Bernard Moitessier's Last Sailboat Tamata

The Death of Bernard Moitessier's Joshua


On the evening of Wednesday, December 8th, a determined couple stood on the shores of Cabo San Lucas, peering with hopeful eyes at the bleak and darkening horizon. They would once again miss the famed Pacific sunset that drew so many to these sandy shores of the Pacific. Even if the gradually rising surf hadn't blocked the view, the lowering cloud deck would've kept the Pacific's golden pearl hidden from its pilgrims. But the grim veil that was thickening over the bay promised there was much more in store for Cabo San Lucas that night.

Only a few hours earlier, the dozens of charming sailboats anchored out in the bay added a quaint and romantic quality to the otherwise rustic Baja getaway. This was before the resorts and the developers came in, before the throngs of tourists trampled in well-worn pleasure paths across the enchanted reefs. But most importantly, it was before modern hurricane forecasting.

As the couple stood there, surveying the see-sawing boats before them, they noticed just how far some of them had drifted towards the shore. Suddenly the anchor line on the nearest yacht snapped clean in two, whipping freely in the gale. The surf roared in a frenzy under the injured boat, carrying it on frothy hands towards the beach. That unfortunate vessel was the first victim that night. And that dangerous swell would claim all the sailboats in that harbor, even one of the most sea-worthy yachts in the world.

That was Joshua, the steel-hulled patron saint of Bernard Moitessier.


Moitessier sailed into bluewater lore fourteen years earlier during the 1958 Golden Globe race, a non-stop solo circumnavigation around the globe via the three Great Capes. The race was fraught with controversy, in which only one contestant actually finished, another was never seen again (though his catamaran was found adrift with obscure journals that meticulously documented his departure from sanity), and another competitor hung himself in the woods dressed as a woman three years later.

And then there was Moitessier.

Bernard Moitessier is most well known for his decision to abandon the race on the final leg, when his victory was almost completely assured, which would have guaranteed him fame, fortune, and a £5,000 prize (which is approximately $82,000 in 2015). In his most popular book, an account of the race appropriately titled The Long Way, he explains why he made that decision:

I am continuing non-stop towards the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps also to save my soul.
- Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way

Later on, he wished to amend that statement and omit the word "perhaps." (Interestingly enough, in Lin & Larry Pardey's fantastic biography, they say Bernard actually confided in them that, "I wish I had died after my circumnavigation. I was a hero. Everything was right in my world. What do I have to look forward to now?").

After Moitessier abandoned the race, he continued on until he reached Tahiti, where Joshua finally dropped anchor after a year of nonstop sailing. It wasn't his first long distance exploit in Joshua--he and his wife Françoise set a world record for the longest nonstop passage in a yacht only two years earlier, a total distance of 14,216NM over 126 days (his account of that journey, Cape Horn: The Logical Route, has a noticeably different tone than The Long Way). In fact, even his yacht was named after the first person to sail alone around the world. Given his impressive sailing resumé, he surely must have been up to something incredible during the dozen or so years between his illustrious rejection of societal norms and the catastrophic hurricane.

Well, not really. He bummed around the Pacific and French Polynesia, struggling to write his autobiography. He practiced atoll survival techniques, dabbled in New Age philosophy (including a trip to a spiritual camp at Ein Karem in Israel), and raised a son with Iléana, his new companion. But as Larry Pardey so eloquently put it, "Young hippies are okay but old hippies aren’t so cool. It’s not very charming being broke when you’re older." Even Moitessier began to realize a man can't totally escape his contemporary responsibilities. In his autobiography, he constantly references his fear of the "lean cow," his metaphysical representation of semi-permanent hunger and an empty wallet. This profound recognition of one of the hard truths of life led him to finally collect his profits from The Long Way (both the state and the church declined the proceeds), and set sail for San Francisco to finally make a paycheck to provide for his family.

Once there, he promoted videos of his 1968 Golden Globe adventures and made a brief living as a gardener, but none of those really generated enough to sustain his family in the rapidly developing San Francisco Bay. With the lean cows closing in once more, he found a quite natural way to generate income.

Klaus Kinski, a German actor who was known for particularly violent outbursts on set, was set to star in a film that involved quite a bit of sailing. As part of his character study, he sought sailing lessons to appear more authentic for the role. And when he heard that Bernard Moitessier was in California, he demanded the French sailor for his instructor.

And what better way to learn how to sail then to weigh anchor and voyage from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas?

The aftermath of Hurricane Paul left the beach a marine graveyard, full of splintered hulls and sailboat innards strewn across the sand dunes. Moitessier couldn't afford to salvage Joshua, and Kinski disappeared at the first sign of trouble. In the carefree and ascetic nature he was so well known for, Moitessier sold Joshua to a couple on the spot for a twenty dollar bill (he wanted to give it to them for free, but the port authority would not accept the transfer of sale as a gift without a price).

It only took two days for word to reach San Francisco that the legendary yachtsman was without a yacht.

The Wingless Gull


A few years earlier, a very peculiar couple named John and Ned Hutton sailed a massive wooden cutter across the Pacific and anchored in Tahiti. They bumped into Moitessier when he was experimenting with atoll survival skills, and became fast friends for having a similar disposition and nearly the same ramshackle attitude towards yachting. The Huttons actually watched after Joshua whenever Moitessier was gone on one of his spiritual walkabouts, and were so impressed with steel as a boat building material, they went on to design and build quite a few steel-hulled boats of their own. The couple and Moitessier ended up together again in San Francisco, where the quirky duo set up shop in the Sanford-Wood Boatyard.

They were working on a side project when word reached them that their good friend Moitessier lost his boat. They immediately dropped what they were doing and phoned Moitessier, and informed him that they would be designing and building his next boat. Free of charge.

Just like with Joshua, it didn't take long for the conversation about the new boat's dimensions to turn heated.

The Huttons wanted to build a 40 foot sailboat, similar to Joshua, but Moitessier refused. In one of his plentiful (and practical) anecdotes regarding the sea gypsy life, Moitessier had admitted that Joshua was almost too much boat for a man of his age--he was no longer the young adventurer sailing around the capes, roving about the deck and climbing the mast for routine maintenance (and to take incredible video). Maintenance increases exponentially with boat length (and, though it wasn't an issue in this case, so does cost, both initial and recurring). He wanted something no longer than twenty-eight feet, but absolutely no longer than thirty. The problem, John explained, is that a boat with a steel hull can't be that small. It needs to have at least a certain length such that the hull's center of gravity remains low enough to counter the rather large weight of the steel topsides. If your center of gravity is too high (which having an all-steel deck will invariably necessitate), the boat becomes too unstable. The Huttons countered with 36 feet, and Moitessier still refused. They eventually settled on 32 feet, a suitable compromise between the engineers and the operator.

Though most of the conflict was settled, there are still a few important points that distinguish this new yacht from Joshua. There may be the misconception that each iteration of Moitessier's boats has an increased level of sea worthiness, or "ultimate ocean survivability." That certainly is the case from the aptly named Snark (which nearly sank on its very first passage), to Marie-Thérèse (which ran aground in Diego Garcia), to Marie-Thérèse II (which was also ran aground, although in the Caribbean), to Joshua (which ended up, quite predictably, on the ground). The line of reasoning goes that surely, for such a legendary sailor, each new design would build upon the last, and each new model would follow a linear progression towards ultimate seaworthiness.

But that's only the case up to Joshua. Joshua was designed specifically for sailing the Great Capes, and she succeeded in those watery arenas beautifully. But a sailboat designed to weather the Southern Ocean won't look the same as a sailboat designed for, say, coastal sailing for a young family of weekend cruisers. A vessel designed to round Cape Horn and plow through hurricanes will perform (and look) significantly different than a vessel designed to sail between the Polynesian Islands in the gentle trade winds.

Moitessier wanted something designed specifically for him: a 57-year-old man who wanted to settle down to write a book, and who wanted to maintain a high level of self-sufficiency. And a heavy, ultimate seaworthy sailboat would simply be too much to meet those particular needs.

The rear end of the boat takes a modern departure fromJoshua's. Joshua was a double-ender, with a Norwegian or a canoe-style stern. "I prefer a pointed Norwegian stern," he wrote of Joshua, "because it can very effectively divide, direct, and ease a breaking sea's violent push when running." But he later admitted its shortcomings. The Norwegian stern makes the cabin less roomy than with a transom, he writes. "I once thought a transom dangerous when running in high seas, but hundreds of sailboats have proven that it is as good as a Norwegian stern in the high latitudes. And of course a transom means more room on deck and inside."

But there were some similarities. Bernard chose steel because he considered it (at the time) the superior material. He later went on to say that if he had to do it over again, "...she might well be made of aluminum, because after some early experiments, I think marine aluminum alloys have proven their worth."

With the size and the shape settled, they moved on to the finer details. Moitessier demanded simplicity for the same reason he wanted a smaller yacht.

Well, simple he got.

The mast was an old telephone pole cut up with a chainsaw. The engine was a moderately used, air-cooled and hand-cranked 12HP diesel, donated in exchange for a sailing lesson. And the dinghy was literally a big tractor inner tube, which he lovingly called the "Bombard Dinghy."

It wasn't just the Huttons and Moitessier throwing down to make this happen. The yacht was built in record time at the Sanford-Wood boatyard, partly because of the cohesion of the San Francisco sailing community, but also because of another connection to Moitessier's past maritime ventures3.

As with the Huttons, Moitessier met a gleaming man named Rick Wood in Polynesia. Rick had his own impressive roll call of sailing exploits, topped off with a jaunt around Cape Horn in a fifty-seven foot steel ketch named Sea Lion. Following a few years of cruising the Pacific, Rick ended up in the San Francisco Bay, with a few thousand bluewater miles under his belt and a desire to build boats of his own, if only he had the cash. That's where Alfred Sanford came in, the financial backer of the newly formed Sanford-Wood Boatyard.

His companion Iléana also offered her support, albeit in a more negative manner. He wanted to name it after her, but she refused. She then suggested the name Tamata, the nickname given to him by the Polynesians, which means "You can do it," in their language.It only took three months before Tamata finally splashed down, and soon after that he filled his mainsail with the trade winds and headed back towards Tahiti.

The Sun Finally Sets


Moitessier spent the rest of his sailing days in Tahiti, writing his autobiography, and spending time with a new companion, Véronique Lerebours. He had his fair share of visitors, too. On their third circumnavigation in an engine-less, home built wooden boat, Lin and Larry Pardey met up with him again.

“He was like the Pied Piper. He’d wander over to the little park and there’d be ten or fifteen kids following in his footsteps, laughing and joking. And Bernard would make up these little games and tell them stories. After school there’d be twenty more kids all over his boat, just everywhere."
- Lin Pardy, As Long As It's Fun

He eventually returned to Paris in 1986 with Véronique to finish his book. While he was gone, Tamata was moored in the Iti Marina on Raiatea. He and Véronique returned multiple times to do some sailing, but the days of braving the Southern Ocean and rounding the Great Capes were over. Now, he just settled with the gentle breezes and protected coves of Polynesia. And even that didn't last long.

In 1988, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In standard Moitessier fashion, he refused any surgery, and continued to write in Kernabat, near Bono, Brittany. He made his last pilgrimage to Tamata in 1993 with Véronique.

Tamata had been abandoned for three years at that point, rusting away in Raiatea. By this point, though, the art of fixing sailboats was Moitessier's zen. It was a relaxing activity, as simple as sun bathing or fishing for him. But he had a practical reason, too. After Tamata was back in sailing order, a crew came out to film a sailing piece on him and his lifestyle in French Polynesia. The first video is embedded below (and the second video is here).



In those videos, the sharp and sleek exterior form of Tamata cuts through the waves--but the interior is primitive and simple. There are no bulkheads, or head, or stateroom, or anything that today's yachts consider standard. It's just a simple, open, fresh interior layout. For further entertainment, turn on the captions.

With the release of his autobiography in January 1994, he returned to Paris to promote not only the book but his rather beatnick yet reasonable worldview developed over a lifetime at sea.

But living in Europe, with it's "dragons," the same dragons that drove him to turn around during the Golden Globe race, finally claimed the yachtsman. He succumbed to his cancer in June that year. The four women he had loved so fiercely during his life--Marie-Thérèse, Françoise, Iléana, Véronique--attended his funeral in Bono, France, where he remains today.

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Bernard passed away, but what remains of his legacy? Where are his boats, and the people who designed them? His vessels are easy to track down. Joshua is at a maritime museum in La Rochelle, France, and Tamata is still in Raiatea, French Polynesia. The people, however, are a little more difficult to find.

Rick Wood and Alfred Sanford eventually split up in 1996, when KKMI purchased the boatyard. Alfred Sanford went to the East Coast and continued the business in Nantucket with the Sanford Boat Company, where he is presently making some damn fine yachts. Rick Wood ended up working for the famous Spaulding Wooden Boat Center in Sausalito, CA (where Moitessier had berthed Joshua when he was in the San Francisco Bay), as interim boatyard manager. Sadly, on March 27, 2013, Rick Wood's body was found drowned near his houseboat in Richmond.

Whatever happened to John and Ned Hutton, the eccentric couple who designed and built Tamata? There was only one mention of John Hutton in Moitessier's writings after the launch of Tamata, when he said he met John in Hawaii after Tamata's sea trials.

According to this forum post here, John Hutton at some point owned a boatyard called Tern Marine. He had just finished building a forty-eight-foot steel cutter, but was expecting a divorce and for Ned to take the boat. Apparently that went through, and John Hutton ended up on the beach in Lahaina, HI. Whoever posted the blog post saw that same forty-eight-foot cutter for sale about a decade later in 1997, and was offered a price of $10,000 in cash. Ned Hutton still owned it but was trying to get rid of it. 
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And that's where the trail grows cold.

Perhaps each of Moitessier's yachts faced the only natural retirement fitting for them, representative of each phase of his life and their signifance on his story. Joshua, the steel albatross that launched him into the world's spotlight, is under care by the La Rochelle Maritime Museum. Tamata, the little metal tern that gently carried him on, remains with his last companion in the only place he truly felt at home. This is what Véronique says in her out-of-print book about Moitessier:

Moitessier planted seeds in the minds of many, especially at a time when people took the time to live slowly, it seems; earth as he planted small seeds. On the island of Tahaa, he patiently planted grass by grass, mud, between the trunks of coconut trees and holes Tupas, an entire lawn. Four years after his death, Nagual is ironed by and on rotten ground I thought unrecoverable, I saw a fresh green grass. I thought of him: 'He planted a lawn as a spiritual grave.'' The action that has me the most, it is not the passage of Cape Horn but the planting this grass stem by stem the twilight of life."
- Véronique Lerebours, Crossing the Worlds

If Véronique is anything like Moitessier, then perhaps a lucky couple will gain a symbolic part of history, in exchange for a single twenty dollar bill. It seems that would be the only suitable conclusion for Moitessier's Tamata.

Comments

  1. Well done piece. As a fan of sailing and of Moitessier, I enjoyed it.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the kind words. Expect more pieces like this in the future.

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