The Long Way

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Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way: Alone Between the Sea and Sky, (1971)

There is an old and, these days, rather politically incorrect joke about the first [insert nationality of your choice] man to win of the Tour de France, who was so pleased with himself he did a lap of honour and hasn’t been heard from since. The humour derives from the transparent ridiculousness of the scenario, but that’s in essence exactly what Bernard Moitessier’s did: this memoir, largely extracted from his ship’s logs, is the story of the Frenchman who, when leading the round the world yacht race and in the home straight, peeled off went round again. Only he didn’t make it to the finish line first.

Now that in itself would be a pretty extraordinary story — a certified classic sea-dog’s yarn of the 20th Century — but because it happened in the wake of infinitely stranger behaviour from fellow competitor Donald Crowhurst, it has only ever achieved the lesser status of an interesting historical side-bar. For Moitessier’s unexpected, er, change of tack crystallised an even more bizarre, tragic chain of events which had been unfolding aboard Crowhurst’s boat, the Teignmouth Electron.

None of Crowhurst’s story is covered here, however (at the time, Moitessier was ploughing around the Cape of Good Hope none the wiser, so that’s hardly surprising) but those interested in Crowhurst’s tragic tale are warmly recommended The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and the fine Channel 4 Film Deep Water, both of which also cover Moitessier’s race in some detail. {{author|Stewart Brand|’s forthcoming The Maintenance Race also covers the race, from the perspective of differing approaches to maintenance.

This is nonetheless a highly readable memoir of an unusually solitary man and, at times, is a vivid articulation of his his view of his place on the planet and his relationship with the elements. Moitessier was a genuine romantic, an anti-modernist to boot, and interlaced his narrative of the long journey (all good Boys’ Own stuff) with quite profound ruminations on God, Grace, the Planet and the Eternal Horizon.

To my surprise I found the book became less interesting as it progressed, when you would expect quite the contrary. However enthusiastic he is about ruminating on the place of man in the cosmos, Moitessier doesn’t really explain, or embark upon any deep inner analysis of, his reasons for unexpectedly opting for another crack at the southern ocean over a tearful reunion with his wife and children.

The treatment of that last part of the voyage is peremptory and the book finishes somewhat abruptly on an atoll in Tahiti. An interesting read, but I would recommend the Crowhurst story as a prelude.

See also