Just what qualifies a sailor as ‘intrepid?’

October 2003

By Dodge Morgan

I have been reading “Intrepid Voyagers,” edited by Tom Lochhaas and published by International Marine McGraw-Hill this year. It is composed of 18 selections from the journals and logs of “the world’s most adventurous sailors,” an eclectic bunch from pioneers Bernard Moitessier and Francis Chichester to current achiever Ellen MacArthur and cruising nobility Lin and Larry Pardey. Strangely, Donald Crowhurst’s faked circumnavigation ending in his mental derangement and suicide was included, hardly the stuff of an intrepid sailor.

The choice of the sailors itself is made interesting by those who are missing as much as by those who are presented. Joshua Slocum, first recorded around alone sailor, is not included; nor are Robin Knox-Johnston, first to circumnavigate alone non-stop, Philip Jeantot who re-wrote the speed records in the ’83 solo BOC around-the-world race, Alain Colas, first to sail around in a multihull in ’73, Richard Konkolski, who escaped from behind the iron curtain to compete in the ’83 BOC and defected while doing it, Tristan Jones, the Welsh bullshit artist who became famous more by his vivid imagination than by his actual sailing exploits, Nigel Tetley, whose multi-hull broke apart as he pushed it to overtake the lying nut Crowhurst.

The book is a compelling view of why and how people take to the sea in small boats. It is fascinating to compare the purposes and philosophies of the chosen sailors. Some were engaged by a solo race, some by an experience of solitude, some by an enchantment with nature, some by a discovery of remote places, some by a need to put themselves at risk in bizarre feats. The quoted journals are straightforward logs of daily sailing challenges interspersed with flights of philosophical fancy.

My favorite solo sailor is Moitessier, followed closely by Knox-Johnston. Both were in the first solo, non-stop race in ’68. Nine boats started the race. Knox-Johnston was the only finisher. Moitessier, clearly challenging for the lead heading home in the Atlantic, simply decided that the whole idea of a race was an obscene human concept when compared to the overwhelming existence, beauty and power of the sea. He bore off out of the race, sailed halfway around the world again and settled in Polynesia a supremely happy man.

I read Moitessier’s journal with awe. He is perhaps the most at home at sea under sail of any sailor in history. The mechanics of tending his boat, Joshua, and the navigating chores took a back seat to his poetic revelations of the natural world and his awareness of how miniscule is each one of us under the whole realm of nature. These wisdoms are all so clearly demonstrated by being at sea alone.

Knox-Johnston was the consummate, one-day-at-a-time sailor. I believe that although he won the race, competing was less a goal than was simply keeping the boat together and underway.

A selection from my journal of “The Voyage of American Promise” is included in this book. I know that my solo, non-stop voyage does not elevate me into the same category as either Moitessier or Knox-Johnston. My spirit was Moitessier, but my execution was Knox-Johnston. I am placed in the “long-distance racer” section of the book, yet I was not in a race, not with any group effort and not focused on achieving records. My goal was simply to do it and to discover new emotions while doing it. But I never reached the spiritual heights of Moitessier.

The 13 solo sailing records fell to the boat American Promise and really not to me, the sailor. In no way does my circumnavigation at 150 days in a 60-foot, glass and Kevlar boat compare with Knox-Johnston’s at 313 days in a 32-foot wooden, gaff-headed ketch.

And then I think of that Californian with just one arm who quite rightfully claims to be the only real single-handed sailor around.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.