hundred francs, a knife, and a revolver. He was
appalled by what he encountered. It seemed to him that his country
was in the grip of murder, theft, petty vengeance, and savage
  When Paris was liberated, he returned to Le Croisic to find the
Germans still occupying the St. Nazaire pocket. They had searched
his attic room and found his hidden store of guns and ammo and had
seized his cutter. As soon as the Germans were gone, he began to
search for his ship, and finally, on May 29 he found two drawers from
a locker which he recognized. Then he met a sailor who told him that
the boat had been wrecked, that the remains were in a shed at St.
  Back at Le Croisic, he began planning again. All he had left was his
sextant, which one of the Germans, through some mystic understand-
ing, had rescued and given to a friend to keep. The instrument was
valued because it had belonged to his father.
  Le Toumelin applied for compensation for the loss, meanwhile
consulted with a naval architect, and was called up to serve on active
duty with the navy. On his short sea duty, he was able to get ashore
in England and obtain some much-needed parts. On February 2,
1946, he was demobilized and free to work on his second dream ship,
which he had named Kurun, meaning "thunder" in Breton. By this
time his ideas of a deep-water yacht had been refined.
  Kurun was built entirely of fine, close-grained oak. The top sides
were 11/8 inch thick, the hull doublc-planked on steam bent acacia
ribs. There were massive cross-timbers and the bulwarks were a foot
high and double-planked also. Kurun had no engine, a device which
Le Toumelin despised. She was launched on a cold winter morning
with a northeast wind blowing. Le Toumelin was on crutches, for he
had broken a bone in his foot. At first, Kurun refused to be launched.
Then she shot away out of control. The cradle broke with Le
Toumelin on board, and the keel plowed a furrow in the mud. At
high tide, Kurun rose gently, and at 4:30 P.M. he broke a bottle of

   ~ 212 ~

champagne on the stem a bottle he had brought from St. Marc, the
place where Tonnerre was wrecked.(4)
  Le Toumelin moved aboard. He was now twenty-nine years old
and his boyhood dream was coming true. "I had disciplined myself
and learned to think straight, to know myself, to judge the modern
world. I was ready to depart."
  Sailing around the world, although it had been a dream, was one
he had shared with thousands through articles written for the yacht-
ing publications. As a result, he was inundated with applicants. His
worried parents wanted him to take someone, so he shipped along a
family friend, Gaston Dufour, a young man who had just returned
from fighting in Indochina. On September 4, they said good-bye to
friends and family in Paris and returned to Le Croisic for supplies of
books, food, stores, and clothes. Loaded, Kurun rode low in the
  On September l9, Le Toumelin paid off the last of his debts and
had lunch ashore with his father. Some friends came to see them off.
At 4 P.M., with the tide, lines were slipped and the jib set. Kurun
sprang to life. They moved away from the quay where he had played
as a child. The escort vessels fell behind. At 5:40 P.M., they passed
the familiar buoy of Bonen de Four, and as darkness fell the sky took
on an ugly look and the weather deteriorated.
  Behind Le Toumelin were his childhood, the German occupation,
the long, hard years of saving and planning, the reconstruction days,
the setbacks. Now at twenty-nine, he thought bitterly, he had wasted
most of his life. Mais je suis libre!
  Because of the weather, Kurun put in at Vigo, Spain. At Morocco,
his friend Dufour left him. Le Toumelin shipped another mate, 25-
year-old Paul Farge, a Parisian, a scout, and one of 14 children, out to
see the world. They sailed to Las Palmas on an easy run, then de-
parted for the West Indies, with the first 17 days being plain sailing,
after which came squalls and calms. On June 2, they sailed into
Martinique, a grand entrance with all sails set.
  "Never," he wrote in Le Yacht, "have I driven the boat so hard.
Kurun went like a race horse, sailing upwind. At exactly 5 o'clock the
anchor went down 50 yards from the quay at the Yacht Club."
  Next came Colon via the Venezuela coast. In the passage through
the Panama Canal, Le Toumelin, unlike Gerbault who had pulled
strings and made an easy transit, antagonized officials with his
imperious way. As usual, he did not find the manners and mores of

   ~ 213 ~

Americans equal to his own, and his writings reflected this in fre-
quent snide remarks and non sequiturs. At Balboa, he beached Kurun
and found her sound. After cleaning and painting, he departed for
the Galapagos Islands and anchored at San Cristobal on October 20.
He did not spend much time in the Enchanted Islands, only six
weeks during which he traced the visit of Melville who was there in
the Acusnet; of Gerbault, whom he envied for his reputation and
despised for his inaccuracies, and of Robinson, who had been there in
Svaap. He called on Senora Cobos, the Karin of Robinson's romantic
stay, who now had a daughter, a beautiful blonde of sixteen. Le
Toumelin went for moonlight rides with her, just as Robbie had
done with her mother. He called on the other settlers, and he went
hunting with his .22 revolver.
  During his visit, he encountered the French ketch Fleur d'Ocean
from St. Malo on a cruise to Tahiti.(6) On November 5, late in the
afternoon, he departed for Tahiti a departure delayed somewhat by
Farge's sudden illness, which appeared to be malaria. The Marquesas
had been part of Le Toumelin's dream, and he recalled Robert Louis
Stevenson's words, written in 1888, after he had visited there on the

        Few who come to the islands leave them; they grow grey
        where they alighted.

  Here Le Toumelin shyly met his first native girls, about whom he
commented in great naivete. He spent much time in the Marquesas
exploring, then sailed through the Tuamotus to Tahiti and came to
anchor near the famed American circumnavigator Yankee. Also in
port were the three-masted schooner California, with a crew of four
going around the world, and the ketch Kariachi, with a young couple
and a little boy of seven, finishing a cruise of three years. When the
Yankee departed, her place was taken by the ketch Ho-Ho II of the
Royal Norwegian Yacht Club, a Colin Archer of 39 feet overall.
Then came the Manzanita, with the singlehanded navigator, Lee,
whom Le Toumelin liked because he had been a commercial fisher-
man. Lee was unschooled, kept no log, knew no celestial navigation,
and used only crude charts of the Pacific. He had been a commercial
fisherman in the Pacific Northwest of North America, and he had
saved enough to buy a crude boat.(6)
  Le Toumelin had hoped to meet Robinson, but was disappointed,
although he admired the beautiful Varua anchored in the roads.
Then, meeting Robbie one day on the street, he boldly asked the

   ~ 214 ~

legendary circumnavigator if he could visit the ship. The Yankee
replied that he had no time to spare.(7)
  Farge left Kurun at Tahiti. Le Toumelin turned down all other
applicants, wanting to continue alone. Before leaving, he made a
triangular sail for the masthead, which he called "paimpolaise"-"my
little Tahitian."(8)
  The hot sun of the tropics had opened Kurun's seams, and she had
to be recaulked. Le Toumelin made a new gaff from a piece of
Oregon pine and also bought a supply of those "amazing American
batteries" for his radio, which performed faultlessly during the rest of
the voyage. On October 15, he weighed anchor. The harbor was now
deserted. Only Farge came down to see him off. From Tahiti, he
sailed to Uturoa and Bora Bora.
  "To be on Bora Bora without thinking of Alain Gerbault is impos-
sible." He visited the tomb and monument erected by the Yacht
Club du France in the square at Waitape. Now his feelings toward
his dead rival softened.
  Next came New Guinea, where he encountered heavy weather and
survived a knockdown. He could obtain no fresh food at Port
Moresby, so went on to the Keeling-Cocos Islands via Torres Strait.
From the cable company crew and the Clunies-Ross family, he re-
ceived a warm welcome, staying in a bungalow where he found a
photograph of Captain Bernicot on the wall. In his provincial way,
Le Toumelin called Ross the "King" of the Cocos, and referred to
the natives as half-caste slaves (possibly one reason why later voyagers
have not been welcomed so cordially). Oddly enough, his description
of the life on the atolls is the best of all the circumnavigators.
  From here, he sailed to Reunion via Rodriguez, collected his mail
and enjoyed a stay in the house of Commander Fournage, a former
submarine commander and commercial manager of the port. From
Reunion, he went to Durban, through heavy weather, and on
December 4 hoisted the Q flag off the jetty. He was welcomed as all
voyagers have been, and also as most Frenchmen have, he com-
mented on the curious relationship of the whites to blacks in South
Africa. In Natal, he found immigrants from Mauritius who had
known Slocum, one an old lady who, as a young girl, had been a
visitor aboard the Spray.(9)
  Kurun needed repairs. The mast had to be replaced, being eaten by
worms which Le Toumelin identified as Capricorn beetles. Once
more, as soon as his firearms had been returned to him, he departed.
From the pier came a booming voice. It was Gerry Trobridge, who

  ~ 215 ~

was preparing White Seal for a circumnavigation. On February 14,
he reached Cape Town, where he had a long pleasant stay. Among
the vessels in port were the Sandefiord, the 47-foot Colin Archer; the
Stella Maris of the famed voyager, Georges de Leon; and the recon-
structed Dromedaris, the ship in which Van Riebeeck, founder of the
Cape Colony, had arrived in 300 years before.
  On March 16, he departed with a green frog for a stowaway, which
he named Josephine. On April 7, he came into Jamestown on St.
Helena, and was met by the French consul, M. Peugeot. On April 19,
he departed for a long, tedious, nonstop voyage to Le Croisic. On the
way, he almost ran into a derelict. On June 25, at 10:35 P.M., he saw
the lights and about 1:10 A.M, hailed Le Brix, a frigate, and got a
position report. He was 68 days out of St. Helena. To his amazement,
all aboard the frigate knew about him. He kept in company with the
vessel and even had lunch aboard with the captain. The next day,
they parted company. Then he began to encounter tunny boats.
From one of them came the voice, "There's the lad from Le Croisic
who's sailing around the world!" Jacques Yves Le Toumelin was no
longer a nobody, an obscure Breton.
  Slowly he passed familiar places . . . Houat, Hoedick, Les Car-
dins . . . the lighthouse at Le Four . . . then, at 12:55, came the
peninsula of Le Croisic.
  A launch came out. It was the fisheries' patrol vessel. Aboard was
the Maritime Registrar, as well as the editor of Col Bleu, and various
officials with messages from the Minister of Merchant Marine and
the announcement that he had won the Knight's Cross of the Order
of Maritime Merit. Then came a little launch with his friend, Jano
Quilgars, with his mother and father aboard. At 3:25, he entered the
channel, seventy-nine days out of St. Helena. The voyage was at an
end. Kurun was scarred and worm-eaten, but victorious and sound of
  "I felt,as I moored Kurun, that I had not come back to the harbor
to stay. I was merely at a port of call."
  But the young Breton rebel who had "wasted" most of his life
because of society and politics and war had now left all his troubles
"aft of Kurun's sternpost."

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 - end Chapter 22 -

To Chapter 23.

======================================================================= AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty-two 1. Kurun Around the World by Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1955). First published in France as Kurun Autour du Monde. 2. Later it was claimed that they had joined the Maquis (French underground group during WW II). 3. This is possibly the original root of the present word America. 4. Kurun's dimensions were: length overall, 33 feet, waterline, 27 feet 10 inches; beam, 11 feet 10 inches; draft, 5 feet 4 inches; displacement, 8.5 tons. She was of the Norwegian double-ender design. 5. Also aboard were the Belgian couple, the Van de Wieles, who later became famous for their voyage in Omoo. 6. Lee was the prototype for Jack Donelly in Nevil Shute's Trustee From the Toolroom. 7. Peter Pye, the somewhat haughty Englishman who called here later on his well-publicized voyage, also wanted to meet Robinson and was snubbed to his dismay. 8. Such a sail is similar to the "Swedish mainsail," a heavy weather sail designed to be used unreefed. 9. See Slocum's account of this delightful interlude.

To Chapter 23.

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