A small group of singlehanded sailors left England in 1968 on the first nonstop solo sailboat race around the world. Several books have been written by or about these racers, but Moitessier's memoir, The Long Way, is arguably the best among them. Moitessier himself could have won the race but chose instead to keep on going around another half circumnavigation to Tahiti. Just as Moitessier was an unusual and gifted sailor, his book remains today a great gift to sailors and other readers interested in the long offshore experience.
The Long Way
Sheridan House, 1995
256 pages, soft cover
What It's About?
The nine sailors who left England in the first solo round-the-world sail race included four who quickly retired; Nigel Tetley, whose boat sank on the return leg; Donald Crowhurst, who went insane and committed suicide after sailing in circles; and Robin Knox-Johnston, who won after the Frenchman who would have won, Bernard Moitessier, chose to sail on to Tahiti rather than return to England. The book is about Moitessier's voyage, pivoting on his decision that sailing and the South Pacific were more compelling than the "snakepit" of Europe.
"I am really fed up with false gods, always lying in wait, spider-like, eating our liver, sucking our marrow," he writes about that decision. "I charge the modern world - that's the Monster. It is destroying our earth, and trampling the soul of men... I look to the sea, and it answers that I escaped a great danger...." Moitessier was among the early environmentalists and a philosopher-poet who writes as lovingly about the sea as Thoreau did about Walden. He inspired generations of sailors with his stories of the voyaging life and the beauty and simplicity he found both in the sea and in Tahiti before being spoiled by tourists. Like his countryman, the painter Gauguin, Moitessier paints a vivid picture of a wondrous reality away from the corrupting influences of "civilization."
This is something many cruising sailors have discovered. And Moitessier is among the very best writers to describe the inner and spiritual life of the voyager as well as the storms, calms, travails, and day-to-day facets of life at sea on a small sailboat.
Why It's a Good Read
Written in first person as a sort of logbook narrative, The Long Way is stylistically a pure delight for any reader who enjoys fine prose. Hundreds of sailors have chronicled their voyages, but only a handful - like Melville, Conrad, and other literary giants - are also great writers.
Two dimensions of Moitessier's writing especially stand out. Because the logbook narrative is written in the immediacy of the present, we flow along with the narrator's moods, from introspection to excitement or fear, in a continually varying stream that prevents any monotony as often occurs in sailing narratives because of the lack of variety in the ship's small world. Moitessier instinctively knows as well that god and the devil are in the details and writes with such clear observation and attention to detail that we are constantly there with him on his voyage. Reading The Long Way is the next best thing to actually doing it.
About the Author
Frenchman Bernard Moitessier (1925-1994) grew up near the sea in Vietnam and as a young man worked a time on commercial ships before becoming one of the earliest singlehanded sailors. At the age of 35 he published his first book, Vagabond of the South Seas (the title of the translation was "Sailing to the Reefs") and kept sailing. With his wife he sailed the South Pacific to Tahiti and was among the first small sailboats to round Cape Horn, a story he told in his second book, translated as "Cape Horn: The Logical Route." "The Long Way" was his third book, and he later wrote two more about sailing and his life. On Tahiti he worked selflessly to help the islanders preserve their natural world while succeeding in a modern economy.
Like other great originals, Moitessier is idolized by some and occasionally dismissed by others who find him too much a nature-loving hippie or castigate him for sailing off for so long without wife and children. About his life, readers must make their own opinion, but regarding his sailing and the quality of his prose, no one can seriously disagree.
If you like Moitessier, you may also like Roger T. Taylor, who is also philosophic about seamanship and traditional sailing skills. Check out his Voyages of a Simple Sailor, a collection well-written sailing narratives also teaching self-sufficiency and independence.