The great sailor and writer Bernard Moitessier is a legend, a pioneer of solo sailing and a great writer. Scrolling through his biography, one glimpses the sense of a wave of destiny that hits him several times, destroying boats, relationships and pushing him to wander the world.
Only towards the end of his life, in his last attempt “Tamata” (in Polynesian “to try”) he finds piece and alliance with the elements with his restless spirit. The “Wave” has become gentle and can thus push him with his lightened soul and together with the forgiveness of the spirits of his native land towards his Last Journey.
Bernard Moitessier, a wanderer of the seas, a solitary sailor and above all a writer, has made generations dream with books that tell of his adventures. A restless life always lived in search of new challenges, new horizons, new oceans, new boats and new women.
Please note this article is a translation and may contain some errors for which I hope you’ll forgive us!
His journey begins in his mother’s womb, as he writes, as an “unconscious embryo”, when his young father Moitessier marries and decides to leave France in 1925. His father, fresh from his studies in Commerce, leaves with his mother carrying canvases and brushes to move to Indochina, to Hanoi he was born. Given in care to a native nanny, Bernard immerses himself in virgin nature and in a culture pervaded by spirits and rituals. His early childhood lays the foundations of that Alliance with nature that he talks about in his books and which will never abandon him.
At school he gets thrown out of all the ones he attends, attracted more by the call of the surrounding nature than by books. When fifteen years old he finally arrives at the Industrial Institute of Saigon and at the Agricultural School of Ben Cat where he learns the technical notions he will need on at sea.
Moitessier: Navigation and the Wave
Navigation enters his life in a natural way: he begins to sail in the Gulf of Siam on the junk-rigged boats of the fishermen. He recounts this in his books, when he tells of the experience he had at the age of 13 with the father of a friend, his first mentor of the sea. A storm had caught them away from the land and they were waiting downwind of Hon Non Tai Island for the worst to blow through. After a week at anchor they returned to the village and an unexpected and anomalous wave surprised them and forced them to spend hours emptying the boat from water.
Bernard learns a first great lesson from the fisherman that will be prophetic for his entire life. «Immediately after bad weather, we think that everything is back to normal, we feel happy and we tend to let our guard down. It is then that a last great Wave can rise from nowhere and sink the boat in an instant. It was so that the ancestor of Kieu’s father was caught out. If that day the Dauphin had not intervened, it would have been the end for him, as today it came close to happening to us».
That Wave will try all his life to surprise Moitessier, sinking his boats, leaving him without money on beaches and always writing new endings and beginnings. The Dauphin, his inner strength and courage, however, will keep him afloat and will always save him.
The first crossing
At the age of twenty-two, in 1947, he decided to leave permanently and leave the family export business and his father’s house. The real baptism of offshore navigation, after a small commercial cabotage activity, took place in 1951 with his friend Pierre Deshumeurs.
The young adventurers armed an old and run-down 12m ketch, the Snark, and set off on a crossing between Indochina and Indonesia, touching Singapore. A daring journey that ended with the sinking of the boat worn out by the ship-worms but the trip reinforces Bernard’s desire to discover and sail again.
Initially he only writes logbooks to record mere events, but with the reading of contemporary authors he develops a great narrative talent.
Moitessier reached Europe and became famous after the age of 33, when, after the shipwrecks of his first boats, he sought refuge and peace. He tried to conform to Western life: he worked as a representative for a pharmaceutical company and found a partner and many friends.
However, he does not abandon his dreams of the sea: he elaborates the project of a steel boat, solid and safe, which he had designed by Jean Knocker. The equipment for the construction and the hull were provided by Jean Fricaud’s Meta shipyard which also pushes Bernard to write and publish.
In 1961 the turning point, a double marriage awaits Moitessier: with Françoise de Cazalet and with Joshua, in honour of Slocum, his new boat. The passion for the two continues in parallel, Bernard decides to embark on a special honeymoon with Françoise to Tahiti, aboard Joshua.
The Wave leads him to no longer navigate alone with no aims but with new goals and new horizons to share. The boat is armed with cheap but sturdy equipment: for example, it gets masts from telegraph poles, initially it has few sails but no winches.
After a couple of seasons in the Mediterranean to teach sailing, in 1963 Moitessier set sail with Françoise for a great adventure. Joshua accompanies them faithfully from the Canary Islands to Martinique, from the Panama Canal to the Galapagos, from the Marquesas Islands to Tahiti.
Bernard begins to reflect on how different life is at sea and on land:
« I thought I was a loner because I did not conceive that one could navigate other than alone. Now I realise how loneliness at sea has intense colours, sometimes violent, but always warm. They have nothing in common with that kind of dullness, of total emptiness that touches a person without companions. Immersed in an indifferent crowd that is always in a hurry. »
Sea life continues to exert a strong appeal to Moitessier to the detriment of the conventions and rhythms of life on land. His choices will be conditioned in the future by these long non-stop navigations, in which the sailor feels whole and in the right place. Like deep-sea birds Bernard and Françoise feel part of the community of other sea wanderers they meet on their journey.
“Give me wind and I will give you miles”
Arriving in Tahiti, after eight months of smooth sailing between the islands, the couple feel the urge to return to their homeland. Françoise left her three children from her first marriage in France and Bernard promised her not to stay too far away from them. A crazy idea takes shape even instead of crossing the Panama Canal: the navigator wanted to return via Cape Horn.
Joshua herself encourages him and whispers from the bow to his commander. “I’m a good boat, but don’t go wrong, give me wind and I’ll give you miles, thousands of miles.” As Moitessier tells in his book “Cape Horn under sail”.
On November 23, 1965 they leave Moorea for Gibraltar convinced in their idea of following the “logical route” but one not to be taken for granted. They travel 14,000 miles non-stop, in four months at high-latitude, storms and gigantic waves, but Joshua also keeps her promise. This went down in history as one of Bernard’s feat but also that of Françoise, the first woman, with no previous experience, to round Cape Horn.
Around the world alone and “The long route”
Having returned home on the wave of success and joy, he struggles to start life on earth again. “I feel a terrible desire to return to live on the water”, he confesses almost justifying the decisions he will make later.
Forced by the always precarious economic conditions, he wrote straight away “Cape Horn under sail”, the report of their splendid and incredible honeymoon. But not even the admiration of the public comforts him, indeed he feels like a “traitor” to monetise the memories of his soul.
Moitessier and the Golden Globe Race
He plans a new challenge for Joshua, never attempted before: a non-stop by the three great capes (Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn). In the same year, in 1968, The Sunday Times announces the Golden Globe Race which coincides exactly with Moitessier’s project. A single-handed race around the world, non-stop starting from any port in England, rounding the three great capes and back.
Undecided whether to degrade his challenge to a sporting event, he finally accepts the challenge and leaves on 22 August from Plymouth. Finally, he finds himself alone at sea: «The joys of the sailor are as simple as those of children. Joshua is a faithful companion who follows him in his race, so much so that once past the three great capes Moitessier is in the lead. He also surpasses Robin Knox-Johnston who had left a month before him.
The Long Route
But something clicks in Bernard, his hand on the rudder turns and points back to the Cape of Good Hope and beyond, towards Tahiti. Forgoing the sporting victory, the £ 5,000 prize for the fastest journey and the gold trophy for the first comer. To the rest of the world he justifies his choice with these words. “I continue non-stop to the islands of the Pacific, because I am happy at sea and perhaps also to save my soul.”
The public is divided: there are those who see his weakness in the decision and judge him as a loser and those who elevate him above conformism. Did his Wave divert him from the right path or did it take him so high to see other perspectives that are not understood from the ground? It cannot be judged then as now, Moitessier made the right choice for him, for his soul, in that moment.
The motivation of his choice
In “Tamata and the alliance”, almost a spiritual testament in some passages, he returns to his decision and motivates it:
« The original goal is almost at the end of the bowsprit, but everything would vanish if I were accept this result. The truth that I unconsciously seek will reveal itself little by little and now I know that it calls me infinitely further away. Returning home now would be tantamount to never having left. It would be the tacit acceptance of the rules of the old game imposed by others. It would be betraying myself.
The sun, the sea, the wind, the Southern Cross so high in the sky. The albatrosses who see everything the same and glide close to the waves, brushing their crests and troughs to show me the route … everything in me says it in unison, in the song of the vast blue silence where my soul has been sailing for a very long time.»
Moitessier travels more than 37,000 miles with Joshua making one and a half rounds of the globe, reconfirming his great seafaring skills. Arrived in Tahiti in June 1969 he wrote the book of his voyage “The long route” which was published two years later.
He renounces the author’s rights of the book to offer them to the Pope and ecological associations but his gestures are not understood. Disappointed, he tries to create his own little personal paradise on a Polynesian atoll, abandoning Europe and Western materialism forever.
The first voyages: Wanderer of the South Seas
To understand Moitessier’s renunciation of conformism and Western culture, one must take a step back in time, to the years of the Vietnam war. When he was in his twenties he was just starting to follow his dream, a harsh reality brings him home and it is a Wave that really risks sinking him.
Indochina is invaded by Japan when France loses World War II. After Bon Vien Tua, “the flower / bomb that kills everything”, the Japanese empire also capitulates but the Viet Minh communist regime arrives.
Moitessier joins the Liberation Volunteer Group and his brothers collaborate with a company of Cambodian marksmen. A tragedy strikes his brothers: Françou kills a childhood friend of theirs and commits suicide and Jacky runs away tormented by remorse in Guiana. The family collapses, the father succumbs, the fraternal friends die, Bernard returns to the sea to save himself, but this wound will never heal.
The Marie Therese
After the first navigation on the Snark and the horrors of the war Moitessier knows that he can only take refuge and escape at sea. He buys a new boat, his new passion, the Marie Therese, a wooden junk rigged boat to which he gives the name of a lover.
« A boat is freedom, not just the means to reach a goal, as I believed not so long ago. A small spartan house that I carry with me and that transports me where I want in the world, Marie Therese, now represents the rich solitude of large spaces. Where past and future merge to become the present instant in the song of the sea. »
In 1952 he left Singapore for his first solo crossing of the Indian Ocean from north to south, braving the monsoon. His bond with the boat is strengthened even more, as he writes, “We are two: Marie Therese and me. This fusion of man and boat was built up progressively, by stages: at our first meeting I was simply in love with this beautiful junk rigged boat.” But for the man and the boat to be one, the monsoon of the Indian Ocean was needed. Sea in which we entered candidly “to see if it was true”.
And “it was true”: the monsoon did not play; we fought the hell of those headwinds together to get out of it after six weeks. That hell brought to the surface the animal instinct that took possession of the “boat-man” unity, giving it the only order to resist. »He explains this in the“ Wanderer of the South Seas ”.
He concludes this incredible feat with a torn mainsail and with another Wave of Destiny: due to a coincidence and error he is shipwrecked on the rocks of the Chagos Islands. He loses his boat but finds the sea, a safe space, which gives him the peace that wandering has always sought.
The Marie Therese II
Alone and without money, he moves to Mauritius where he will find his “Island of Friendship”, as he defines it in his writings. He starts working again in the most disparate jobs: from underwater fishing, risking his life in shark-infested seas to the secretariat of the Consul of France. In three years the castaway Bernard recovers, a Mauritian friend advises him. “You have a soul made of cork, there’s nothing that can break you down”. In fact, Moitessier wants to continue living and leave for his sea: thus he builds another boat the Marie Therese II.
He heads back to Trinidad with a stop in Cape Town in Africa where he embarks as a traveling companion his friend Henry Wakelam. Unfortunately, another wave hits him: in 1958, while he is sailing in the Antilles Sea, after three days of vigil he falls asleep. Marie Therese II is also lost as she ran aground on the coral reef of Diego Garcia atoll.
The sense of voyage
« I always had the feeling that the long crossings constituted for me a deep cleansing of all the rubbish accumulated in the living room on the ground. When the coast is lost from sight, man in front of his Creator cannot remain alien to the forces of nature that surround him. Soon he too will be part of it simplifying and purifying himself in contact with the brute forces that surround and absorb him.
I believe it is this need not only for novelty but for physical and moral cleanliness that pushes the solitary sailor to other shores. Bodies and spirits freed from earthly attachments and servitudes can rediscover their essence. Rediscovering their purity within the natural elements that the ancients had made them gods. Wind, Sun and Sea, Trinity of Gods of Sailors.»
Moitessier thus comments on the true meaning of his journey: a purification to rediscover the primordial alliance with spirits and nature. Finally it is understandable why ten years later he chooses to continue sailing rather than returning to France, to life on land.
The last attempt and forgiveness: “Tamata and the alliance”
In 1971, he decides to build his own happy oasis in Poro-Poro with Ileana, the new partner with whom he has a son Stéphan. “This is the first time that I have found myself so totally at peace with myself. A lasting peace, without crazy aims, without sensational blows to prepare to “save the world”.
The planet and its inhabitants can go wherever they want, it’s their business, not mine. I live in the present. There is Joshua, my family and Poro-Poro and all around the radiant beauty of the atoll. The rest does not concern me anymore, “a momentarily serene Bernard writes in” Tamata and the Alliance “, because it will only be a passing moment.
The tireless and restless Bernard leaves for New Zealand and Israel, promoting ecological campaigns and nuclear disarmament everywhere. In 1982 Moitessier moved to California and was at anchor on the Mexican coast with actor Klaus Kinski when a sudden cyclone broke out.
The boat ends up stranded on the beach: after thousands of miles together, a wave of fate separates the captain from Joshua, the most faithful companion on the adventure. The sailor does not have the economic or physical strength to recover the boat and gives it to two young people who are helping him.
Moitessier’s last years
At the end of the eighties he finished writing his latest book “Tamata and the Alliance”, a revisited biography and a spiritual testament. Tamata is also the sailor’s last boat given to him by his friends after he lost Joshua, to motivate him to keep “trying”. Moitessier never stopped trying, even when the “Beast”, a prostate tumour, attacked him.
He lived the last few years with his new partner Veronique between Paris and Tahiti and in 1993 he had time to meet Joshua again. His boat returns to being a training ship and a museum thanks to the Naval Museum of La Rochelle which buys it and renovates it.
It’s time to reflect on a lifetime, Moitessier takes stock and hopes for a better world.
« Life has taught me that man has the Choice in his hands. So he has the Power to guide his destiny rather than suffer it. It has not only the power but also the responsibility. When we have built Peace, when we have solidly blocked it by passing the Big Sponge that cancels the old quarrels and forgives the offences of the past.
Then Spirit and Heart will march side by side on the Path of the High. And on that path there is no need for wise equations to see that it would lead us towards an enormous Possibility. That of creating a world that is finally worthy of Man. A world where injustice, blood, misery and shame will no longer reign. »
Torn between his childhood and formation in the spiritualism of the eastern world and his origin in western France, Moitessier seeks forgiveness to the last. Forgiveness for the sins of his brothers, for the atomic bomb, for war and violence, feeling almost responsible for human conduct.
At the end of “Tamata and the Alliance” she finds the forgiveness of the spirits and realises that the Wave was not of destiny but of her always restless soul. “The last piece has entered the puzzle”, he can finally set sail in peace for the last journey home, on June 16, 1994. As he writes in “The Long Route”: “Deep down, we know that only the path travelled. »