A fighter pilot during World War I, an adventurer, a staunch opponent of colonialism, Alain Gerbault was the first European to circumnavigate the globe solo, then take refuge in Polynesia. Doesn’t it remind you of someone?
WHO WAS ALAIN GERBAULT
Born in 1893 in France’s Loire department into an upper-middle class family, Gerbault participated as a fighter pilot in World War I, at the end of which he was decorated as a hero. An eclectic sportsman, he became a French tennis champion before discovering the sea. On June 6, 1923, Gerbault set sail from Gibraltar on his solo round-the-world voyage. Arrives in New York after 101 days at sea. He is welcomed with full honors and receives the “Blue Water Medal” from the Cruising Club of America. Upon returning to France in 1929, after circumnavigating the globe, he was awarded the Legion of Honor. Gerbault spent the last years of his life in Polynesia, strenuously defending the culture of the inhabitants against colonialist policies. He died in Dili, East Timor, of tropical fever on December 16, 1941. For three years no one knows anything about his death, which is only made known on August 22, 1944. In 1947 his body was recovered and buried in Bora Bora, where a monument in his honor still exists today.
Even masters are inspired by other masters. All sea enthusiasts know Bernard Moitessier, his escape from the civilized world and his books. There is a sailor, who lived in the first half of the 20th century, whom, on the other hand, very few people have heard of and who was undoubtedly a kind of ideal father to Moitessier: his name is Alain Gerbault. A former fighter pilot, he set sail on the morning of April 25, 1923, to attempt to cross the Atlantic from Gibraltar to New York alone in an 11-meter boat with no experience in ocean sailing. Not only would he succeed in the feat (becoming the first European to do so), but from the United States he would go on to the Pacific, returning to France in 1929 after sailing more than 40,000 miles. Gerbault recounted his Atlantic crossing aboard the Firecrest in a beautiful book, One Hundred Days Solo Across the Atlantic. With dry prose, Gerbault succeeds in taking us on board with him, perfectly expressing the moods, setbacks, failures and risks of sailing such a ship in such a distant era.
GERBAULT AND THE STORM
We are then on board with him when the sea rages and “a great army of black clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon, and heaps of storm clouds were scattered here and there.” Imagine the scene, waves hiding the horizon, incessant rain pelting the helmsman for hours as he cannot let go of the tiller not so much to keep his course as to survive. An image like many in seafaring literature? Not really, because the helmsman is naked. And he sings. “I was soaked to the bone, now with foam now with rain; but it was hot and I had no clothing on, which would have been of little use under the circumstances. Thus, with no clothes on, I dried much more quickly. I did not complain about the bad weather: it was what I expected, and it tests a sailor’s skill and endurance, as well as the strength of his boat. Instead of impressing myself with the majesty of the raging ocean, I was moved at the approach of the fight: I had to deal with a fearsome opponent, and, cheerful in the storm, I sang as many seafaring songs as I could remember.” And when the sea rages even more, only Gerbault’s quick thinking saves his life on several occasions: “It was noon on the dot; the Firecrest was sailing almost with a crosswind, when suddenly I saw coming overhead a huge mount whose white crest roared and surpassed all others in height. I could hardly believe my eyes: it was a magnificent and frightening sight at the same time; that huge mountain of water was crashing down on me with a sound of a thousand thunders. Knowing that if I stayed on the bridge, I would meet certain death, I barely had time to climb the mast and when I got halfway up the wave furiously swept over the Firecrest, which disappeared under tons of angry, foaming water. The small shell hesitated under the impact of immense force, and I wondered if it would be able to rise to the surface.” The Firecrest makes it through, but damage and breakage are the order of the day, and in order to retrieve the jib that ended up in the sea due to the halyard failure, Gerbault finds himself taking a bath he certainly did not want to: “Walking on the bowsprit (…) here comes one of the shrouds breaking under my weight, and I fall overboard. Fortunately I manage to grab hold of the underbeam and return to the deck. I get away with a forced swim of a few seconds, but the boat was making more than three knots at that moment, and if I had not been lucky enough to grab the underbeam, I would have been left alone in the middle of the ocean.”
A SAIL OF YESTERYEAR AND A GALLEY YOU DON’T EXPECT
Gallets, lard, salted butter, porridge, sterilized milk, a barrel of salted ox, these are the galley with which Gerbault sailed from Gibraltar. How strange it sounds nowadays, when navigators only have freeze-dried foods on board! And what a luxury, for the French sailor, his tilting Primus stove. “Yet sometimes the boat was so skiddy that the pans would slip off the stove, flooding my bare legs with hot oil. During the storm, cooking was so difficult. Not everything that had been in the frying pan found its way to the mouth: salted ox often ended up on the dunnage.” And when the craving for fresh food kicks in, here comes the harpoon for spearing bream and even a Winchester. Fishing with a rifle? Well, yes, albeit with poor results: “The fish were so numerous around me that the water seemed to boil over. A few porpoises patrolled the surroundings of the boat, and albatrosses were diving into the sea. It was just the time to try the Winchester automatic offered me by a friend in Gibraltar, and immediately a porpoise went down, leaving a trail of blood in the water.”
A GLASS OF WATER A DAY TO SURVIVE
Gerbault experiences every sailor’s worst nightmare, that of thirst. His supply is quickly depleted, partly because the wood in the oak barrels is too young and the tannic acid spoils it: 2,500 miles from New York, the Frenchman has only 50 liters of water. To survive, he must limit himself to drinking only one glass a day. A hardship while in the Sargasso Sea, and the fever he is suffering further aggravates the situation. Only the arrival of providential rains saved it and allowed it to store more fresh water.
THE FREEDOM MANIFESTO
Why, at the beginning of the article, did I state that Gerbault is the inspiration for Moitessier? Because in both the rejection of civilization and the desire to return to a life more connected to nature is evident. it is Alain himself who wrote, perhaps without realizing it, what can today be considered a true manifesto of freedom: “Although for centuries man has been accustomed to living as a slave to civilization, I will not be forced to lead the same servile and conventional life. Master of my boat, I will go around the world, intoxicated with air, with space, with light, living the simple life of a sailor, bathing in the sun a body that was not created to be a prisoner of the houses built by men. And all happy to have found my way and realized my dream, while standing at the tiller , I recite my favorite poems about the sea….”