Saturday, June 14, 2014

Book Review: Bernard Moitessier's The Long Way

Not everyone in the Golden Globe, the first solo round the world yacht race, were to return to Plymouth.

Donald Crowhurst went mad, leaving a journal of fantasies before leaping overboard. Bernard Moitessier avoided that fate by sailing on, crossing his tracks to end at Tahiti, and "The Long Way" is his story.

The start is mundane, a Proustian, almost boring, description of oceanic sailing by a master. Wind directions, sail areas, sea states, temperatures: a log of his voyage down the Atlantic, into the Indian and then the Pacific.

A couple of times he heads towards land to throw despatches towards ships, such as fishermen. These encounters take it out of him and they became scarcer, the penultimate message sent at Tasmania.

After that he was alone for a long, long time, and it changed him.

The first phase was the zen of sailing, Moitessier at one with his yacht, Joshua, surfing the long waves of the southern oceans, watching the auorora australia, communicating with porpoises and practising yoga in the nude.

As he turned north into the Atlantic he changed again. Maybe he had been on his own too long, in a boat with no long range radio, but his voice became troubled and physically he was exhausted.

He writes of the monster and of an earth alive, suffering. It becomes the Monster "destroying our earth and trampling the soul of men". "Before long no one will be free... they have already become inhuman".

How close did he get to following Crowhurst? Maybe it was the image in his head of Tahiti that saved him and lead to his most famous and final message of that voyage:

I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.

But he wasn't always happy at sea, at times he was depressed, and there are gaps of days, weeks in his book, where storms and knock-downs are mentioned as passed events.

He would find his monster waiting for him in Tahiti in the form of the developers with their concrete and bulldozers. His last chapters are a rail against modernity and in praise of hippies and the Pope.

This is not a great book despite these changes in voice but because of them.

They tell of the isolation at sea but also the growth of spirit that comes from being in the midst of wild nature for months on end.

Such detachment can lead to unusual thoughts and if sanity is defined by the majority, then this could lead some to query Moitessier's mental health.

But "The Long Way" allows us all to step outside the everyday and instead to follow Moitessier and ask questions of our modern, environmentally destructive world.

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