Bernard Moitessier, the Fastest Vagabond Sailor the World Ever Knew

In the summer of 1968, nine sailors began sailing from various ports across Great Britain in the The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a solo, around-the-world, non-stop sailing competition. Rules were fairly loose, as some of the entrants had already been planning around-the-world voyages which the race organizers hoped would swell their ranks. As long as a sailor had a boat, they could enter and begin the race, then embark anytime between June and October of that year. Nine entered, one finished. Robin Knox-Johnston won and became the first person to sail unassisted around the world, without stopping.

But his story is not the most interesting.

The lone competitor from France, Bernard Moitessier, was also the most likely to win the event. He was born in colonial Saigon in 1925 and spent much of his life sailing boats. After a well-heeled and cushy childhood in the crumbling French empire of Southeast Asia, Moitessier became bored and wanted to leave behind the leisurely life of parties and estates, instead drawn to the romance and danger of the sea. He spoke six languages, was a champion swimmer, and decided to make his home where the winds carried him. By 1952, he’d purchased his own boat, the Marie-Therese, and was sailing through the Indian Ocean.

When that boat ran aground on reefs south of India, off the tiny island of Diego Garcia, Moitessier found his way to Mauritius, where he worked for a few years while building another boat, the Marie-Therese II. At one point, he was attacked by a shark, nearly losing a foot. He recovered, buoyed by the idea of getting to France, perhaps to earn enough money to build a proper blue ocean sailing vessel. Moitessier left Mauritius on the Marie-Therese II and made stops in South Africa and the West Indies before once again running aground and sinking his boat, this time near Grenada. He finally arrived in France aboard a freighter, where he began writing about his experiences in his book, Vagabond des Mers du Sud. It became a bestseller.

A few years down the road, Moitessier got married in the south of France and began sailing his dream boat, a 39-foot steel ketch he helped design and which he’d christened Joshua. In 1963, Moitessier and his wife Françoise sailed out of Marseilles, eventually making their way to Tahiti. The place clearly made an impression on him, as he’d return, under strange circumstances later that decade, but not until he and Françoise had returned to France after sailing 14,216 nautical miles, setting a record for longest non-stop yacht voyage in history. Between this achievement and his popular book, Moitessier became something of a household name in France.

When the Golden Globe race was announced, Moitessier did not immediately leap at the opportunity to enter. He was one of the best sailors on the planet and would be the instant favorite. But he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of sailing as competition—at least not an around-the-world sail. Nevertheless, he’d been considering making such a solo voyage anyway, and, pressured by the sailing community to show what he could do, Moitessier relented and prepared Joshua for a long-distance sail. He sailed to Plymouth, England, and left to join the race on August 23, 1968.

He smoked everybody.

Despite nearly capsizing after being smacked with a breaking wave, and nearly breaking the bowsprit, Moitessier rounded Cape Horn well in the lead of the remaining vessels. Four hadn’t made it out of the Atlantic, though Moitessier had little knowledge of where the rest of the field was. It didn’t matter though. Something had stirred in Moitessier during doldrums spent in the Indian Ocean and he began to doubt returning to Europe. Depression set in, so he began practicing yoga on deck. The idea of abandoning his life at sea once the race was over ate at him.

As he passed Cape Horn he had only to aim north to sail back to England to collect his accolades as the winner of the race and the first to sail solo and non-stop across the globe. Moitessier wavered and thought perhaps he’d let the winds decide for him how to proceed. If he was carried far north, he’d continue to England. To the east, he’d continue sailing the globe.

He saw a passing ship in the distance, drew near the vessel, and used a slingshot to launch a message to the boat’s deck. Moitessier would not be completing the race, his message said. He was happy at sea. It had saved his soul. Moitessier changed his course for east again and began to retrace his steps for a second circumnavigation, aiming for Tahiti.

Moitessier hallucinated a passenger to keep himself company. He stopped shaving or bathing, grew an impressive beard, and continued to practice yoga. He attempted to befriend sea creatures, including birds and dolphins. Yet he felt at peace. “I look to the sea, and it answers that I escaped a great danger,” he wrote. “I do not want to believe in miracles too much. Yet there are miracles in life. If the weather had stayed bad for a few days longer, with easterly winds, I would be far to the north by now; I would have continued north, sincerely believing it was my destiny, letting myself be carried by the trades like an easy current with no whirlpools or snares, believing it was true…and being wrong.”

After crossing some 37,455 nautical miles, Moitessier and Joshua sailed into a Tahitian port in June 1969. He’d set another record, this time for longest non-stop sailing by a yacht. Knox-Johnston sailed into England as the victor and only finisher of the race. Moitessier spent several years in Tahiti and wrote a book about his adventures called The Long Way that has become a classic of maritime adventure reading. He remarried and had a son.

Yet the call of the sea returned, and he headed off for further travels, eventually settling in Paris. Moitessier died in 1994 and is buried near Brittany, France. Visitors to his grave often leave slingshots.

Words by Justin Housman




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