Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier

Despite the enormous physical and mental challenge of solo round the world yacht racing, it doesn't make especially interesting reading. That's why, if you only ever read one round-the-world account in your life, you should make it Moitessier's.

On 28th May 1967 Francis Chichester sailed into Plymouth in the South of England. He had been at sea for 226 days and in that time he had circumnavigated the globe stopping only once in Australia for repairs. Chichester was knighted by the Queen for his achievement. His voyage captured the imagination not just of the sailing fraternity but the public at large and plans were immediately laid to establish a race to tackle the last great challenge of solo yacht racing: a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world.

Moitessier was an experienced sailor unlike many of the other competitors in the race. He was born in French Indochina and he had grown up in and around boats. He had also just returned from a return trip to Tahiti in his custom built steel ketch, Joshua. The Long Way begins just as he is leaving Plymouth and tells the story of his voyage.

At times this book can be slow. The story of any ocean voyage is inevitably the story of the weather and the wind. If you want to know what the weather was like in the southern ocean in 1968-9 then this is the book for you. Having said that, this is no simple day-by-day account. Moitessier mixes in personal recollections and philosophies as well as a keen appreciation of the nature which he encounters along the way.

The story takes an unexpected turn at the end. Moitessier, although he didn't know it, was in the lead as he made his way up the Atlantic when he suddenly decided to abandon the race and head for the Pacific again. He finally arrived in Tahiti on 21 June 1969 having been one and a half times around the world and having spent almost a year at sea.

One of the more extreme aspects of his voyage was that the only method he had of sending messages was by catapult. He deliberately did not take a radio. Instead he would photograph his log and then catapult the film onto the deck of any ships he met. In his whole voyage he only sent three such messages in almost a year at sea. He had a transistor radio but he never heard word of any of the other competitors and gave up listening to it in the Pacific.

The story itself is only 180 pages long but it is followed by a 70 page appendix about the technicalities of his voyage which I found very interesting. These were the days before GPS so Moitessier was navigating using methods which had been around for hundreds of years. Readers of Longitude might be surprised to realise that a clock was still crucial to navigation in 1968. Moitessier didn't like using his compass which was lucky because it rarely worked in his steel boat.

1 comment:

ChristineEldin said...

I'd probably skip to the index. I think people who do this are amazing. I couldn't (would hate to be so far from land!)
Thanks for a great reveiw!