I have written about Bernard Moitessier and Joshua Slocum, the solo contemplatives who took on the most treacherous seas on this planet in substantial yachts of more than thirty feet. They were to the sea as Mozart and Bach were to musical instruments, harmony and counterpoint. We all have heroes, as the devout Christian looks to the saints (it is All Saints’ Day today), and we all look to the best of every walk of life.
Jacques Sternberg is a little closer to my own experience as a sailor. His boat was hardly bigger than my own. His choice was the Zef dinghy, a twelve-foot bermuda rigged sloop manufactured in fibreglass in the 1960’s. It is more suitable for cruising and fishing as it cannot compete against modern racing dinghies.
Jacques Sternberg was born in Belgium in 1923 into a Jewish family. He had a particularly hard time during World War II, taking refuge in the south of France. He began to write short stories, poetry and a diary – and learned to sail a dinghy. His family had to leave the Côte d’Azur and tried their fortune in Spain. They were caught by the Germans in 1943, but Jacques managed to escape during a transfer operation. After the war, Sternberg went to Paris and lived a very poor life, at the limit of being a down-and-out. The American Army took him back to Belgium in October 1944. From 1945 until the mid 50’s, he wrote several novels, but they were refused by publishers. It was during that time that he married Francine, aged 22 years and a Jewish and Communist resistant. Jacques worked in a factory to earn his living. He continued to write novels and found round-about ways of publishing them. From 1956, he ventured into science fiction. In that year, he acquired a Solex, a heavy bicycle with a small petrol engine mounted on the front wheel, which he rode until 2002.
He bought his first boat, a Zef, in 1970 and sailed it on the English Channel at Trouville where he lived for six months every year. He went on long cruises along the coasts whatever the weather. He considered crossing the Channel or even the Atlantic or the Pacific in his tiny dinghy, a temptation he wisely resisted. An anarchist at heart, he eschewed the world of yachting clubs and racing, and covered hundreds of nautical miles on the sea. He died of cancer in 2006.
Indeed, he is close to my own experience, as someone who quickly went off “racing round the cans” and using boats or any other material object as a “status symbol”. I appreciate the dinghy, not as a “poor man’s yacht”, but a vessel that can be transported anywhere very easily and can sail where bigger boats can’t go because of their deep keels. I have certainly sailed much less than Sternberg, and am more wary with weather and sea conditions. I thought of him as I sailed two days ago in a moderate wind between Veules les Roses and Saint Valéry en Caux – but with quite a big rolling swell with a short chop between the big waves. I have sailed around Saint Malo, the Rance, the Pertuis d’Antioche near La Rochelle, la Trinité sur Mer and along the Normandy cliffs. I also made the illegal* crossing of the Seine Estuary and had the helicopter fly over me four times! But they didn’t send out the Zodiac to give me a rollicking! There are other places in my sights for next year. I have even had the honour of being compared with Sternberg in a French sailing blog because I fitted one kind of boat with the rig of another (which I found to be very compatible)! The famous Tabur 320 with the red Mirror sails is mine!
He must have been a fascinating fellow, and he certainly lived to the full through adversity and grinding poverty. We all have to find our way…
* Illegal crossing of the Seine Estuary. My class of sailing dinghy is not allowed to cross a shipping lane. Less busy ports are more tolerant, but you have to watch your step with the Harbour Master of Le Havre, one of the busiest ports of the world! There are two main ports, the Port 2000 for the biggest cargo ships in the world and then there is the traffic coming from Rouen down the Seine. It’s dangerous unless you have a bearing compass to determine whether you’re on a collision course! I won’t be doing that one again. I was lucky the day I did it.