By Astrid van der Pol
Bernard Moitessier grew up around sail boats. As a child, he spent three months a year in a fishing village in French Indo-China where he helped repair fishing nets, interpreted for fishermen , and learned local techniques of navigation. Later, he bought his own junk and tried to sail to France. After being shipwrecked, he spent years on Mauritius building a boat. The Long Way is a book about his solo-navigation.
I don't need to know how to germinate soy beans in saucers or steer with the mistral swell slightly off to the port quarter but when my own voice disgusts me, I become Bernard. * * * Bernard listens to a radio announcer talk to Rach-Gia I could see... my lovely junk, beating through the Hong Ray Archipelago, its islands full of memories of my childhood spent with Vietnamese fishermen. St. David's, Bermuda -- my girlhood's cliff-- whitecaps against coral reefs. Snorkeling at Elbow Beach with angel fish under my feet. A hammerhead hangs in a tree. * * * Radios can tune into deep missing. Bernard can only make out a word or simple sentence. He's all ears but can't pick up on the keys of his mother tongue. When I am ten, we move to Malawi. There, my parents listen to five PM Sunday broadcasts-- Dutch, their mother-tongue, breaks in, surrounding and surprising us all. I know I am not part of my parents' home. When static returns, The mood changes. Lizard tongues grow in size. Stick insects multiply. The radio, like pink geraniums, stinks up twilight's beautiful blue. * * * Bernard pitches overboard: books, anodes, anchors, wine. He's lighter, faster. In rough waves what matters? Leeward, beam reach, halyard. What I'd like to pitch overboard: -- My recurring nightmare; I'm on an escalator in an airport maze, lost. My family's left without me. I do not know where they've gone. I will never see them again. -- The report card ticked, "Obeys cheerfully." * * * Lightning blackens a tree, shame strikes. I sniff its singe when Bernard describes men fanning his parents at French Indo-China soirees. My father is Master. I am Madame. In the servant quarters -- a bed, squat toilet, water tap, and a charcoal stove whose smoke stings my eyes, tinging everything. * * * Bernard writes about the police boarding his junk. They suspect him of gun-running to Viet Minh. They could not understand in that troubled period he loved only the Gulf of Siam. At twelve, I walk, Bibi, our dog, beside the Chichiri Prison's walls. Houseboys disappear for stealing a chicken. Priests get poisoned. Expats get deported. The length of my skirt, a blackened-out line in a letter, a policeman's look, could get me picturing the cracked earth from dirty white aircraft stairs. * * * A place's beauty speaks to some. it burns like a star in our hearts. Bernard's a pupil of how bright stars signal wind. Taigong fishermen teach him to read sky. He cannot live there but he becomes a teacher of stars. My Bermudian teacher read about an African village's masked dancing, new friends, and home in a hut. "Astrid's moving here." Instead, I listened to children playing outside playing, and birds singing. My room was a bed behind the cupboard, burglar bars blocked windows, doors locked. When I took African dance, I should have been better than I was. Sometimes Bernard and I are not the same. * * * If there's no safe harbour -- drift. The sea has shaken itself free of the morass of word ... I rip hundreds of pages: diaries, poems, journals. I worked so hard to hold on. No wonder I got sick of my life. I, too, long to lose myself to wind -- to hover, to heave to, to rest. * * * Sailing intrigues me the way flying awes the shearwater chick that hatches out of a single white egg. It knows there is beauty to movement. Some seeds never root, Home is a wind en route.