The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier: Review

The Long WayThe Long Way by Bernard Moitessier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First published in 1973, if The Long Way is dated, it’s in a melancholy way. The book ends – after Moitessier’s circumnavigation and more – with the wise sailor encountering environmental destruction on Tahiti. He becomes engaged, politicized, after months of selfish (in a good way) voyaging. Just him, the Joshua his boat, the porpoises, the sea robins, the sky, sea, sun and moon. But you can’t help but feel, if we could dial the planet back to the state it was in in 1973, we would be a long way towards some kind of eco-sanity. Not perfect, but nowhere near the point we are now.

Some moments in The Long Way jar painfully. Moitessier’s departure from his wife and children. His avoidance of them throughout his time away. Also, the amount of stuff he chucks over the side of the boat – to save weight. He does not have a contemporary sensibility. He gleefully smokes his way around the world. He is not a saint. But he’s on a genuine quest for something. Hence his famous message to the Sunday Times:

‘Dear Robert: The Horn was rounded February 5, and today is March 18. I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.’

(This is a forerunner of Bruce Chatwin’s invented telegram to his editor ‘Have gone to Patagonia’.)

The Long Way is one of the great books about the satisfactions of isolated dedication to a task. It is full of contradictions. Moitessier is both at rest but also involved in a gung-ho race – against other solo sailors but also against the seasons. Moitessier is a yoga-performing hippie sympathiser, but he’s also a very old kind of macho.

I re-read this, listening to Dave Crosby’s ‘The Lee Shore’ in a fairly obsessive way. If you’re a city-dweller who wants to run away to sea, that combination is the best I can offer.

And if you’re engaged on any long project (for example, writing a novel or recovering from an illness), Moitessier is a great companion to have in your solitude.

‘One thing at a time, as in the days when I was building Joshua. If I had wanted to build all the boat at once, the enormity of the task would have crushed me. I had to put all I had into the hull alone, without thinking about the rest. It would follow… with the help of the Gods.

‘Sailing non-stop around the world. I do not think anyone has the means of pulling it off – at the start.’

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