In his book "The Long Way", Bernard Moitessier mostly tells us of a solo non-stop sail around the world aboard his 40 foot steel ketch "Joshua". Moitessier chose the name "Joshua" in honor of Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail alone around the world.
In chapter 9 of "The Long Way", Moitessier reflects upon his childhood.
"When I was sailing with the fishermen of the Gulf of Siam during my childhood in Indochina, the taicong would tell me, for example, 'Keep the swell two fingers off the quarter, and you should always feel the wind behind your left ear, looking forward. When the moon is is one big hand plus a small hand from the horizon, or when that star is one arm form the other side (in case the moon is hidden by a cloud) then the sea will become a little less phosphorescent, and we will almost be in the lee of the island to set the first lines."
[I read that paragraph and thought, who is a taicong?]
"There were no compasses on the Gulf of Siam junks, and I did not want it used during my sailing school cruises in the Mediterranean. Instead of bearing 110degrees from France to Corsica my crew had to steer with the mistral swell very slightly off the port quarter. At night, it was the Pole Star one small hand abaft the port beam. And if there was neither distinct swell nor star, we made do with what we had. I wanted it that way, because concentrating on a magnetized needle prevents one from participating in the real universe, seen and unseen, where a sailboat moves."
[Moitessier thought "concentrating on a magnetized needle prevents one from participating in the real universe, seen or unseen, where a sailboat moves". I wonder what Moitessier would think of GPS?]
"In the beginning they could not understand my insistence on getting away from the compass, that god of the West. But in exchange, they began to hear the sky and sea talking with the boat. And when blue-tinted land appeared on the horizon, looking as it did to the mariners of old, all nimbed with mystery, a few of them felt that our rigorous techniques should leave a door open to those gods which the modern world tries so hard to exclude."
Moitessier now speaks of the taicong.
"In a little Indonesian port, I followed the preparation of a Chinese junk that was to carry a shipment to Djakarta by way of the Thousand Island archipelago, strewn with reefs and rocks. The taicong waited for three days after the loading, squatting without a word, without a gesture, contemplating the sky and the sea, in communion with the immaterial things that float all over the East. Then the junk weighed anchor in a nice beam breeze, with neither chart nor compass. I had the feeling she was protected by the gods of the Far East, and by the big eye carved on either side of her bow."
Moitessier speaks of hiring a taicong.
"In the days when I had my own junk I was too young to be my own taicong, and had hired one known from Ream to Camao."
"The crew never spoke to him, because the taicong needs all his peace to communicate with the gods and read on their faces. At mealtime, the crew would gather round the steaming rice kettle, forward if it was fine, amidships in a seaway. But always far from the taicong, keeping their voices down so as not to disturb him in his communion. The young deckhand served him aft, respectfully giving him the rice bowl with both hands, without a word. Then he joined the others, slipping like a shadow on his bare feet."
A taicong fisherman tells Moitessier why the stars announce the wind when they twinkle strongly.
"One very fine night, a taicong fisherman told me whey the stars announce the wind when they twinkle strongly. It is because there is wind up there, and it blows on the little flames of the stars, just as one would on a candle. So the stars flicker. The wind then blows with all its might, but can't blow them out, so it gets angry and comes down to the sea in revenge for being unable to blow out a single star, even the lowest ones close to the horizon. There, the stars could not resist the wind, which can blow very hard when it really gets angry. But there is a god close to the horizon to protect the low stars.
If it were not for the god of the horizon the wind would make them disappear one after the other. Then it would wait for the high stars to sink close to earth, to blow them out in turn. And men could not go on living, because there would be no stars.
Moitessier continues, pehaps conceding a bit to modern western science.
"Years later, I learned that low stars always twinkle more than high ones because their light penetrates a thicker layer of air than at the zenith, making for greater light refraction.
"I believe that science may someday permit men to reach the stars with their spaceships. I believe above all in the old East, which lets me go there any time I like with a candle and some wind. And I will paint a big black and white eye on Joshua's bow when she finishes her journey, having found her way among the gods of my native Asia."
Today, most mariners (including myself) navigate by GPS. I reprint some of Moitessiers writings to show that perhaps in using GPS we're missing something important?
Today, I've often seen mariners with their faces buried in the GPS chartplotter, tunnel vision. I've been there.
Today, I sometimes hear a mariner who understands celestial navigation say that with GPS, a certain amount of romance is lost. They call it "romance".
Does the taicong have any merit today?
Fair Winds. Captain Bill.