Solo sailing around the world isn’t exactly an everyday sport. One of the most unusual single-handed circumnavigations started in 1987 when 18-year-old Tania Aebi began her round the world adventure in her 26 foot sloop, Varuna. She is the first American woman and youngest person to circumnavigate the world alone, an extraordinary adventure.
Tania’s father had urged the school dropout, a bicycle messenger in New York City, to sail around the world alone in lieu of a college education. He had great faith that she could accomplish such a feat and write stories about it as she went to help finance the venture. Her dad, an eccentric Swiss artist, had bought a Rival 38 sailboat in England on a whim when she was only 16. He, Tania and two other of his kids learned to sail on that Atlantic crossing. That was her first and only venture at sea.
“It was my dad’s idea for me to sail around the world. He pushed me. It was the gift he gave me, but there was lots of negative feedback directed at Dad. Some people even called him a murderer. Meanwhile, my mother was dying of cancer,” she said.
She had no plans for her future like most of her friends, except she had thought about being a writer. Her ill mother told her to not be afraid of what may eventually happen.
“Live for the day, Tania, and always try to do great things,” she told her daughter.
“Well, I figured I only have one shot. I’m going to die someday anyway, but Dad really trusted me to make good decisions,” she said. With only two years of limited sailing experience, she pulled away from a New York City dock on a rainy day in May 1987, bound for Bermuda in her small boat. Cold and scared with tears streaming down her face, she waved good-bye to family and friends. She had never sailed a boat alone in her life until then.
Two stormy, frightening weeks later, after she’d been lost and finally taught herself some navigation, she arrived in St. George’s Harbor in Bermuda, a voyage that often takes five to six days. The scared, tearful teenager had made the journey safely.
“I felt initiated into the sailing fraternity as an equal, not just as the daughter of the skipper,” she wrote in her first book, Maiden Voyage, one year after arriving in Bermuda with her father on their transatlantic crossing.
“Instead, my father arrived to face the new reality of being considered Tania Aebi’s father, comparing notes on navigation, the cantankerous weather and the ‘bloody Gulf Stream’ with other sailors who actually listened to me.”
Nineteen years later, this calm, self-confident young woman was in Seattle in mid-July promoting her second book, I’ve Been Around, at West Marine and Armchair Sailor. Tania is outgoing and gracious with a contagious smile, great sense of humor, easy and interesting to talk with, and an enviable crop of dark curly hair.
This new book is filled with fascinating, sometimes humorous stories, of some of her many sailing adventures since her circumnavigation, with links back to that earlier voyage. Tania writes of characters she met, of sailing with her two sons, and with her cat, Tarzoon.
Tania’s first book, the best-selling Maiden Voyage, documents her 2 1/2 year, 27,000 mile journey, in which she confronted the beauties and terrors she encountered at sea, but also overcame her own troubled family life, fell in love with her future (now former) husband, Olivier, also a single-handed sailor and the father of her two sons.
She writes exciting tales of incredible obstacles she overcame, including a collision with a tanker in the Mediterranean Sea, a huge storm and near rollover in the western Med. She taught herself navigation with a sextant and learned engine maintenance. She experienced what it’s like being alone for long stretches of time, wrote of people she met, new countries she visited-—all this as she moved from teenager to adulthood, and learned who she really is.
“My math improved dramatically with learning celestial navigation. It connects things from sunrises to sunsets. There is a connection I felt with the universe that you have that you can’t get with electronic navigation,” she said. She had no GPS. “The highlight of my day was to get a fix, although you might not know for several days where you are because sometimes it is just too cloudy or rainy.”
Tania said she loves to read books and did lots of reading underway. “I read anything and everything I had with me, even manuals, especially the engine manual. I kept thinking ‘maybe this time I’ll understand it’.”
Her favorite writer is the sailor Bernard Moitessier. “I loved his book, The Long Way, the story about the Round the World Race for solo sailors. He was the first person to go around the world non-stop and could have won the race but didn’t finish. Instead he kept going 1 1/2 times around. He couldn’t function on land, it was not his world,” she said.
“Being alone is totally different. Everything is reduced to that – it’s a withdrawal from civilization. But you are surrounded by sights and sounds and there is an adjustment period. Nothing else matters. It makes you able to deal with the world, but it is an unreal environment. “I got lonely and down about things sometimes. I’d be all wet, stinking, it was hard to see my goal. I got close to the idea of dying. I felt unheroic, scared, blubbered and cried. I wished I wasn’t there. The trip was a humbling experience. I was just a speck, but then, it’s best to be a speck in a storm. I realized fatigue is the sailor’s worst enemy.”
She financed her trip with an American Express card, borrowed from her dad, and wrote articles for Cruising World sailing magazine. “I found I did have a lot of experiences to write about and it was good to articulate what I’d done. And of course I’d use my logbook in which I’d recorded everything.”
“It was the logbook that ‘channeled’,” someone quipped.
Even though she went sailing instead of going to college, she eventually did go to college—earning one year of college credit for her writing. After she got a degree in writing she went on to graduate school.
She met Olivier in Vanuatu when he was also sailing solo. The two boats sailed in tandem and he was in New York when she returned home from her journey. They were married, have two sons and have since divorced.
It was also in Vanuatu that she acquired Tarzoon the kitten, who was with her for over half the trip. “He caught flying fish and squid at sea and was a great companion. The first time he was on land since he was six weeks old was at Suez in Egypt.
“He was lost for 10 days when we arrived back in New York. We had landed at Sandy Hook after a 50 day sail from Gibraltar. We went ashore there and he accidentally boarded a Coast Guard Cutter just before it went to sea for 10 days. When the cutter got back he heard my voice and jumped into my arms. He’s still going strong after 18 years.”
I’ve Been Around is a great book, especially after reading Maiden Voyage.It’s interesting to follow up the story of someone after their epic adventure.
Karen Thorndike from the Puget Sound area, who solo circumnavigated in 1995, was also at West Marine to meet with Tania and compare experiences. There is something about the enormity of such a magnificent feat that brings a quiet calm to those who have accomplished it. Both women share thoughtful responses and a delightful sense of humor. It was a powerful meeting of the two awesome American women who had such incredible adventures.
Karen and Tania compared worst and best experiences. “The worst was a big storm, so big I thought I would die,” Karen said. Her route took her past the great capes of Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and those off Australia and Tasmania. Tania’s route was through the Panama and Suez canals. For Tania the worst was leaving wherever she had been. “I was always leaving,” she said. The best for Karen was making landfall. “You sail for days and days or weeks and then get to where you want to be. It’s wonderful.”
The best for Tania was when it didn’t matter if she was leaving. “When it was all okay again, you’d seen people and you could go. Once I’m out there I’m fine. I saw lots of vibrant cultures along the South Pacific and Indian Ocean,” Tania said. “There was a culture shock in seeing Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Bali, Jakarta and more. Being a girl alone in a boat was interesting to those people, too.”
For the past 10 years Tania has taken people on sailing charters to Croatia in the Adriatic Sea where harbors are set up for sailboats, “a sailor’s paradise.” She runs Tania Aebi Sailing Charters with a partner offering one week trips, mostly for women, and loves to teach sailing. She also writes for Latitudes and Attitudes.
“I wouldn’t send anybody out (to circumnavigate) but I would encourage those to go who want to,” she said. Tania said, “I came back from my trip knowing what’s really important to me: family and friends. And it made me a person who doesn’t need ‘things.’
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