THE MAINTENANCE RACE

Words by Stewart Brand
21st July 2022
Issue 8

The world’s first round-the-world solo yacht race was a thrilling and, for some, deadly contest. How its participants maintained their vessels can help us understand just how fundamental maintenance is.

Culture

The story is a draft, an invitation to readers to comment while the text and illustrations are still malleable, open to improvement. In the terminology of the racers in this story, it’s a shakedown cruise, a sea trial – a time to find the things that need fixing while they’re still easy to fix. You can help me with the piece by commenting here [Note: Commenting currently paused]. I’ll be announcing some of the changes I make and recognizing helpful commenters on my Twitter. 

Stewart Brand – July 2022

Probably a great many famous stories could be retold in terms of maintenance.

Here’s one – the Golden Globe around-the-world solo sailboat race of 1968. Its drama continues to echo half a century later because three of the nine competitors became legendary – the one who won, the one who didn’t bother to win, and the one who cheated.

Their stories are usually told as a contest of wills and endurance, but at heart, it was a contest of maintenance styles.

***

The setup was this. In early 1968, editors and journalists at the Sunday Times in London noticed that several sailors were finding sponsors for their attempts at a new world record: to make the first solo voyage by sailboat around the world without stopping. The editors decided to co-opt the whole thing by declaring it a race. On March 17 they announced:

The £5,000 Sunday Times round-the-world race prize will be awarded to the single-handed yachtsman who completes the fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the world departing after June I and before October 31, 1968 . . .

The Sunday Times Golden Globe will be awarded to the first non-stop single-handed circumnavigator of the world . . .

The circumnavigation must be completed without outside physical assistance, and no fuel, food, water, or equipment may be taken aboard after the start.

Those are the only conditions . . .

There were two awards – one a cash prize, the other a trophy – because the sailors were planning to leave at different times, and one might be the first to complete the trip while another who left later might turn out to be the fastest. They were racing each other and the clock.

The Golden Globe Race route reads from the top (England) down and to the right past Africa and Australia, then from the left side across the Pacific and around South America back up to England. Thirty thousand miles; 10 months. Image created by Joe Ronan, adapted from a NASA image in the public domain.

For the 30,000-mile circumnavigation, all the racers would sail from England down the Atlantic to the perilous Southern Ocean – the ‘Roaring Forties’ latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south of the equator – where storms and waves that are sometimes immense blast eternally from the west, uninterrupted all the way around the world. With that wind behind them, the racers would head east below Africa, then Australia, then South America, and then – if they got that far – north back to England.

The racers were required to depart between June and October in order to arrive at the Southern Ocean between November and February, when the southern hemisphere summer makes the sailing a little less hazardous.

It was expected that even the fastest competitor would take ten months to get home. Some psychiatrists predicted that so many months totally alone, at times in extreme danger, might drive them mad.

Few modern ships use the far Southern Ocean. A boat in trouble could not count on help from anyone. GPS and electronic autopilots didn’t exist in 1968, radio was primitive, and radar didn’t fit on small boats. The mariners would navigate like their ancestors, solely by sextant, almanac, chronometer, and nautical chart. Without broadcast weather information, each sailor would have to make their own forecasts based on their barometer and what they could see of cloud, wind, and swell conditions. To free them from steering so they could sleep, cook, and do maintenance, they each relied on a complex self-steering device that kept the boat on a steady course in relation to the direction of the wind.

Every piece of equipment on board, and the structure of the boat itself, would be stressed for months on end. Since going ashore for repairs was forbidden, maintenance would have to be ceaseless and done at sea. Failure of a critical element at a critical time could mean death.

But the £5,000 award for the fastest trip was a serious incentive. These days it would be worth about $100,000. Fame, for the winners, would be worth far more.

***

The youngest of the three competitors who became legendary was Robin Knox-Johnston. Though only 29 years old, he could draw on invaluable experience. With some friends, he had sailed his 32-foot wood ketch SUHAILI 17,000 miles from India to England, gaining crucial knowledge of the boat’s seaworthiness and its match to his skills. In his account of the Golden Globe Race, A World of My Own, he wrote:

Perhaps her greatest advantage . . . is that she is not complicated and there were very few maintenance tasks I could not carry out myself. The wear and tear and battering to be expected during a 300-day voyage meant that constant maintenance was essential, but this came easily to someone who had served an apprenticeship in the Merchant Navy.

[A bosun named Bertie Miller] taught us our knots and splices, canvas work, rigging, how to work a paintbrush properly, and the thousand-and-one finer practical points that make the difference between the seaman and a hand. It was Bertie who gave us a respect for the materials and the tools we used and took tremendous trouble to see that we set about a job the right way and finished it off properly.

Knox-Johnston had tried to build a boat specifically designed for sailing around the world, but he couldn’t raise the money for it. Stuck with the wood 32-footer he had, he decided his governing principle would be ‘Make do and mend’.

To prepare SUHAILI for a ten-month passage, most of it in the world’s roughest waters, he packed into his small boat all the ‘materials and tools’ he could imagine he might need – specialized wrenches for every exotic nut on the boat; ditto for screwdrivers; a sailmaker’s bag full of needles, sewing palms, and twine; a bosun’s bag with every kind of shackle, thimble, and marlinspike for managing all his steel wire rope; a spare bilge pump and extra rubber pipe; 12 yards of canvas; caulking chisels and cotton; plenty of oil, glue, and Stockholm tar; spare parts for everything mechanical; and medical supplies for repairing himself.

Robin Knox-Johnston’s ketch SUHAILI was built of tough India teak and designed for long ocean passages, but her length of only 32 feet made her slower than most of the other boats. Licensed from PPL Media. Photo by Bill Rowntree/PPL

Knox-Johnston’s daring habit when the wind was light was to dive off his bow and swim alongside the boat for a while. Then he would grab a line trailing off the stern and climb aboard refreshed. His comfort in the water turned out to be crucial for dealing with his first crisis.

A month after departure from England, it became clear that SUHAILI had a very serious leak, forcing him to pump the bilges twice a day. On a calm day off the coast of West Africa, he went over the side with mask and snorkel and discovered two long gaps in the planking on each side of the keel, and they moved with the rolling of the boat. Over a cigarette, he considered the nature of the problem and what he might be able to do about it. (Skilled maintainers advise never trying to solve a new or complex problem without a thorough mulling first.) If it was a structural issue, it could cause the boat to eventually break apart, but she had been overbuilt of strong India teak, and maybe it was just a matter of caulking the gaps – if he could figure out how to do it all by himself at sea.

Dressing in a dark shirt and jeans to hide his white body from potential sharks, he dove down and tried wedging strips of cotton caulking into the gaps. But five feet underwater, he couldn’t hold his breath long enough to secure the caulking in place.

He thought some more. Then he cut a 1- 1/2inch canvas strip seven feet long, sewed caulking to one side of it, coated it with Stockholm tar, and pushed tacks through the canvas every six inches. With a hammer he kept suspended below the hull, he was able to pound in the tacks to hold the caulking in place, but he could only manage one tack at a time before having to surface to breathe. It took two hours.

Then, worried that the canvas strip might tear off eventually, he cut a long strip of copper that could be nailed over it. Meanwhile a shark had arrived and was circling the boat. He fetched his rifle, shot the shark, and watched it sink out of sight, apparently without attracting other sharks. He went back into the chilly water hoping that was so.

He was successful with the copper strip, but the wind came up, and he had to postpone sealing the second gap until another calm several days later. When that one was done, his leak was fixed.

Sometimes maintenance involves shooting the shark.

*

But he was unable to fix the overhead leaks from poorly fitted hatch covers. That meant he would never get dry. The author of the book A Voyage for Madmen, Peter Nichols, drew on his own experience as a single-hander to describe Knox-Johnston’s situation:

With every wave that broke over the deck and cabin, salt water poured in through the companionway hatch and splashed over the chart table, the book rack, and the Marconi radio . . . The skylight dripped incessantly above his sleeping bag . . . A small boat at sea is its crew’s only port in a storm, and if the boat is cold and wet below, its gear beginning to fail, the dismalness of such a situation can’t be exaggerated.

The constant motion also took a toll. Knox-Johnston noted that his tools were holding up well, except he was running short of drill bits, ‘mainly because when drilling in a moving boat one is constantly being thrown about and unless one withdraws the drill fast it gets snapped off’. He added that his health remained good, ‘apart from the inevitable cuts, blisters, and bruises’.

*

One night, in his first gale, he lay in his bunk listening to the shrieking wind and tumult of breaking waves and chaotic cross seas. Suddenly he was hurled to the far wall and buried under everything loose in the cabin. He dug partway out and then was flung back across into his bunk as the boat righted itself after a complete knockdown. With the lamp out, he was in utter blackness. He groped his way out to the deck and felt his way around in the violent night to see if he had any masts left at all. He was surprised to find all his rigging intact, though the self-steering gear had been damaged.

He went below to pump out all the water that had come in during the knockdown and found that more was still coming in. To his horror, it was pouring in from gaps around the edges of the cabin, which had apparently been knocked partially loose from the deck. He knew that if the cabin got torn all the way off by another capsize, SUHAILI would fill with water and sink. He reduced sail to improve his odds of surviving the night.

When the storm abated, he spent a whole day reinforcing the structure that held the cabin to the deck, another day rebuilding the self-steering apparatus, and then three days repairing the rudder. If he had not laid in a supply of materials, tools, and fasteners for such tasks, he would have had to quit the race. It was his thorough preparation that equipped him to ‘make do and mend’.

*

But preparation can never be perfect. The radical part of Knox-Johnston’s making-do was that he was never daunted by the lack of a crucial material or tool.

When he took apart his radio transmitter to find out why it had quit working, he discovered a wire connection so badly corroded it would have to be reattached, but he had no solder to do it with. So . . . he painstakingly melted and collected the tiny dots of solder from inside several navigation light bulbs. That got the transmitter working again. (For a while.)

Another time, he figured out that his battery charger wouldn’t run because of grease on the ignition points. He cleaned off the grease and then realized he couldn’t reset the gap at the required 12 to 15 thousandths of an inch because he had no feeler gauge on board. So . . . he measured the pages in his logbook and found there were 200 to the inch, which meant one page would be 5 thousandths of an inch. Three pages did the trick. The charger ran again. (For a while.)

In his book, he wrote, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention and I am always quite happy to leave things until I have to cope with them, and then throw myself happily into the problem’.

*

Coping worked well for him most of the time, but not all of the time.

People on sailboats tend to be vaguely disapproving and thus negligent about their engine. It is bulky, heavy, noisy, and hard to get at. Its prop drags in the water. Turning it on feels like a violation of the essence of sailing. But when the engine is really needed to get out of trouble, it had better work instantly.

One day Knox-Johnston wrote in his journal, ‘I decided to turn the engine today as it has not had any use for over two months’. It wouldn’t turn. Close inspection showed nothing obviously wrong. He wrote, ‘Whatever the trouble, it’s my own fault for not turning it daily. Now I have a lot of work on my hands to get it free, even if I manage that.’ He completely disassembled the engine, discovered that the cylinders were rusted solid from condensed moisture, and broke several tools failing to clear them.

*

At a point halfway around the world, he had no engine and no radio transmitter. Then came what felt like the final straw. He was south of Australia when his last spare for a critical part of the self-steering rig broke off and sank. He knew that sailing long distances solo was considered impossible without self-steering gear. He wanted to head to Melbourne and quit.

But first, he experimented to see if he could arrange his four sails – mizzen, main, and two headsails – in ways that would allow the boat to keep a course on any point of wind so that he would not have to steer all day and night. To his amazement, it turned out he could. But he needed some way to know while he was sleeping if SUHAILI was jibing or about to jibe, because the rigging was increasingly vulnerable to the shock of his mainsail suddenly slamming to the opposite side. His solution was to take the sideboard out of his bunk so that he would be flung to the floor when the boat heeled unexpectedly. ‘This was a very effective alarm’, he wrote, ‘and although I sustained a few bruises as a result, it was far better than damaging the boat’.

All the way across the southern Pacific, his boat took punishment. So did he. Years later, he recalled one incident:

When you’re looking at the stern and you see an 80-foot wave breaking at the top, stretching from horizon to horizon, don’t tell me you’re not a little bit scared . . . As the wave was breaking, I knew it was going to sweep the boat – and I realized I could not get down below where I was safe. So I just climbed the rigging and the wave covered the boat. It was me and two masts and nothing else in sight for about 1,500 miles in any direction. Then she popped up. The hatch had been knocked open, so I spent the next three hours pumping out three tonnes of water.

The swamping of SUHAILI by an 80-foot breaking wave on December 16,1968 was depicted in 1989 by nautical painter Gordon Frickers, based on guidance from Knox-Johnston himself, who commissioned the painting. This is a close up from the large painting that has been widely reproduced as an illustration of the ferocity of the Southern Ocean. You can find more of Fricker’s work here. Titled Roaring Forties. Licensed from Gordon Frickers. 

By the time he turned north at Cape Horn toward England after four and a half months in the Southern Ocean, even his durable synthetic sails were disintegrating. ‘I spent more time repairing sails on the homeward run than any other form of maintenance’, he wrote. He had to devote three hours every day solely to tasks that would keep the boat sound enough to get all the way home.

*

Despite the endless ordeal, or maybe because of it, Robin Knox-Johnston reported, ‘I realized I was thoroughly enjoying myself’. He loved being at sea. He loved exploring the extreme limits of his competence.

Ever the responsible merchant marine officer, he concluded his book with an 11-page ‘Pilot’s Notes’, spelling out in detail everything he had learned about gear and technique on the voyage. He quoted from his journal this lesson in particular:

The only way to overcome my present feeling of depression is to fully occupy myself, so I cleaned and served the remaining bottle screw threads and then gave all the servings a coat of Stockholm Tar. Next I polished the vents and gave them a coating of boiled oil. Whilst I had it out I dabbed the oil on wire and rust patches.

Doing maintenance cures depression.

***

Donald Crowhurst counted on his race becoming legendary. To solve his financial problems he desperately needed the money that would come with a famous victory.

Since he would be starting in late October at the back of the pack, he figured he could beat the others with his talent for innovation. His specialty was electronics. He had devised a handy radio direction finder that he sold through his tiny business. Stanley Best, the principal backer of his company – and later of his Golden Globe bid – said of him:

I always considered Donald Crowhurst an absolutely brilliant innovator . . . but as a businessman, as someone who had to know how the world went, he was hopeless . . . He seemed to have this capacity to convince himself that everything was going to be wonderful, and hopeless situations were only temporary setbacks.

The most innovative form of sailboat available in 1968 was the newly developed trimaran – a central hull between two large floats. Trimarans were so light they could sail twice as fast as traditional keel boats, but they had a serious potential problem. When a trimaran tipped over, it would stabilize upside down and could not be righted. For the boat he was building, Crowhurst came up with an intricate solution. There would be a buoyancy bag at the top of the mainmast that would automatically inflate when it sensed a capsize. Then water would be pumped into the uppermost float, which would become heavy enough to pull the boat back upright.

Unfortunately, the 35-year-old Crowhurst was too much of an optimist to take into account the complications that always arise between having an idea and getting it to work. The whole rushed process of building and outfitting his trimaran became a nightmare of argument, delay, extra expense, and chaos. As a result, when he set sail at the last permitted moment on October 31st, the boat was unready. Electrical wires led everywhere, connected to almost nothing. The buoyancy bag was installed but inoperable.

And accidentally left on the dock in the turmoil of departure were all the materials needed for repairing the boat – plywood, fasteners, and rigging gear. The one thing he had in abundance was electronic parts and tools for his elaborate radio array. He over-prepared for what he knew well and under-prepared for nearly everything else.

*

Traditional systems (like wood-plank-keeled boats) have an advantage over innovative systems (like the then-novel plywood trimarans) in that the whole process of maintaining traditional things is well explored and widely understood. Old systems break in familiar ways. New systems break in unexpected ways.

On his 41-foot trimaran, Donald Crowhurst was the last to start the Golden Globe Race. He hoped the boat’s exceptional speed downwind would let him pass the other racers who had started months earlier. Licensed from Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images.

Once at sea Crowhurst’s boat began to torture him with its problems. His self-steering gear was so poorly secured to the deck that it kept vibrating the screws loose, and some fell out. ‘That’s four gone now!’ he wrote in his journal. Can’t keep cannibalizing from other spots forever!’ He had to take screws from elsewhere because he had brought no spares.

The hatch in the cockpit floor leaked and let in a deluge of salt water on the electrical generator, shutting down his treasured radios. He discovered that his bilge pumps couldn’t work because the specialized piping they needed was never put on board. All the water that kept coming through leaky hatches into the floats and main hull had to be bailed out by hand with a bucket. That would be impossible in a storm, he realized.

*

It became clear that his boat had so much going wrong that it could never survive the Southern Ocean gales. He knew he should quit the race, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then he found a way not to.

When he got the generator and radios working again, his brief communications with the world became increasingly vague about where he was exactly. In parallel with his accurate logbook, he began writing a second, fraudulent logbook with plausible positions and speed that showed a fictional Crowhurst on track to win the race. The real Crowhurst was dawdling south in the Atlantic Ocean that he now planned never to leave.

He was only as far as Brazil when he discovered an extremely serious three-foot-long split in his starboard float. Damage like that would have been an honorable reason to quit the race and go ashore, but he had already cabled to the public that he was making good time 3,700 miles east of where he actually was.

Lacking the materials for repair, he flouted the race rules,  snuck ashore in Argentina, lied to the locals about who he was, repaired the split with their plywood, and headed back to sea, continuing his sporadic cheery reports of rapid progress past Africa, Australia, and South America, disguising his radio signal so it seemed to be coming from those continents.

*

Optimists like Crowhurst – and me, I confess – tend to resent the need for maintenance and resist doing it. Maybe we prefer to think in ideals, and the gritty reality of everything constantly decaying and breaking offends our sense of the world. Crowhurst referred to doing maintenance as ‘sailorizing’. To keep himself motivated, whenever he completed something unpleasant, he would reward himself with a drink. Before long, he was running out of rum and wine.

In his journal he would diligently make a list of projects that needed to be done, do a few of them half-heartedly, and then lose interest. Since he never got around to organizing his stowage, he had to ransack everywhere to find things.

Months went by. Crowhurst got as far south as the Falklands and then headed back toward England and the finish line.

*

Crowhurst was so good at fixing radios he sought out reasons to do it while neglecting everything else. Toward the end of his trip, when his long-range transmitter was irreparably broken, he decided to convert his short-range radiotelephone to long-range Morse code capability. With no technical manuals on board, he derived what needed to be done from first principles. Testing gear he had to make from scratch. Sixteen hours a day for two weeks in tropical heat, he toiled over the innards of the radios. The whole cabin was covered with electrical parts.

And he succeeded! For a day, he exchanged cables with his backers, his wife, and the BBC. Then he got more ambitious. Longing to communicate by voice, he worked on the radio far into the night, trying to convert it from low-frequency Morse to high-frequency speech transmission. This time he failed.

On June 23, 1969, he sent a cable to his wife apologizing that they would not be able to talk, and another cable to the Sunday Times (who believed he was completing the fastest circumnavigation), asking permission to have transmitter parts delivered to him. Their answer was no.

It was his last sane day.

*

Crowhurst had been broadcasting an elaborate lie for seven months. By now he was sure he would be found out. He might be received back in England in triumph at first, but once his fake logbooks were examined closely, it would all turn to scandal and disgrace. His financial ruin would be complete. He would have failed his wife and four children. The prospect was intolerable.

On June 24 he began to take hope from a tremendous new idea that he was certain would liberate him and all of humanity if he could just explain it clearly enough. Adrift in the Sargasso Sea, he spent the next eight days and nights feverishly spelling out in his journal the origins and wondrous ramifications of his discovery that reality could be stipulated by a sufficiently brilliant mind. Abstraction was the ultimate power. The realization led to exhilarating revelations. In one statement that ended with 18 exclamation points, he wrote:

And yet, and yet – if creative abstraction is to act as a vehicle for the new entity, and to leave its hitherto stable state it lies within the power of creative abstraction to produce the phenomenon!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He was confident that when mathematicians and engineers read what he was writing, they would understand it immediately, and ‘problems that have beset humanity for thousands of years will have been solved’.

With intense delusional invention he was trying to solve his own problem.

*

Midmorning on July 1, 1969, he saw with dismay that his chronometer had run down. He started the clock again in order to keep precise track in his logbook of his countdown, insight by written insight, to the moment that would resolve everything. At 10:29:00 he wrote:

It is finished 

IT IS THE MERCY

The last entry read:

11:17:00

It is time for your move to begin

I have not need to prolong the game

It has been a good game that must be ended at the

I will play the game when I choose

I will resign the game 11:20:40

There is no reason for harmful

Having come to the bottom of a page, he did not complete the sentence.

Instead, taking the clock with him, he went out on deck and crossed his own finish line into the ocean – leaving behind the boat and the documents that he knew would reveal the truth of what had happened. He could have disguised his suicide as an accident and chose not to.

The trimaran was found nine days later by a British ship and hoisted aboard intact.

*

The tragic story of Crowhurst’s deception usually ends with the note of redemption in his words ‘It is the mercy’, but this is the maintenance version.

He was a remarkable man, intelligent and bold. The boat he abandoned, however, revealed how lax he was about nearly every aspect of maintenance. The exhaustively researched book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall has this indicative example:

The cabin, after eight months of cramped, unmethodical male housekeeping, smelled as if cabbage juice had been poured over old bedding, allowed to ferment, then baked in a hot oven. Several days’ plates, saucepans, and ripening curry lay in and around the sink; his bed stank.

The authors added, ‘This smell was still pungent five months later’.

Poor preparation and maintenance led to Crowhurst’s cheat. The cheat led to his death. His excessively optimistic view of the world and himself, which had worked fine on land, was lethal for a man alone at sea in an unfit small boat, marinating for months in two contradictory realities. He had invested so much of himself in an illusion that when it shattered, he shattered.

***

Bernard Moitessier (pronounced “Mwa-TESS-ee-ay”), at 46 years old, was the most experienced of the nine Golden Globe competitors. For years he had vagabonded alone in small boats all over the world and then, in 1966, made an epic trip sailing with his wife from Tahiti to Spain via Cape Horn. At the time, it was history’s longest nonstop passage by a yacht.

*

Compare Moitessier’s first knockdown in the Roaring Forties with what three of his competitors experienced.

You’ll recall it took Robin Knox-Johnston five days of repair to recover from his capsize. Another sailor, Loïck Fougeron, endured something similar. Beset on his 30-foot steel cutter at night in a gale, he was violently thrown to the side of his cabin and buried under all his stuff, certain he was going to die. When the boat came upright, he decided instantly to quit the race and sail to shore in Africa.

It was even worse for Bill King. His 42-foot junk-rigged schooner was thrown over on its side by a massive wave and then turned all the way upside-down. When it finally came back up, his masts were broken. By sheer luck, King happened to be in the cabin fetching a rope when the knockdown occurred. If it had come 30 seconds earlier or later, he would probably have died. Under a makeshift rig he also sailed to Africa to quit.

Moitessier’s turn came in a fierce storm with rough cross seas. He was relaxing in the cabin. He wrote, ‘I put on my slippers and roll myself a cigarette. A spot of coffee? Why not! God, it’s good to be inside when things are roaring out there.’

Suddenly, ‘an enormous breaking sea hits the port beam and knocks us flat’. After his boat came back up, Moitessier went on deck to check for damage and make adjustments to the sails. The aft boom had swung and broken the wind vane off the self-steering gear. He wrote: ‘Not serious: half a minute is all it takes to change the vane, thanks to a very simple rig. I have seven spare vanes left, and material to make more if necessary.’ The boat sailed on as if nothing had happened.

*

Moitessier had dealt with most of his maintenance issues in advance. Everything about the design and construction of his boat and everything about his outfitting for the race was a result of his decades of learning exactly what it takes for a small boat to thrive in the brutal Southern Ocean. He knew that once at sea, the need for maintenance had to be minimal, and doing it had to be easy.

Bernard Moitessier on his waterproof 39-foot steel ketch, JOSHUA. The boat was designed and built to be low-maintenance, highly durable, and simple to handle solo. Note the extremely high reef bands (row of dots) on the two aft sails. Photo by Ian Dear Archive/PPL. Licensed from PPL Media.

The boat was named Joshua – after Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail around the world alone (though with many stops along the way). It was a traditional two-masted ketch like Knox-Johnston’s, but at 39 feet, it was seven feet longer and therefore faster. With money from an admirer, Moitessier had it built of heavyweight steel at a boilerplate factory in France. ‘Ah, steel’, he wrote. ‘Watertight bulkheads, tanks welded right to the hull, incomparable rigidity, welded chain-plates, and an absolutely watertight boat that you clean with a broom and dustpan instead of a bilge pump.’

The critical maintenance issue with steel is corrosion. The answer, he wrote, is ‘paint, paint, and more paint’. Noting that the French Navy puts on ten coats of paint before any launch, he went with seven coats, but notjust any paint. It had to be what he considered the best paints in the best sequence – in his case, two coats of anticorrosion zinc silicate Dox Anode, followed (after two weeks of drying) by two coats of a zinc chromate paint and three coats of two-part epoxy. (Obsession with detail is a hallmark of the most successful maintainers.)

For additional strength and simplicity, JOSHUA’s masts were recycled telephone poles. He installed steps up the side of the masts so he could comfortably climb them weekly to inspect for problems and oil the halyard blocks at the top. Far more important, he would be able to reach the mastheads instantly in an emergency.

‘The one thing that any singlehander fears’, Knox-Johnston wrote, ‘is something breaking at the top of the mast’. Like most sailboats, Knox-Johnston’s SUHAILI had no mast steps. He had to hoist himself aloft in a bosun’s chair, which could only be done safely in a dead calm. He tried it once in rough seas when a halyard broke, and he could no longer raise or lower his mainsail. Thirty feet up in the chair, he was flung away from the mast and nearly killed.

Moitessier’s sails were made of the same high-strength synthetic as Knox-Johnston’s, but he had no need to spend countless hours repairing them because he had his made ‘small, light, easy to handle, with very high reef bands and reinforcements that would take a sailmaker’s breath away’. He was six months at sea before he had to get out his sewing palm at all.

He even added a unique element for heavy-weather sailing. In order to steer JOSHUA from inside the cabin, he made a small windowed dome out of a washbasin and attached it to the roof of the main hatch. Perched safe and dry on a seat under the dome next to the interior wheel, he could see conditions outside and adjust his course as needed.

*

‘JOSHUA is just simple’, Moitessier once told an interviewer. ‘Simplicity is a form of beauty.’ That principle governed everything for him. ‘Given a choice between something simple and something complicated’, he wrote, ‘choose what is simple without hesitation; sooner or later, what is complicated will almost always lead to problems’. Only simple things, he noted, can be reliably repaired with what you have on board.

His self-steering gear was easy to repair because it had none of the usual complicated linkages or line attachments. He didn’t bother to install interior heating because, thanks to a watertight cabin, reliably dry clothing would keep him warm enough.

He hated electronics on boats, so there was no battery charger to worry about. To substitute for what he described as ‘two or three hundred pounds of noisy radio equipment’, he had a slingshot for launching film canisters containing his messages onto the deck of passing ships. His cabin light was a kerosene lantern.

*

Moitessier emptied his boat of absolutely everything but the basics. With less stuff, there was less to maintain. With less weight, he would sail faster. Before departure he off-loaded his engine, his dinghy, four anchors, 900 pounds of anchor chain, the anchor windlass, surplus books, surplus paint, and half of the water he usually carried. It added up to a ton of weight and distractions gone. Later at sea, he purged still more – heaving over the side 375 pounds of food, kerosene, and rope he decided he wouldn’t need.

Thanks in part to his paring down, though he had left England more than two months after Knox-Johnston, he was sailing so much faster he might well catch up.

*

As Moitessier approached Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, he wanted to let the world know what a sensational passage he was having. He sailed up to a freighter and slingshotted a message onto her deck, saying he had two packages of information to throw to them. Their skipper obliged by turning the stern toward him, and the packages were passed.

But then the overhanging stern of the freighter caught Moitessier’s mainmast. He wrote: ‘My guts twist into knots. The push on the mast makes JOSHUA heel, she luffs up toward the freighter . . . and wham! – the bowsprit is twisted 20 or 25 degrees to port.’ He was horrified.

His bowsprit was a steel pipe, so it bent instead of broke, but he knew he could not continue the race if it stayed bent, because the symmetry of the stays that supported his masts was now so compromised he could lose his whole sailing rig in a storm. How could he possibly fix it at sea alone? He wrote, ‘I did not want to crystalize my thinking prematurely’. He thought about the problem for two nights and a day before proceeding.

His carefully considered solution was elegant, combining a four-part block and tackle with his cockpit winch for sufficient force and using a staysail boom to get the right leverage. Bowsprit straightened, he sailed on, exultant.

*

I once got to know Moitessier a little bit. In 1981 he was living aboard JOSHUA in Sausalito, California, close to where I had a sailboat berthed. One time, when I remarked on how fit his boat looked, he said, ‘My rule is, a new boat every day’. His years at sea had taught him that if you don’t fix something when you first see it beginning to fail, it is very likely to finish failing just when it is the most dangerous and the hardest to deal with, such as in the midst of a storm.

He loved doing routine maintenance. He wrote:

I work calmly at the odd jobs that make up my universe, without haste: I glue the sextant leg back on with epoxy, adjust the mirrors, replace five worn slide lashings on the mainsail and three on the mizzen, splice the staysail and mizzen halyards to freshen the nip on the sheaves.

His reward for a boat functioning like new every day was this: ‘I spend my time reading, sleeping, eating. The good, quiet life, with nothing to do.’  That was in fair weather. Storms were as arduous for him as ever, but he was unafflicted with worry that his gear might fail.

He also took care to maintain his own health, physical and mental. When he found himself exhausted after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, plagued by an ulcer and considering giving up, he began doing yoga every day. ‘My ulcer stopped bothering me’, he wrote, ‘and I no longer suffered from lumbago. But above all, I found something more. A kind of undefinable state of grace.’

Moitessier was at the peak of his skills – at one with his boat, one with the sea, one with himself. He began wanting it to go on and on.

*

All across the Southern Pacific he was catching up to Knox-Johnston, who had started 69 days before him. They rounded South America’s icy Cape Horn only 20 days apart, with 10,000 miles to go to England. The London press began predicting that Moitessier would not only win the £5,000 prize for the fastest solo round-the-world trip, he might also finish first, taking the Golden Globe award as well. France was preparing a fleet of naval ships and yachts to accompany their hero home, where he would receive the nation’s highest tribute, the Legion of Honor. No yachtsman in the world would be more famous.

Moitessier dreaded all that. He wrote, ‘I really felt sick at the thought of getting back to Europe, back to the snakepit’. He asked himself, ‘How long will it last, this peace I have found at sea? . . . Don’t look beyond JOSHUA, my little red and white planet made of space, pure air, stars, clouds and freedom.’

And yet he longed to see his wife and friends. He could really use the prize money. What had he sailed so fast for, if not to win?

Race watchers in England calculated that Moitessier must be far up the Atlantic toward a double victory when word came from South Africa of a message received by slingshot on a tanker in Cape Town Harbor. It read:

My intention is to continue the voyage, still nonstop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe . . . I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.

***

So it was Robin Knox-Johnston who won both the Golden Globe and the prize of £5,000 – which he gifted to Donald Crowhurst’s bereaved wife and young children. By the time he was knighted by the Queen in 1995, he had become Britain’s most distinguished yachtsman. His 1969 book, A World of My Own, continues to be read 50 years later as a model of audacious seamanship and British pluck. The boat he had dauntlessly kept afloat for 312 days and 30,123 miles was exhibited for years at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and later returned to him. He still sails SUHAILI at times.

No other competitor completed the race.

*

For the investigation that led to the 1970 book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, the authors sought the advice of psychiatrist Glin Bennet. He wrote that Crowhurst’s final writings amounted to

the most completely documented account of a psychological breakdown . . . The steps toward final disintegration proceed with the remorselessness of a Greek tragedy . . . It is a private tragedy but with a richness of texture that has immortalized the name of Donald Crowhurst in a way he could never have intended but in a way he might possibly not have regretted.

Over the years, Crowhurst’s story has been retold in six novels, many poems, many songs, an opera, several plays, several documentary films, and four major movies.

Has any other failure succeeded so well?

*

Moitessier’s route. Image by Joe Ronan, adapted from Sémhur via Wikimedia Commons.

Bernard Moitessier finally docked in Tahiti 303 days after leaving England, worn out from 37,455 miles at sea –  which, according to Encyclopedia.com, is still considered ‘the world’s longest recorded nonstop solo sailing voyage’.

In Tahiti, it took him two years to craft a book of the voyage that satisfied him. It quickly joined the canon of most-loved sea books, providing inspiration and – with its 60-page appendix of technical advice – instruction for generations of cruising sailors to come. Like Thoreau’s Walden, Moitessier’s The Long Way is a masterwork about solitary transcendence, practical and lyrical at the same time.

Moitessier liked to sign things with a tiny drawing of JOSHUA, a sunset, and an island. The drawing is on his gravestone in Le Bono, France, where he was buried in 1994. Not far away, in La Rochelle, berthed at the Maritime Museum’s sailing school, his JOSHUA lives on, still teaching.

*

The different maintenance styles of the three sailors led directly to their different outcomes.

Knox-Johnston’s style was: “Whatever comes, deal with it.” And he did.

Crowhurst’s was: “Hope for the best.” It killed him.

Moitessier’s was: “Prepare for the worst.” It freed him.

*

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the Golden Globe Race.

Bernard Moitessier won the maintenance race.

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Stewart Brand is a writer and founder of the Long Now Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter here.