Standing shipwrecked and distraught on a beach in Trinidad having just lost his entire possessions except for his sea chest Bernard Moitessier decided to build a paper boat with which to cross the Atlantic to France.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been shipwrecked, his first boat, the dilapidated junk Marie Thérèse had run aground on a reef off Diego Garcia in 1952 after an 85 day passage from Indo-China into the teeth of the monsoon. Moitessier had had no way of measuring his longitude and the state of his boat was such that he’d had to dive over the side to plug the leaks.
Well educated and resourceful he got a lift to Mauritius on a British Corvette and soon found work on the island. It wasn’t long before he was earning good money and began thinking about another boat.
Marie Thérèse II was designed and built by Moitessier and after 3 years on Mauritius he left for Cape Town then, after a long stay he moved on to St Helena and then the Caribbean. It was while on a passage from St Lucia to Grenada that Bernard, pushing himself hard on a mammoth watch, fell at asleep at the helm. The boat sailed on in the warm tropical breeze and ran aground.
Moitesser felt that he had committed a crime against his boat by ignoring the laws of the sea. “The first of which is to keep watch, and the second never to relax ones efforts.” Bernard thought of Jacques Yves Le Toumelin sailing amongst the treacherous reefs of the Torres straits repeatedly pricking his leg with a sharp knife so that the pain would keep him awake. “I should have done the same.” He reflected, “Or chosen another profession.”
Bernard had $60 in his pocket and Trinidad wasn’t the sort of place where you could find a high paid job. He wanted to get to France, “Where money flowed like water and where the ghost of Marie Thérèse II might fade.” He would be able to earn well and build a new boat, but first he had to get there.
Basing his ideas on the bamboo framed cargo boats of the coast of Annam he would build a boat of paper. He spent $15 on wood for the frames, he planned to buy jerry cans for storing water and, for food, would take advantage of the cheap price of rice. He hoped the fishing would be good.
Bernard approached the local newspaper for material with which to sheath the boat. The editor, seeing a good story, offered all the old copies of the local rag that might be needed and gave $100 in return for a 20 page letter about the trip, to be sent when Bernard arrived in France.
After 8 days on the island he started on the build but a friend came running, there was a place as crew on an oil tanker bound for Europe. It would leave in two hours. Much to the relief of his concerned friends Bernard went for his sea chest.
Moitessier is one of the most loved and respected of long distance single-handed adventurers. In the double-ended 38ft steel ketch Joshua, which he eventually built in France, he twice rounded Cape Horn. He famously cocked a snook at the world of competition, renown, fame and wealth by failing to complete the Sunday Times’ Golden Globe round the world race of 1969, when he was clearly going to win, and sailing on to Tahiti instead. He died in 1994.
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