BERNARD MOITESSIER: What Really Happened to Joshua

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Moitessier on Joshua

Bernard Moitessier is remembered primarily for his famous 1968-69 Golden Globe voyage, in which he blew off a chance to win the first non-stop singlehanded round-the-world race and kept on sailing halfway around the world again to Tahiti to “save his soul.” But he is also remembered for wrecking not one, but three different boats during the course of his sailing career. As is documented in his first book, Sailing to the Reefs (Un Vagabond des Mers Sud in the original French), he lost two boats named Marie-Therese sailing on to reefs in the Indian Ocean and in the Caribbean in 1952 and 1958. Much later, in 1982, he lost Joshua, the 40-foot steel ketch that made him famous, on a beach at Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.

Moitessier had sailed to Mexico from San Francisco with Klaus Kinski, the notoriously unstable German actor who at the time was very well known for his roles in films directed by Werner Herzog. Kinski had paid to come along so Moitessier could teach him about ocean sailing. Five days after the pair reached Cabo, on the night of December 8, Joshua and 25 other boats in the anchorage were blown ashore in a freak storm.

Moitessier at Cabo

Moitessier on the beach with Joshua the morning after the storm

Moitessier wrote a full account of the incident, which was published in the March 1983 issue of Cruising World magazine. In it he gives a detailed description of how he and Kinski were blown on to the beach with the boat:

At sunset, the wind blows from the southeast, not too strong, but I don’t like it. Then it increases. No stars. Then it increases again. I know (I think I know…) that it cannot last in this season but I am pleased with my decision to get the second anchor ready.

Still there is a strange feeling in my guts.

Sometime later in the night, the wind becomes much stronger and there is a big swell. I am on deck, wondering. Then, a strong gust of wind. Now I am seriously worried. This is bad weather.

Suddenly, the 55-pound CQR drags on the coarse, sandy bottom. I let go the second anchor and Joshua faces the wind again. The swell has increased a lot.

Another gust, real strong. It seems that it lasts forever. My God, Joshua is dragging again, fast!

Very soon after this, we are on the beach. The rudder touches first. Then the boat pivots slowly. Now it is laying over, sideways on the beach with heavy seas breaking on the deck, which is canted away from the beach.

My mind still refuses to believe it… but this is the hard, very hard reality. Open your eyes, you monkey, your boat is on the beach; open your eyes, you stupid monkey, and don’t pretend that you did not know that this could happen.

And so on. Moitessier goes on at great length to describe an argument, with much quoted dialogue, wherein he insists that Kinski leave the boat, and Kinski refuses. Finally the quarrelsome actor is persuaded to go ashore, and the story continues, with a detailed description of what it was like for Moitessier being aboard alone as his boat’s rig came down, as other boats piled into her, etc., etc.

All of it gripping stuff, and so the story was passed on. It reappeared in consistent form in Moitessier’s last book, his autobiography, Tamata and the Alliance, published in 1993, and also in a biography, Moitessier: A Sailing Legend, by Jean-Michel Barrault, which was published in 2004.

I heard a very different version, however, from Lin and Larry Pardey, who flew into Cabo to cover the disaster for SAIL magazine immediately afterwards. According to the Pardeys, Moitessier instantly confessed to them that he and Kinski had been up in a hotel room partying their brains out while his beloved boat was driven ashore untended. He urged them at first to share the true story with their readers, so everyone would understand what an idiot he had been–“a monkey,” as he always liked to put it–but then later changed his mind and gave them the fiction that has since been handed down in print.

The Pardeys were good friends with Moitessier, so they went along with this, though obviously they have been willing to share the true story privately. I thought of this again recently, when discussing the Pardeys with Cruising World‘s Herb McCormick, who has just written a biography of the famous cruising duo, As Long As It’s Fun, that is due to be published next month. I urge you to check it out once it’s available, as I expect you’ll find this and many other titillating tales from the golden age of cruising buried in its pages.

Joshua under sail

Joshua under sail today

Joshua hauled out

And on the hard, waiting for a scrub. Note how very long her keel is

Meanwhile, of course, Joshua didn’t die on that beach in Mexico. Moitessier felt he couldn’t cope with salvaging and refitting the boat, so he gave her away on the spot (technically, he sold her for $20), and she has since landed at the La Rochelle Maritime Museum in France, where since 1990 she has been scrupulously maintained and exercised on a regular basis. Here’s a fine video that gives a good sense of what it’s like sailing aboard her these days:

And here’s another viddy with lots of film footage that Moitessier shot during his great voyage in 1968-69. It’s utterly fantastic stuff, particularly the shots from up the mast, where you can see how much sail he crowded on. What’s particularly impressive is how he laced a big bonnet on to his genoa to maximize area:

Some may recall that Joshua also became the center of a mini-controversy that erupted in 2000 when she was hijacked by a French sailor, Jacques Peignon, who raced her singlehanded in that year’s Europe 1/New Man STAR transatlantic race without the Maritime Museum’s permission.

Joshua in STAR

Peignon finishes the 2000 STAR aboard Joshua in Newport, Rhode Island, after “borrowing” her from her owners

The gutsy singlehander was greeted by angry museum officials when he stepped ashore in Newport and wasn’t allowed to sail the boat back to France. Instead the museum found a delivery crew, which included Moitessier’s son, Stephan, who had never before done an offshore passage.

Stephan Moitessier on Joshua

Stephan Moitessier (second from left) with the crew that sailed Joshua back to France in 2000

I met Stephan, who works as a photographer and videographer, in New York City in 2002, while he was helping Reid Stowe prepare his schooner Anne for his 1,000 Day Voyage. Stephan was reluctant to talk much about his father, but he did say he very much enjoyed his voyage aboard Joshua. At the time he was looking to get aboard other boats to do more passages, but I don’t know if much ever came of that.

Stephan Moitessier

Stephan Moitessier aboard the schooner Anne in New York Harbor

As for the famous Bernard, what are we to make of the fact that he flat-out lied to the world about what really happened that night in Mexico? I really think age had a great deal to do with it. If you read Sailing to the Reefs, you’ll see he was perfectly honest (or at least appears to be) about the mistakes he made that led to his first two shipwrecks. What was truly remarkable about those losses was how quickly he rebounded from them and rebuilt again from nothing. By the time he lost Joshua, however, he didn’t have nearly as much energy (he said as much in his story in Cruising World), and I think he knew, consciously or not, that all he had left really was the fame he had earned when he was younger.

Moitessier on Joshua

Bernard Moitessier alone aboard Joshua during the Golden Globe Race

He didn’t care what others thought when he decided to save his soul during the Golden Globe Race. But he obviously cared a great deal about his reputation when he spoke with Lin and Larry Pardey in Mexico, and he was willing to sell his soul to preserve it.

BONUS VIDEO: This features an interview with Moitessier in English aboard Joshua, with several highlights from his life. You’ll see towards the end several glimpses of Stephan as a boy:

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27 Responses
  1. Bernard was a tired man when he left the South Pacific circa late-1980s or early-1990s. He was discouraged from failing to get the Tahitians to adopt his green living, environmental ideas, and he was concerned that Stephan, 11, needed stimulation that he just wasn’t getting in the islands. I was among those who helped him get speaking opportunities and fees, but there just wasn’t enough to sustain a family. Going to Mexico was an escape. It didn’t work.

  2. Jesse Fradkin

    Great article Charlie. Thanks for writing. Moitessier is to me the saintly sailor of our recent history. I had the privilege of briefly meeting the brilliant, modest, gentle man. He was completely unique; his esteemed place in long distance sailing history secure.

    If indeed he chose in his dotage to change the story somewhat because an irresponsible actor with a very bad rep somehow making him leave Joshua and be ashore that fateful night, surely he not only deserves to be cut many fathoms worth of slack; the outcome even had he been aboard, under those conditions,may well have been the same. Cap’n Fatty’s been hanging with the Pardy’s in NZ lately. I am going to send him this, and see if he can confirm what someone said the Pardy’s said about this incident so many years ago. Whatever the truth, as far as I am concerned, it leaves no stain whatsoever on one of the finest sailors and men this watery world of ours has known.

  3. Fascinating. I often wonder just how many of the cruising stories we have are more in tune with Tristan Jone’s ideas of the truth, which could largely be summed up as ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good sea story’.

  4. Frank Esposito

    Great feature. Good job piecing it all together.

    I like to call it literary license (artistic to some). It’s my story and I’m sticking to it…

  5. Speaking of the golden age of cruising, it will be a shame when stories like these and many others from the likes of the Pardeys, Webb Chiles, Fatty Goodlander, and more begin collecting dust and losing details. Glad to hear McCormick is preserving some of it in a new book.

  6. Nick Kats

    How excellent & so very interesting this article is. I take it for the most part as a compliment to Moitessier.
    In reading his books I found his philosophy to be very naive. This did not in the least detract from what he did, or the immensely exuberant spirit with which he sailed.
    Likewse his getting wrecked 3x.
    The circumstances of the last wreck is curious.
    Assuming this is true, I note that the wind was onshore. Given a crappy little dinghy on the beach, 2 foot breaking waves are enough to strand one ashore. One just nuts it out.. but obviously the waves just got bigger & bigger…

  7. Charlie

    @Nick: It’s worth pointing out that all three of his wrecks were boat-shore conflicts. With sea room he never really got into any trouble, per the old saw about ships being safest offshore. As for what happened at Cabo… I don’t think anyone would have thought less of him if he’d followed his first instinct to tell the truth. What’s amazing about the Cruising World article he wrote is how detailed he made his fiction. It makes you wonder about other things he wrote.

  8. Yo Charlie! I love this Moitessier stuff! I even think I took the photo (on slide film no less!) and did a short piece on Stephan and the “pirate” crew when they washed ashore at the Mystic Seaport back in the day. Love stuff like this!

  9. Charlie

    @Bill: I guess you did take that photo, but weren’t credited for it. I found the old issue of SAIL that your story ran in. You may remember I was the one who tipped you off that Stephan was going to be aboard.

  10. Richard Elder

    Charlie,
    Thanks for putting together this fascinating compilation. If I could add a few trivia?

    My friend Claudia sailed from Costa Rica to the South Pacific back in that era, and happened to spend a couple of weeks anchored in the same lagoon where Moitessier had home/seasteaded. As she described it, Joshua was streaked with rust and hadn’t sailed for some time, and Bernard was at the end of his tropical dream. She suggested that he come to San Francisco and start a new life. She, her father and others like Kimball Livingston were instrumental in helping him find part time gigs.

    When Joshua was given away after being shipwrecked in Cabo, her voyaging days were not over. The guys who pumped the sand out and put her back together sailed her the several thousand miles upwind to Puget Sound, and she ended up a few docks away from where I lived aboard in Port Townsend, with (as I recall) the original telephone pole masts and hand tarred rigging in place.

  11. Charlie

    @Richard: Thanks for sharing. I would love to know more about Joshua’s interim years between Cabo and France. When was it you saw her in Port Townshend? charlie

  12. Richard Elder

    Hard to put a time line on it, as I moved to Seattle soon after and don’t recall seeing Joshua after that. My impression was that she spent a couple of years in the Northwest before being sold or donated to the maritime museum in France. I believe she left the Northwest by truck–must have then been sailed transatlantic from the east coast.

    Years ago there was an article in Nautical Quarterly that described Bernard Moitessier’s final years on land in France where he was involved in a program to replant roadside trees.

    Over the years Joshua’s sisters have kept up the traditions of adventure she started. I met two brothers from France and their families who lived aboard identical aluminum boats in Seattle. The brothers had been the first private citizens to winter over in Antarctica aboard their first boat— a sister ship to Joshua named KIM as I recall.

  13. John LaCasse

    You are correct. Moitessier’s Joshua was found beached and abandoned in the sand near Pt. Townsend Washington. I shot the video for the team that found the boat. A group of French media and Rochelle curators arrived from La Rochelle Maritime Museum, and the Maritime Museum of Paris. The boat was deck-loaded back to France. We drank a great deal of red of wine 😉
    The person who found the boat was Virginia Conner along with her husband Sam Conner. We used their boat to stage the French crew in Seattle.

  14. Ray Kashinski

    On the night of Dec 8, 1983 a novice sailor, I was alone on the Sea Nymph, a Cutter rigged, Peterson 44, at anchor off of the beach in Cabo San Lucas. When I heard on the radio that The Joshua was on the beach i was scared to death, thinking that there was little hope for me. The waves were huge but the real worry was the contents of all the boats that had gone ashore. I was worried about getting tangled up in the remnants of the boats.
    Fortunately i had a Bruce anchor on the bow with 250 feet of 3/8 chain. I learned later that the anchor fell over a cliff and it took several of us about 24 hours to raise it on a sheet winch.
    I and my son were also present the night that Joshua was pushed off of the beach.
    My son was on a shrimp trawler which was hooked to Joshua while a man with Caterpillar 977K/977L Crawler Loader – pushed from the beach. There was not much for me to do except take photos and light a cigarette and pass it to Bernard as his were soaked.
    Later i helped Joe and American and Rado a Swiss as i recall, empty what must have been tons of wet rice out of every nook and cranny on the boat. They then spent many hours below wearing hearing protectors while pounding out an enormous dent in the port side of the boat.
    The original rigging and sails were history but the shore was littered with all manor of boat accessories. They scoured the beach and found a new mast, sails, and rigging and finally got the boat ready to sail. They invited all their friends and those who had helped for a day sail. I believe that it was the fastest that i have ever gone on a mono hull cruise boat.
    Dec. 8, 1982 was one of the most exciting nights of my life.
    Meeting and interacting with Bernard is one of the great joys of my life.
    Sailing on the resurrected Joshua was one of the great honors of my life.

  15. William

    I’ve noticed several sources including Wikipedia claim that hurricane Paul wrecked Joshua. Yet Paul was diminished in early October. Having read most of Bernard’s books, and this article, I researched the storm data for 1982. I cannot find a December freak storm that was named or numbered. What storm actually caused this much damage and lured Sail magazine to cover it?

  16. Donato

    So essentially we have only Lin and Parry word about this story, and Bernard can’t belie them… I always doubt when some defamatory accounts are made after one is dead. In any case I don’t think it was a fair thing to be done on Lin and Larry’s part.

  17. Doug Montgomery

    Doug Montgomery
    We hooked up with the Joshua at the cruisers race week at Isla Partido at the second event, Joe Reto, Uli and Baby Necter we part of the crew. Water ballons and a gas powered blender led to cruising fun. the boat had been refit and sailing was a fun interesting read of all the comments. the Joshua crew where witness to our wedding at the cival registry but that is another day have fun–

  18. Olivier

    Hello Charles
    Having first read 2 books of Moitessier (“Vagabond des mers du sud” and “Cap Horn à la voile”) I was just finishing his biography by J-M Barrault when I found your very interesting post, and furthermore the excellent link toward Pardey’s book given by Colin Sarsfield in one of the comments. On this basis, I decided to write to J-M Barrault to challenge the version that indeed he gives in his book.
    The nature and also the timing of Barrault’s answers let me think strongly that he was not unaware of the alternative version, and that in any case he must have suspected at some time the lie of Moitessier. Since this exchange was rather long, I probably can’t insert it fully in this comment, but I would be quite happy to forward it to anyone who would be interested in it.
    I still hold in great esteem Bernard Moitessier outstanding personality, but I like to discover more about human psychology through these delicious anecdotes as the lie of Moitessier, and probably also Barrault’s one!-)
    olivier-vinot@wanadoo.fr

  19. Mulloy

    A person that became a legend in his youth, a person that discovered himself, flying over the wild and bountiful sea and gifted us the song that he learned there, sang it to the world, so fucking beautifully, you are going to denigrate that gift? I do not understand. A person living on the edge, pushing experience to the limits, had a couple accidents? He had a couple shipwrecks. Jesus wept. Only 3 shipwrecks? Why not 12? I love sailing. I am a sailor. I have sailed my beloved boat into the dock. hard and all the people watching shook their heads. Yet I can sail better than anybody you have ever met. My brother, wildly better than me, that fella can sail backwards and pull into a marina and dock like he is parallel parking a car. Sailing is more than its mechanics. I love the Pardeys (deeply) but for my money they do not even come remotely close to Bernard.

  20. Thierry Dalberto

    Charlie,
    Thanks for putting together this fascinating compilation. If I could add a few trivia?

    My friend Claudia sailed from Costa Rica to the South Pacific back in that era, and happened to spend a couple of weeks anchored in the same lagoon where Moitessier had home/seasteaded. As she described it, Joshua was streaked with rust and hadn’t sailed for some time, and Bernard was at the end of his tropical dream. She suggested that he come to San Francisco and start a new life. She, her father and others like Kimball Livingston were instrumental in helping him find part time gigs.

    When Joshua was given away after being shipwrecked in Cabo, her voyaging days were not over. The guys who pumped the sand out and put her back together sailed her the several thousand miles upwind to Puget Sound, and she ended up a few docks away from where I lived aboard in Port Townsend, with (as I recall) the original telephone pole masts and hand tarred rigging in place.

  21. nicolas

    I remember meeting Cap’n fatty, another guy trying to make a living out of his ‘not so interesting’ stories. We had a very lengthy lunch in Milos, hi performing a bad one man show, us listening to this old man comparing himself to Moitessier and s***ting on him between two orders yelled at his submitted wife… Very sad. If you make a living out of your stories, they better be good stories, if you make a living out of your person, you’d better be a good person. Au demeurant, la bave du crapaud…

  22. Glen Welsh

    I was one day out of Cabo the night of the storm on my Boat Tin Lizzie I arrived around 1400 hours December 9th 1983 , Bernard was and is not anyone to look up to that day. One day doesn’t make a mans history but that one day is part of it

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