Bernard Moitessier’s, The Long Way: Four Decades Later
Book Review by Trevor Paetkau
Books such as Bernard Moitessier’s, The Long Way are part of a greater tradition that lock man and environment into a struggle for both harmony and dominance. First ascents and descents, survival epics, travel literature and exploration accounts all mine the same vein.
Elsewhere in The Open Critic, Mark Young reviews Chichester’s, Gipsy Moth Circles the World. For the most part it is a reverential view of a reverred event in sailing history. Likewise the sailing community along with the Adventure Literature crowd are great fans of circumnavigation literature in general. Only a few, however, transcend the cliches of the genre; and it’s been oft repeated that Moitessier’s is one of them.
As a life long acolyte of adventure sports, including sailing, I admit to a soft spot for this sort of book. I’m just not sure this one does.
Bernard Moitessier’s, The Long Way, A Summary
It’s probably best to contextualize Moitessier and the account he records in his book. As usual, contributors at Wikipedia have done the hard work for us:
In 1968, Moitessier participated in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a race to become the first sailor to circumnavigate the earth alone and non-stop. Although Moitessier stood a very good chance of winning, he abandoned his effort seven months into the race, and continued on to Polynesia rather than returning to England. The decision to abandon while in the lead is instructive of Moitessier’s character - although driven and competitive, he passed up a chance at instant fame and a record, and sailed on for three more months. After his 37,000-mile (60,000 kilometre) voyage, Moitessier wrote The Long Way, a classic sailing narrative.
For the 1968 race, Moitessier sailed a 12 metre steel-hulled ketch, the Joshua. He had the vessel built in 1961, and named it after Joshua Slocum, the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone (over a three year period with numerous stops).
Moitessier circumnavigated the world and sailed almost two-thirds of the way round a second time, all non-stop and mostly in the roaring forties. Despite heavy weather and a couple of severe knockdowns, he contemplated rounding the Horn again. However, he decided that he and Joshua had had enough and sailed to Tahiti, where he and his wife had set out for Alicante. After completing second circumnavigation of the world in 1969, he started work on The Long Way.
Since then, Moitessier has become sailing’s uber-prophet.
The Long Way, Solo Circumnavigation and Those That Do
Here, I venture what will likely be perceived as an unpopular opinion; the sort of contests Chichester, Moitessier and others chronicle are of little value and of little interest to any outside of their own little communities.
Perhaps these conquests do prove something to us .. but ultimately they are selfish acts which, when they go awry, tear apart families … witness the Crowhurst tragedy, a sailor also competing in the Golden Globe who was so driven not to be seen to fail, that he tumbled over the edge of sanity and took his own life in a mind-twisted god-like delusion.
It’s in this regard I agree with Mark Lewis completely; to sail alone around the world IS a fool’s game. Frequently referred to as the Everest of sailing, it’s not. One only need reference Slocum’s, Sailing Alone Around the World to understand that even a century ago, it could be done safely and in relative comfort. The bashing and banging around recorded in recent accounts is the result of condition visited on the sailors by their own decisions … to race a ultra-light sled, to do so while pushing their bodies to unhuman limits, to do so without recourse to landfall or support vessels, and to do so without regard to consequence. It may be unpopular to say it, but it’s so none-the-less.
It brings to mind too, the first descents of the great Himalaya rivers … so enamoured are the adventurers with the conquest that all good sense is cast aside. Or, the singularity of mind of those mountaineers who focus on a summit with ill regard for turn-around-times, self-immolation, or the well-being of others in trouble. In so many ways, the end perverts the process. Success is worth too much, and in that sense the practicioner loses sense of self and place in the world.
If we can say anything about The Long Way we can say that Bernard Moitessier did not lost sense of himself. It remained firmly in place and as ego driven (even though he or his fans would likely object) as that of the mountaineers found wanting in the 96 Everest disaster.
Francoise, Moitessier’s wife suggested to the press at the time, that the months of solitude had ” … temporarily unnerved her husband. He would be all right. Just let him play this one out.” Fine, that explains why instead of finishing the race he continued onwards. It does not explain why he set out in the first place …
We’re still looking for the pathology that drives exploits such as this, and in this regard, The Long Way fails.
The Long Way, The Account on Its Own
A book should be read in two ways … within context of time and events; and out of time, as if it were an object onto itself. When read without regard to events, Moitessier’s, The Long Way suffers from many of the same warts Adventure Literature in general suffers from … unless a book transcends itself completely it is mostly a day by day accounting of mostly boring and repetitive tasks.
The one thing that makes The Long Way better than that is the language in which those tasks are cast.
I ate nothing this morning, or at noon. Not from laziness or nerves; I just didn’t feel like it. Penguins and seals go for long periods without food in the mating season, other animals do the same in the great migrations. And deep within himself man may carry the same instinct to leave food aside, as animals do in the solemn moments of their lives.
I watch this fantastic sea, breathe in its spray, and feel blossoming here in the wind and space something that needs the immensity of the universe to come to fruition.
A little later …
I see a beacon in the night, it blinks between the waves, and I slowly awaken. The moon comes in through the porthole, brushes my lids, wanders down to my chin, comes back to my eyes for a second, goes over to see what is on the stove, returns to touch my eyes, lightly, insistently, goes away, comes back again.
Like aviator Saint Exupery’s poetic classic, Wind Sand Stars, The Long Way is filled with beautiful nonsense … there are times we don’t really know what Moitessier saying, but we like the way its said. At other times, it feels like he is making it up well afterwards, somehwere in a September English garden.
And so it goes, becoming more sublime and more silly as it progresses. Eventually we get a mash of New Testament longing, hippie idealism, nature worship and corporate baiting all stewed together.
The hippy president has not yet come. Many of us have been waiting for him. We have been waiting for two thousand years. And sometimes you feel a little tired and say ‘What’s the use?’ So then you do some thinking.
By the end, any remaing hippies will be feeling broken and defeated … such idealism, where did it disappear to? The practical sorts that replaced them will be rolling their eyes. And you and I may just heave and sigh and snort a little before turning over and going to sleep.
If you buy into it, if you’re sympathetic, or if you’re stoned it’s possible to get around the repetitive nature of it. Otherwise a chapter or two is all you’ll really want.
Moitessier’s, The Long Way, How Good is It?
Is it a good book?
No, not really. Not today. What in the early 70’s was a psalm of the heart is now a post-millenial wank. Kind of like Sidhartha, or Zen in the Art of Archery; Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way suited its time during its time only. Which isn’t to say it will not inspire; it will inspire some. Nor is it to say it’s not poetic. It IS poetic (more than all). But it is drudgery. Sailing around the world all on one’s own is boring no matter how couched it is in the mystical and magic. Reading about it … well.
If you read Moitessier’s, The Long Way read it like you’ve still got hair down your back, patchouli oil in your dreads, and a head filled with herb.
TagsAdventure Literature, Autobiography, bernard moitessier, Book Review, Circumnavigation, The Golden Globe, The Long Way
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- 03.08.07 / 4pm