The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 25 -

Moitessier: The Logical Sea Tramp

         I have no desire to return to Europe with all
         its false gods. They eat your liver out and suck
         your marrow and brutalize you. I am going
         where you can tie up a boat where you want
         and the sun is free, and so is the air you breathe
         and the sea where you swim and you can roast
         yourself on a coral reef....(1)

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

   ~ 231 ~

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
  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 al-
though 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?

        Why am I doing this? Imagine yourself in the forest of
        the Amazon. Suddenly you come upon a small temple of
        an ancient, lost civilization. You are not simply going
        back and say, "I have found a temple, a civilization no-
        body knows." You are going to stay there, try to decipher
        it . . . and then you discover that 100 kilometers on is
        another temple, only the main temple. Would you

  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
  As his friend Jean-Michel Barrault wrote of him in Match:

        For five months alone at sea, a man had dealt with a
        multiplicity of technical problems, had shown his physi-
        cal stamina, had run risks which most would not have
        faced but above all had sought his own truth, had si-
        lenced the sounds of the world and talked with the waves,
        with the flying spume, with the torn clouds, with the
        albatross and the petrels. He had lived in the roaring
        forties, not as a stranger but deep in the beauty of the

    ~ 233 ~

       ocean of which he said, "I shall always cherish the
       memory of these gigantic waves, of this incredibly beau-
       tiful sea." What was waiting for him in Plymouth was
       also the other side of glory, the tumultuous crowds, the
       lack of respect for the individual, prying indiscretions.
       The rape of his realized dream he could not accept this.(4)

  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

  ~ 234 ~

  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.

  ~ 235 ~

  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

   ~ 236 ~

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

   ~ 237 ~

and Cathy Deshumeurs on Vencia, and none other than Bernard's old
friend, Henry Wakelam, and his bride, Ann, on their new 55-foot
  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
  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.

  ~ 238 ~

  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 some-
where. 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.(l0)
  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
   ~ 239 ~

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-
  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 d 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-

  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.

  ~ 240 ~

  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
  "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."

    ~ 241 ~

 - end Chapter 25 -

To Chapter 26.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty-five 1. From Bernard Moitessier's logbook, on his decision to drop out of the Golden Globe race, quoted by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. See Bibliography. 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 (London: Hollis & Carta, 1971), 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. 9. Alone Through the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas. See Bibliography 10. In spite of Moitessier's bold experiment, the Dumas school of thought on running before the seas of the Southern Ocean is considered fool- hardy by many deepwater sailors, including Robinson, Hiscock, and the Smeetons. It definitely is not for amateurs without adequate life insurance. 11. See The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst.

To Chapter 26.

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