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Friday, February 1, 2013

Bernard Moitessier: A Philosopher of the Sea

I first met Bernard Moitessier in the pages of Peter Nichols' astounding true tale of adventure, A Voyage for Madmen. Nichols' recounting of the 1968-69 Golden Globe single-handed sailing race around the world is one of triumph, tenacity and tragedy, a story of men facing the wildest parts of the world and the deepest depths of their souls. I can quote the words the publishers chose to promote the book, for they actually give nothing away and are not "spoilers" to the story:

In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. It was a feat that had never been accomplished and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death.

I strongly recommend A Voyage for Madmen to anyone who hasn't read it. The best part of the book for me was that the parts dealing with Bernard Moitessier made want to seek out the books of Bernard Moitessier. And those books are great treasures. Even though Moitessier is a man of the sea and I am certain that I am a man of the land, I consider Moitessier a kindred soul. He tells fine stories that reveal a deep understanding of the world.

Bernard Moitessier's memoir Tamata and the Alliance is a recounting of his life and his wanderings in the world. Here's a brief excerpt. Moitessier is about 19 or 20 years old and on his first long sailing trip...

I had picked a star that was closest to my heading to steer by. As it gradually slipped to the left across the sky, I adjusted my course a finger's-breadth to the right from time to time. That is what Phuoc's father had taught me, when I went out with him during the fishing season.

With Phuoc's father, you had to work hard in the sun, store the hundreds of fishhooks in their shuttles as the boat returned to the island, then labor until nightfall cutting the rays and sharks into strips and frying them on the stones of the beach. And then you had to set out again before dawn to put out the lines, with your eyelids still sticky with sleep. I used to think constantly about Alain Gerbault's trip around the world, about Eric de Bisschop on KAIMILOA, and especially about Henri de Monfreid, sailing the Red Sea among smugglers and fishermen on their Arab dhows. All of them, even Monfreid, used a compass. And one day I brought a compass to show Phuoc's father. It was the first time he ever saw such an extraordinary thing, a needle that never changed direction. It was the greatest gift I could have given him.

Crouched on the beach, Phuoc's father spent the whole morning with that marvelous device, turning it in his hand, fascinated by the trembling finger that always pointed the same way, as if showing something hidden far beyond the horizon.

He didn't say a word for the rest of the day, and I could tell that his entire mind was on the compass. He thought of nothing else as he prepared the lines and checked to see that I had correctly put forty-nine hooks in each shuttle. But the next day, before taking me fishing with Jacky and Xai, he was his old self again, and he gave the compass back to me.

"You need light to use this thing at night," he said, "and that blinds you. But with the stars or the direction of the waves or the wind, you can always tell where you are going, and your ears stay open to hear what the sea is saying."

Sailing by night in that apparent darkness, while knowing where the island was... it was magic that renewed within me my alliance with the universe. The stars were speaking, as were the sea, the wind, and the island cloaked by night. And in their way, they were all saying the same thing.


I hitched a line around the tiller and TITETTE continued on a nice straight course next to my chosen star, responding to tiny adjustments and half-spoken conversations between me and her. Though I was alone on deck, Phuoc's father was near me, and I could hear him clearly say: "I don't regret the pains I took to teach you all this. And one day, when you have a compass, the dragons of the sea will have had time to become your allies."

In his book The Long Way, Moitessier shows that Phuoc's father's lesson has taken root in his being:

When I was sailing with the fishermen of the Gulf of Siam during my childhood in Indochina, the taicong would tell me, for example, 'Keep the swell two fingers off the quarter, and you should always feel the wind behind your left ear, looking forward. When the moon is one big hand plus a small hand from the horizon, or when that star is one arm from the other side (in case the moon is hidden by a cloud) then the sea will become a little more phosphorescent, and we will almost be in the lee of the island to set the first lines.'

There were no compasses on the Gulf of Siam junks, and I did not want it used during my sailing school cruises in the Mediterranean. Instead of bearing 110 degrees from France to Corsica my crew had to steer with the mistral swell very slightly off the port quarter. At night, it was the Pole Star one small hand abaft the port beam. And if there was neither distinct swell nor star, we made do with whatever we had. I wanted it that way, because concentrating on a magnetized needle prevents one from participating in the real universe, seen and unseen, where a sailboat moves.

In the beginning they could not understand my insistence on getting away from the compass, that god of the West. But in exchange, they began to hear the sky and sea talking with the boat. And when the blue-tinted land appeared on the horizon, looking as it did to mariners of old, all nimbed with mystery, a few of them felt that our rigorous techniques should leave a door open to those gods which the modern world tries so hard to exclude.

In another book Moitessier writes:

"Anyone who has sailed in the high latitudes knows they can be extremely hard on equipment, and considers the technical preparation to be of major importance. I will not venture to give advice, as I have too much yet to learn. I will only describe what I noticed, the way I solved various problems, and my observations and thinking at the present and considerably limited state of my knowledge. The sea will always be the sea, full of enigmas and new lessons."

I like the fact that a man who could build a boat from scratch and then sail it solo around the world would be hesitant to give advice because he knew he still had much to learn.

In his final book, A Sea Vagabond's World, Moitessier fills the pages tips, drawings and practical advice and defines his philosophy with these words:

I tell everyone pretty much the same thing. Don't needlessly complicate your life. Give top priority to the essentials. Firmly put aside anything superfluous. Given a choice between something simple and something complicated, choose what is simple without hesitation; sooner or later, what is complicated will almost always lead to problems -- needless expense, loss of time, waste of energy.

The philosophy of simplicity has guided me like a guardian angel ever since I first set sail. Make due with what you have, and don't have eyes bigger than your stomach.

Bernard Moitessier died in 1994, but he left the world these wonderful books filled with words to guide us. And he also left this final bit of wise advise:

"Make use of the experience of others, but without ever imitating them. You won't become accomplished that way. And even if you could succeed by using someone else's style, it wouldn't be any good. It wouldn't be you."

Moitessier was very good because he was always Moitessier. He was guided by the stars, the wind, the waves, and the wise sailors who taught him to listen to the universe. Those lessons live on.

Kent Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

1 comment:

  1. Just reading this makes me want to run away... Down to the sea.....