Bernard Moitessier was possibly the greatest ocean sailor of all time. Moitessier was born in 1925 in Vietnam. His father ran the Saigon branch of an import company. The Moitessiers lived in traditional French colonial style. However since his father’s clients were often small to middling farmers Vietnamese was spoken most of the time instead of French. Though Saigon was the family home, they spent much of the year traveling throughout Indo-China, often spend their summers by the sea. Because of this he and his brothers essentially grew up Vietnamese.
Bernard was a poor student much to his parents’ dismay. He wasn't really stupid, he just kept getting kicked out of school for misbehavior. After getting certified in agronomy at 18, he worked for a big rubber plantation supervising a number of Vietnamese crews. He tended to make lots of mistakes; but the Vietnamese kind of took to him and gave him some real World education of their own that served both of them well. Instead of fighting it, he adjusted. After leaving the plantation, he went to work for his father. Bernard’s father thought that he would take over the business eventually. But try as he might, he found little joy in crunching numbers and speculating in goods and real estate. It wasn't his thing.
Bernard’s thing was the sea. He was enamored with it, as a young boy he would watch the Tai Cong sail their beautiful fishing boats. Tai Congs would happily show off their fascinating ships to him, amazed at finding a French child who spoke fluent Vietnamese. He dreamed of one day owning own junk and sailing the seas. After he tired of his father's business aspirations, his first act was to organize a village fishing co-op and buy a small junk. He had to do this on his own very limited resources. His father was angry and refused to help him.
After the first junk other junks followed. He came to know the waters of Southeast Asia quite well and learned the ancient sailing ways of the Vietnamese. He learned the ways of the Tai Cong. He learned to listen to the sea, feel her pulse and read her many subtle clues rather than rely on sextants, barographs, chronometers and sight-tables. He had found his niche in life.
After WWII Moitessier left Vietnam aboard his boat Marie Therese. Marie Therese was in most respects a tub; she leaked and was in very poor shape. In his books Moitessier describes patching leaks in her bottom with sawdust and a mixture of clay and plaster. He did manage to make a trip to South Africa before losing his boat during a gale in the Indian Ocean.
Some how Moitessier managed to make some money and along with friend Henry Wakelam, bought his next boat Marie Therese II. Marie Therese II lasted much longer than his first boat had. Moitessier managed to sail his boat to Tahiti and also saw most of the world. He made money to continue his lifestyle by selling pictures, scrubbing bottoms and scavenging old material from trashcans and marinas.
Bernard was most well known for his single-handed adventures. He was one of the earliest of these sea-vagabonds - a genuine Citizen of the Sea. The famous French chef Jean Gau was another. Chef Gau would sail for a year or two, make land and tie up his boat, announce his presence and, because of his reputation, have no difficulty getting work in the kitchens of famous hotels in New York City, London, Rome, etc. Once he saved up enough money and got restless, he set sail again. Bernard did much same though, not being a famous chef, he had to settle for more humble jobs.
Bernard was a very articulate man. He wrote quite a few books about his travels and experiences. He wrote beautiful, poetic books with an almost spiritual aura about them. He loved the ocean passionately. He loved the musky odor of her waters, the caress of her windy fingers, the tempestuous flair of her angry moments. He loved the solitary life; he got along very well with himself, but he wasn't a hermit or a monkish-man. He often ran into obscure others like himself - citizens of the sea - in distant ports and enjoyed their company as well. Eventually he married and raised a family.
While his books help pay the bills, they did something else. They inspired others. Many chose to emulate his lifestyle; others just gained a greater respect for the sea. At the start of the Golden Globe in 1968 only he and Robin Knox-Johnston had any real experience. The Long Way tells the story of his journey. Bernard managed to circle the globe one and a half times. He was the first to finish but he chose not to, he just kept going. The race for him wasn’t about winning; it was about saving his soul. He eventually stopped a year later in Tahiti, where he met with others like him.
This almost spiritual aspect of his was made him unique amongst the men and women who sailed single-handed. To the others it was always a great struggle for survival and challenge to 'conquer' the ocean. To Bernard it was more a matter of tuning in to her moods and bending accordingly. While the others fought the ocean, he embraced her.
Sadly Bernard Moitessier died not at sea but in a hospital bed because of cancer in the summer of 1994.
“yet it is thanks to the modern world that you have a good boat with winches, Tergal sail, and a solid metal hull that doesn’t give you any worries.”
“That’s true, but it is because of the modern world, because of its so-called “civilization” and its so-called “progress” that I must take off with my beautiful boat.”
“Well, you’re free to split, no one is stopping you; everyone is free here, so long as it doesn’t interfere with others.”
“Free for the moment… but before long no one will be free if things go on. They already have become inhuman. So there are those who go to sea or hit the road to seek the lost truth. And those who can’t, or won’t anymore, who have lost even hope. “Western civilization” is almost completely technocratic now, it isn’t a civilization any more.”
“If we listened to people like you, more or less vagabonds and barefoot tramps, we would not have got beyond the bicycle.”
“That’s just it; we would ride bikes in the cities, there wouldn’t be those thousands of cars with hard, closed people all alone in them, we would see youngsters arm in arm, hear laughter and singing, see nice things in peoples faces; joy and love would be reborn everywhere, birds would return to the few trees left in our streets and we would replant the trees that the Monster killed. Then we would feel real shadows and real colours and real sounds; our cities would get their souls back, and people too.” – The Long Way
- Sailing To the Reefs
- Cape Horn: The Logical Route
- The Long Way
- Tamata and the Alliance