Lit Bits

BERNARD MOITESSIER: Sailing Mysticism and The Long Way

Long Way cover

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.

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HOOLIGAN NAVY: Sailing Yachts On Sub Patrol During WWII

Corsair bow image

When I was boy during summers spent on the Maine coast at the mouth of Kennebec River my mother used to tell us a story from when she was a girl growing up on the river, of how once during the war a Nazi submarine was spotted near the river's entrance. To me this always sounded crazy, until I got older and read more about the war and learned how badly German U-boats had ravaged shipping all along the East Coast right after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941. My mom's story might well have been apocryphal, but it was not at all improbable, for in those days U-boats did indeed operate with impunity quite close to our shores.

Those of us who sail along the East Coast can take some pride in the fact that the initial response to this threat was mustered by amateur sailors and yachtsmen, ex-rumrunners, and other ne'er-do-wells who volunteered for service in what was known officially as the Coastal Picket Patrol, or more colloquially as the Corsair Fleet, or more derogatively as the Hooligan Navy. This eclectic branch of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve was the brainchild of Alfred Stanford, commodore of the Cruising Club of America, and was ultimately run by Rufus Smith, who was then the editor of Yachting magazine.

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SOUTH SEA VAGABONDS: The Ultimate Dumpster-Diving Boat Bum Tale

South Sea Vagabonds cover

I had always understood this book was a cult classic in New Zealand and several people over the years have urged me to read it. I never really understood how strong the cult was, however, until I finally set out several months ago to buy a copy. Scanning my favorite used-book websites, I was shocked to discover that old paperback copies were going for over $70 a pop. Clearly this was a book that people coveted. So when I eventually learned that a special new "75th Anniversary" hardcover edition from HarperCollins New Zealand had also just become available, for only $45, I snarfed one up with the quickness.

Damn, I thought as I pressed the "Buy" button on my computer screen, this better be worth it! And it was. It has been a long time since I was so engrossed in a sailing narrative, and I don't know if I have ever laughed out loud so much while reading one.

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BLACK SAILS: Pirates on TV

Black Sails combat

One thing I particularly like about the age in which we live is that there are lots of great TV shows to watch. An astounding number, really, with gritty adult themes such as we never dreamed of back in the days of straight broadcast TV, well-written scripts with subtle, involved plots, and fantastic performances from actors and actresses who can now develop truly multi-dimensional characters over the course of protracted detailed story lines. It really is putting the film industry to shame, as cable TV shows (some of them, anyway) are now far superior to most of the pablum you see in cinemas. Another thing I really like is that digital special effects have made it possible to create quite convincing action scenes involving ships under sail (see, e.g., the image up top, from the TV series in question). Gone are the days, thankfully, of blatantly fake scenes staged with models in placid swimming pools.

Given these two serendipitous trends, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to put together a cable TV series involving pirates. Given the great success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, one might reasonably fear such a show would be just as goofy and frivolous. But the Starz Network, in its TV pirate series Black Sails, has instead steered a much more intriguing course, blending fictional characters from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale Treasure Island with historical characters from the golden age of piracy in the early 18th century. I just finished watching season one (now available on iTunes, as season two just started up on cable last month) and by the end was totally hooked.

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