It is interesting that our three major monotheistic “revealed” religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–are all the fruit of mystic transmissions received by prophets who isolated themselves in the desert. And in Buddhism, of course, though it is not really theistic, we have a belief system based on the enlightenment of a man who isolated himself beneath a tree. But curiously, though humans (as we have discussed before) have long wandered across the watery part of our world, an inherently isolating experience, from the very beginning of our existence, we have in our history no real prophet of the sea.
I think most would agree now that the man who most closely fits the description is Bernard Moitessier, the iconoclastic French singlehander who became notorious in 1969 after he abandoned the Golden Globe, the first non-stop solo round-the-world race, so as to “save his soul.” Most sailors probably would also agree that the book Moitessier wrote about his experience, The Long Way (La longue route in the original French, 1971), though it obviously has never spawned any sort of religion, is the closest thing we have to a spiritual text.
Moitessier did not originally go to sea seeking enlightenment. Like those white South Africans some of us met sailing around the North Atlantic during the 1990s, who had elected to flee their homeland’s new regime in ocean-going sailboats, his fundamental goal was simply to emigrate from war-torn French Indochina, where he had been born and raised. His first boat, a decrepit Malaysian proa called Snark, which he hoped to sail to Australia, was turned back by Indonesian authorities, but his second, a gaff-rigged Siamese junk called Marie Thérèse, achieved exit velocity into the eastern Indian Ocean and beyond.
Snark prior to leaving Saigon in 1950. By the time she returned from Indonesia she was taking on two tons of water a day
The first Marie Thérèse, named after a girlfriend Moitessier had jilted in Indochina. He sailed west into the Indian Ocean aboard her in 1952
Marie Thérèse II in Mauritius, shortly after she was launched. Moitessier built her by eye without any plan. She was lost on a reef near St. Vincent in 1958
Moitessier’s first book, Sailing to the Reefs (Un vagabond des mers du sud in French, 1960), chronicles how he lost Marie Thérèse on an Indian Ocean reef, how he built a new Marie Thérèse all by himself from scratch in Mauritius, then lost it also on a reef in the West Indies. The story made him famous in France and provided him with the funds needed to build his famous Joshua, a crude 40-foot full-keeled steel ketch with solid-wood masts and a remarkably large sail-plan. As part of a honeymoon cruise from Europe to the South Pacific and back, he sailed this boat doublehanded with his new wife non-stop halfway around the world from Tahiti to Alicante, Spain, by way of Cape Horn.
Bernard and Francoise Moitessier in Alicante, 1966
Joshua profile and sail plan
This much more impressive accomplishment–the voyage in fact set a new non-stop long-distance sailing record–and the book he wrote describing it, The Logical Route (Cap Horn á la voile in French, 1967), served to heighten his fame in France, but was not, I do not think, universally recognized by the international yachting community at the time. At least Sir Francis Chichester knew nothing of it before he set out on his immensely well-publicized singlehanded one-stop circumnavigation from and to the UK via Sydney, Australia.
The truly universal fame of Chichester’s achievement (he even made the cover of Life magazine) immediately inspired other sailors, including Moitessier, to start preparing for the ultimate voyage–a solo non-stop circumnavigation. Seeking to organize these disparate lonely efforts into a coherent whole they could more easily exploit, the British weekly Sunday Times announced they would make a race of it and award a Golden Globe trophy to the first person to complete the trip and a separate £5,000 prize (equivalent to almost $100,000 in current U.S. dollars) to the one who did it fastest.
Though Moitessier had never revealed any overt spiritual side in his first two books, it was clear even before the great race started that he viewed his prospective voyage in a very different light than his competitors. Intently self-obsessed, he had berated himself for having written a book he felt betrayed the spirit of his long Alicante voyage, had become depressed as a result, and had decided the only way to redeem himself was now to write his next book while sailing this much longer voyage.
As he later wrote, being propositioned by the Sunday Times, who sent a man to France to urge him to join the race by starting his voyage from Britain, “made me want to vomit.” And he expounded on the sentiment in an article written and published at the time in the French magazine Bateaux: “In a passage like this, a man must look into himself without facing a competitor. I disapprove of a race; it makes you lose sight of the essential: a voyage to your own utter limits, this search for a profound truth with as sole witness the sea, the wind, the boat, the infinitely big, the infinitely small.”
In the end he yielded, however, moved his starting port to Plymouth, England, and explained to the Sunday Times that if he won the race–which was a distinct possibility, as he was the only competitor who had already rounded the Horn and had already sailed halfway round the world non-stop–he would “snatch the check without saying thank you, coolly auction off the Golden Globe, and leave without a word.”
Under the Golden Globe rules competitors could start from any British port between June 1 and October 31, 1968. The only gathering of multiple competitors preparing together was in Plymouth that summer. From left to right: Nigel Tetley (Victress), Bill King (Galway Blazer), Bernard Moitessier (Joshua), and Loïck Fougeron (Captain Browne)
And though ultimately Moitessier did not write his book while actually sailing his voyage (this in fact took him two torturous years of effort after the fact), he did write it all in the present tense, which serves only to heighten our sense of the voyage as an unfolding 10-month-long epiphany.
To some extent what clearly becomes a very spiritual adventure can be seen as a product of certain happenstances. Moitessier, unlike most other European sailors, had been raised in the East, had been steeped in local lore and wisdom by Asian nannies, hence was predisposed toward an eastern view of the mystic. Also, a friend had casually left onboard a copy of a then seminal how-to text, Yoga for Everyone, by one Desmond Dunne.
Finally, and not insignificantly, Joshua had been vastly improved since her Alicante voyage. She now had modern polyester sails and lines and a full complement of winches (where previously she had none at all, only blocks and tackle), so that it was now much easier for Moitessier to keep her sails properly trimmed. He had also removed thousands of pounds of miscellaneous cruising gear and concentrated most of what stayed aboard in the middle of the boat. The result overall was a vessel that was much more responsive, faster and more easily handled, and much more exactly an extension of her master’s identity and will.
Joshua under sail in 1968. She had been meticulously prepared for her great voyage
All this is manifest in Moitessier’s book, and what begins as a fairly prosaic, if expressive account of the start of the voyage–complete with a too-close encounter with a freighter that early on damages Joshua’s rig and bends her bowsprit (which are both impressively repaired at sea by her skipper)–quickly devolves into an ongoing exaltation. Moitessier (in time-honored solo-sailing fashion) happily hallucinates an extra passenger to keep him company and succeeds in taming (to some extent) a group of sea birds that follow his boat. He is ecstatic when he figures out that a pod of dolphins he encounters off New Zealand are dancing at his bow in such a way as to warn him of danger ahead. He starts practicing yoga, sometimes in the nude, and stops bathing. Soon he even looks like a filthy mystic.
Joshua’s unkempt skipper repairs a sail underway
Practicing yoga on deck
“My hair has grown a lot; it is almost down to my shoulders,” he wrote. “My beard is so long I have to trim it around my lips every week, so as to eat my morning porridge without smearing it all over. My last complete soaping dates back to a rain squall in the doldrums, months ago… yet I do not have a single pimple on my skin.”
One of the coincidences that aids Moitessier in his enlightenment, astute readers will note, is the unusually calm weather he encounters as he first plunges into the famously turbulent waters of the Southern Ocean. It gives him a happy breathing space after his tumultuous departure and his unlucky freighter collision off South Africa and creates a peaceful environment in which his view of things can dramatically expand.
“This is the first time that I feel such peace,” he wrote of this interlude, “a peace that has become a certainty, something that cannot be explained, like faith. I know I will succeed, and it strikes me as perfectly normal; that is the marvelous thing, that absolute certainty where there is neither pride nor fear nor surprise. The entire sea is simply singing in a way I had never known before.”
And when the foul weather inevitably does come, most particularly as he is approaching Cape Horn, in fantastic scenes of angry phosphorescent water and glorious displays of seemingly supernatural aurora australis, his incipient state of grace is tempered like hot steel plunged into cold water. From inside his boat “the rumble of the sea sounds muted, as it tells me lots of things. Present things, past things, future things. It is all there, in the sea.” And the turmoil helps him to “[l]ive only with the sea and my boat, for the sea and for my boat.”
What is certainly not coincidental is that Moitessier’s experience is explicitly tied to his environment. Unlike those famous prophets of the desert, his revelations are inextricably bound up with the place that produces them.
“Sailing in these waters,” he wrote, “if man is crushed by his feeling of insignificance, he is borne up and protected by that of his greatness. It is here, in the immense desert of the Southern Ocean, that I feel most strongly how much man is both atom and god.
And when I go on deck at dawn, I sometimes shout my joy at being alive, watching the sky turning white above the long streaks of foam on this colossally powerful, beautiful sea, that tries to kill at times. I am alive, with all my being. Truly alive.”
And though he never can articulate any specific tenets of his faith (again, unlike those prophets of the desert), his tendency, like some sort of ocean druid, is to both worship and anthropomorphize the nature that surrounds him. Anticipating James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, he conceives of the entire planet of a single living entity, and his ultimate metaphor for divinity is a friendly bird that comes to visit him: “She is the Fairy Tern, who lives on all islands where the sun is the god of men. She flies out to sea in the morning and always returns to her island by dusk. So all you have to do is follow.”
Moitessier’s drawing of the Fairy Tern
Of course, the reason ocean sailors, at least, can easily relate to Moitessier’s inchoate religion is that many of us, though unable to describe them at such length, have had similar glimmerings while sailing offshore. Even more than the desert, the ocean inherently seems to be a place that encourages spiritual ponderings.
In more scientific literature, there is even a term for this. “Oceanic feeling” is an explicit psychological expression first coined by Romain Rolland in 1927 and subsequently popularized by Sigmund Freud. Rolland, in correspondence with Freud, described it as a “spontaneous religious sentiment” born of a sensation experienced by those who have formed an insoluble bond with the external world.
Freud acknowledged the phenomenon, but dismissed it as a “primitive ego-feeling” related to breast-feeding. Years later, however, it was redescribed as the “overview effect” after astronauts reported experiencing spiritual revelations while observing our planet from space. Most recently it has been scrutinized by certain academics seeking to establish a neurological and evolutionary basis for spiritual and religious experiences as part of a nascent science known as neurotheology.
Neurotheology is still well outside the mainstream of science, but theorists in the field have focused on repetitive rhythmic stimulation as a common characteristic of human religious rituals and believe such stimulation may provoke transcendental feelings of universal connectedness, or “a unitary state,” in the human mind.
According to one group of authors (Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause), rhythmic experiences “can lead to unitary states by causing the orientation area [of the brain] to be blocked from neural flow. The intensity of those unitary states depends on the degree of neural blockage. Since the degree of that blockage can increase by any increment, and theoretically until there is a total blocking, a large spectrum of increasingly unitary states is possible. We call this span the unitary continuum. The arc of this continuum links the most profound experiences of the mystics with the smaller transcendent moments most of us experience every day, and shows that, in neurological terms, the two are different essentially by degree.”
One thought that occurs to me, of course, is that repetitive rhythmic stimulation is very obviously an inherent part of any ocean sailing experience.
Consider the implications. Adapting to a life at sea is primarily an experience of adapting to the motion of the ocean, which is always rhythmic on some level. The adaptation primarily consists of learning the rhythm and learning to focus solely on whatever it is you are doing as you are doing it, lest some wave send your immediate project–be it a repair job, the keeping of a log, the donning or removal of clothing, the brushing of teeth, or the boiling of water for coffee–suddenly flying outside your control. Achieving this focus is fundamentally an act of meditation. To live well at sea, to adapt to its rhythm, you must learn to live as much as possible in the present moment while maintaining as much awareness of your surroundings as you possibly can.
Add to this the inherent isolation of being at sea, your intense singularity in an environment dominated by a universal life-giving element, an environment in which you are nonetheless also exceedingly vulnerable, and you have everything you need, I would submit, to devise, as Moitessier did, a religion of your own.
The culmination of Moitessier’s own transcendental experience was his decision not to finish the race. Reading the book, you see he actually conceived of this well before he rounded the Horn. And after rounding the Horn, by the time he actually let the wind decide whether he should sail north back to Europe or continue sailing east in the Southern Ocean, he was already debating whether he should sail on to Tahiti or the Galapagos.
“I look to the sea, and it answers that I escaped a great danger,” he wrote. “I do not want to believe in miracles too much. Yet there are miracles in life. If the weather had stayed bad for a few days longer, with easterly winds, I would be far to the north by now; I would have continued north, sincerely believing it was my destiny, letting myself be carried by the trades like an easy current with no whirlpools or snares, believing it was true… and being wrong.”
Moitessier’s route. He didn’t win any prizes, but he did set a record for the longest non-stop solo voyage
It was this decision, of which he characteristically gave notice by shooting a message by slingshot on to a passing ship, that instantly made Moitessier world famous. In France particularly the story was told that he had turned on his back on a certain double victory, as both first and fastest, over Robin Knox-Johnston, his sole surviving competitor in the race, and that he had thus sacrificed something very substantial in favor of the spiritual life he found at sea. But this really wasn’t true, as Moitessier himself acknowledged in the notes he appended to his book.
“And if Joshua had beaten Suhaili to the mark (it is by no means sure that Joshua would have finished first),” he wrote, “it would have been a grave injustice, as Knox-Johnston’s boat was much smaller, and much less sound.”
Regardless, many have forgotten that Moitessier might actually have finished second over the line had he sailed north. What we all remember instead is the epiphanous fire that drove him to keep sailing east instead.
In terms of the book what is remarkable is that the most exciting parts of Moitessier’s voyage, from a sailor’s point of view, all came after he passed the Cape of Good Hope for the second time. By then the season was too far advanced to sail safely in the Southern Ocean and he could not hope to have the same good luck he enjoyed his first time around. He suffered through eight gales and four serious knockdowns on his way from Good Hope to Tahiti. He lost four sails and saw three shrouds parted. Yet all this is quickly glossed over in narrative asides. His focus remains on his exalted state and the Fairy Tern that has come to keep him company.
The tragedy of the story is that the Tahiti Moitessier found at the end of his long way was very different from the Tahiti he had visited just a few years earlier. The Monster, as he called it, had come with bulldozers to develop the place and there was very little he and the band of bluewater cruisers he joined there could do about it. In a desperate bid to call attention to the dangers posed by our modern way of life, he announced in his book he would donate the proceeds from its publication to the Pope, “who symbolizes the little flame of spirituality which still flickers in corners of the West.”
He sincerely believed this sacrifice would electrify the world in the same way his decision not to sail on to Europe had, but in fact everyone, including the Pope, just ignored it. Moitessier’s moment had come and gone, and though he struggled throughout the remainder of his life to further and stay true to the vague new-age principles he seized on during his great voyage, the fire of his revelation never burned so bright again.
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