Sailing and the legend of Moitessier

Even if you don’t know how to sail, imagine yourself on the boat, knifing through the water at nearly 20 miles per hour, despite this being a yacht over sixty feet in length. The boat is heeled over, so that one side is much closer to the water than the other and the floor is at an angle compared to the horizon. And the only sound is the wind gently rattling the sail edges and rigging. With the sea all around you, it is not hard to understand why someone would say the following:

“I am a citizen of the most beautiful nation on earth, a nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present. In this limitless nation, this nation of wind, light, and peace, there is no other ruler besides the sea.”

Bernard Moitessier achieved unparalleled fame as a long distance sailor in the 1960’s and 70’s. He solidified his legend in the 1968 ‘Golden Globe’ race, sponsored by the London Sunday Times. The inaugural Golden Globe race was the first solo, around the world race where sailors were not permitted any stops or assistance. No resting or resupplying, and no help navigating or maintaining their boat. And no motors.

In that age before SatNav, GPS and cost-is-no-object sailboat racing, nine men set out to make history. Four retired not long after starting, another retired later, another sank after almost completing the journey. The three other sailors were Donald Crowhurst, Robin Knox-Johnson and Bernard Moitessier. Crowhurst succumbed to mental strain and drowned himself. 

Moitessier was leading Knox-Johnson coming into the last days of the race. In the face of an imminent victory, after a solitary ten months at sea, Moitessier turned his back on the race and continued sailing. He traveled thousands of miles more, completely alone, until he reached Tahiti. He had rejected an over-commercialized society, and fallen even more deeply in love with the sailing.

We may not all have the ability to abandon organized society, but if your travel plans take you onto a sailboat, even for a quiet day cruise, it is well to remember Moitessier. You are participating in a sacred rite that can cause transformative experiences.