Reading Bernard Moitessier’s, The Long Way

By Astrid van der Pol

Moitessier’s Long Tresses of Dreams and Stars” ©2019 Amber MacGregor

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.