By my 29th birthday I had reached an inflection point. Doors opened moving me closer to my goal. I wanted to be a street performer, to drift from place to place, spend my waking hours building the best of the best shows.
Every day, seven days a week I would practice my skills, rehearse routines, write jokes and work the phone building another tour.
Then a voice, a warning— you’re losing your balance, look at you, you’ve become dull and overworked, burnout is everywhere— Unpleasant, moody, preoccupied, I had no attention span, I was unavailable. As some said— I didn’t have a life.
Standing at a crosswalk I noticed a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. I tore one of the dangling shreds of paper with a telephone number and called. Staff answered my questions, offered to take my name, I had a spot reserved in the next class. I knew nothing about the sport, but now I was registered, I was going to learn how to sail.
First thing was to purchase Royce’s Sailing Illustrated, and a second pamphlet, it was a more rudimentary beginners guide to sailing. There was a short session in a classroom, the instructor went over the basics at a chalkboard. There was a break for lunch. In the afternoon, the class broke up into pairs and practiced setting up and putting away the 14’ sloop rigged keelboats. On the first day we never left the dock.
By the second week of class everything happened on the water.
Sailing broke the fever of my one-dimensional life. Smiling more, breathing remained a little forced, I was learning to get on a boat and go play with whatever the winds and tides would give me. Sailing was my teacher, the sailboat was showing me how to be comfortable in my own skin. After four weeks I was now an official beginner, free to charter the school’s keelboats and go play with the breeze.
Maestro, built 1959 restored by this sailor
I continued taking classes, by now I was reading about first aid, practicing man overboard drills, and how radar could help keep you safe. I completed a course in coastal navigation.
Another navigation student, ambitious and eager, asked if I’d like to take a day long celestial navigation workshop in Sausalito. Crossing oceans on a small sailboat seemed improbable, risky, farfetched. “It’s not that dangerous, if you took this celestial workshop, you’ll at least have the choice of whether to go or not.”
A reed thin Frenchman greeted us at the harbor. His steel ketch I would later learn had first departed Marseille in 1963 while I was still just a child. The lipstick red steel hull and white deck fit with purpose in its slip, standing out among the other vessels, appearing to have been sailed farther, the standing rigging stouter, the running rigging gauged for heavy weather, the vessel Joshua was an ocean boat, the first I had ever seen.
Running low of money Bernard Moitessier sailed from Tahiti to Sausalito in search of work. The famous sailor was soon engaged as a gardener, boat repairman, and celestial navigation instructor.
The lack of money vanished from the French circumnavigator’s life. Sausalito would offer a helping hand. Moitessier’s new fortunes he described as the dragons, hungry cows and holy trinity, self-fashioned expressions he used to identify his demons or allies. Moitessier understood that there were battles a dragon like soul must confront, or when the hungry cows of poverty move too close, or the sense of the Divine to be found while playing with the sun, the wind, and the water.
The thinking style of a boy growing up on the Mekong Delta had been tempered by experiences unavailable to a childhood spent sailing on the Chesapeake. Moitessier appeared to be all French, his Vietnamese mother’s influence was more visible in the way he used his mind, his perceptions, instincts blending the Eastern religion and philosophy he had absorbed coming of age in Southeast Asia.
Seated below deck in Joshua’s salon Moitessier rolled out the chart he had used to navigate from the South Pacific to California. Weather reports were received by shortwave radio. A threatening storm formed and had clocked toward Joshua, then for a few days followed coming close to overtaking his ketch. Moitessier tracked the storm’s movement by radio reports and with each change in its position marked the low-pressure system in pencil with a larger and larger X.
Crucially he could tune the radio to a station that transmitted tones that identified Greenwich Mean Time. Knowing down to the exact second in a minute what time it is as measured by atomic clock and then simultaneously capturing the angle of a celestial body, most often the sun, a navigator can with great accuracy calculate a line of position. To obtain an exact position the navigator uses the sextant to measure a second and third celestial body. The vessels position is fixed somewhere in the triangle formed by the three lines.
Empowering other sailors to navigate by the stars suited the gypsy spirited Moitessier. If a sailor could take accurate measurements with a sextant, they could safely cross oceans, find islands, arrive at a predetermined destination. With this skill the gentle Frenchman had given others the means of filling their sails with wind and setting off on a voyage.
In the era of the clipper ships sailing long distances was common. In 1965 Moitessier’s record breaking return sail from Tahiti back to France was the first and longest voyage of its kind for a small sailboat. The feat is often likened to climbing Mt. Everest. What the Frenchman described as The Logical Route daring to return by sailing around Cape Horn was a feat many times riskier than anything I had ever imagined, this was the first time I had considered that crossing oceans by small sailboat could make a sailor’s life more whole and fulfilled. I’d thought sailing to be a pastime, a watersport, something to do with an afternoon. Placing sailing into the center of my life wasn’t a consideration.
The clever Moitessier had let go the invisible lines I had been using to hold my imagination back, his astronavigation student had been set adrift. Imagine what changes you could go through by using the stars to help find your way through a world you had yet the courage to explore. Bernard Moitessier’s thinking was uncluttered, he had sailed his boat anywhere, taking voyages for the pleasure of knowing more about who he was while offshore at sea. Being in his presence, the distinctive quality of wit and whim, outnumbered by less experienced sailors, there was only one French-Vietnamese circumnavigator, only one of the many below deck was prepared to hoist sails and go now.
Even a simple afternoon sail in the estuary had new meaning. With the winds bit in the boats teeth, filling the sails, the sound of the hull rushing headlong through water became elixir and anthem. My time spent off the water had changed too. Sailing was amending my constitution. I had been guided back to a bigger sense of story, willing to entertain a more purposeful adventure, my fearing unknown horizons had been tempered by Moitessier. The possibilities of what a sailboat could do, how a passage could enable my life created a better version, a more resourceful self, I became someone who was more willing to strip down to the bone, a less guarded new sailor had learned how to unlock his mind, open his heart, and embrace the world of change.