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Illustrated Interview: Tania Aebi, of Corinth

  • (Valley News - Shawn Braley) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Saturday, December 02, 2017

Corinth — Rarely has a newspaper headline been more wrong.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, in the fall of 1987, 21-year-old Tania Aebi was on the final leg of her 2½-year solo circumnavigation of the world — a nonstop, 52-day, 3,000-mile push across the North Atlantic from Gibraltar on the southern coast of Spain to New York City — when the communication system on her 26-foot sailboat failed. The tabloid New York Post soon hit the streets with a front page dominated by a photograph of a smiling Aebi and three big, bold words: LOST AT SEA.

Not hardly.

Far from lost, Aebi in many ways found herself on this journey — a journey that began as a challenge from her father who, as she wrote in Cruising World, “had sent me off to sea because ... I was such a creepy teenager he had to do something to get me off my unmotivated butt.”

There was loss — her mother was only 41 when she died of cancer while Aebi was in Tahiti, less than halfway through her voyage. And there were challenges — Aebi, who grew up in New Jersey, Switzerland and New York City, had very little sailing experience when she began; her sailboat, Varuna, had mechanical problems; and gee-whiz navigation technology like GPS — the satellite-based Global Positioning System — wasn’t widely available yet.

But when Aebi finally sailed into New York harbor, on Nov. 6, 1987, she became an international sensation as the first American woman and, at the time, the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. She’d soon find a career, as a best-selling author, motivational speaker and sailing adventure leader; she’d found a husband, with whom she would have two sons; and, not insignificantly, she’d found a pet cat, Tarzoon, who was born on a dairy farm in Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation between Australia and Fiji, and who would be her constant companion for the next 21 years.

Today, the 51-year-old Corinth resident continues to lead chartered sailing adventures when she’s not writing, gardening on her 32 acres, tending to her chickens or volunteering at the Blake Memorial Library. She took time recently to answer questions by email about her famous voyage and how it shaped the rest of her life. (Questions and answers have been lightly edited.)

Have you ever second-guessed that momentous decision you made (with your father’s help) at 18 to sail alone around the world, or imagined what your life might have been like had you taken a more conventional route to adulthood?

For mostly better, I’ve coexisted with this story for over 30 years now and of course have tried to imagine the alternative at a few of the worse times. Books have been written, movies made about the big “What If?” What if I’d not stepped through that door, but another? However, that thought is always followed by absolute certainty — if I hadn’t taken my father up on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I would have had to live with wondering what that road much less traveled would have looked like, with plenty of regret for not having taken the chance to find out.

There’s a photograph of you from that time — your hair is wild, a backlit, Category 5 storm swirling around your head. Your gaze is direct, even defiant. Does that image truly capture what you were like then? What is different about you today, and what is the same?

That picture was actually from a photo shoot, and I can still remember being uncomfortable with the fan blowing the hair, embarrassed by the attention, the lights. I’m sure I was just doing whatever the photographer asked to get it over with as fast as possible. And I’m still like that — never enjoy posing or being scripted.

Your 1989 book about your solo circumnavigation, Maiden Voyage (written with Bernadette Brennan) spent three weeks on The Times of London’s bestseller list, was selected as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, has been translated into eight languages and was blurbed by none other than Walter Cronkite as “an exciting tale of an extraordinarily brave and romantic adventure.” Which was the lonelier endeavor, sailing solo around the world or writing a book about it?

No comparison there, as far as loneliness is concerned. The best part of the whole experience was the year spent writing the book immediately after getting back. I stepped off a tiny, wet boat in November, just as winter was ramping up, and got to be in a dry and heated apartment, surrounded by flushing toilet, shower with unlimited hot water, a stove, a fridge, a washer-dryer. The rain could pelt, the wind could howl, the fog could creep, and I would sit in the warm office and reconstruct the events of the previous 2½ years at sea, every dark, terrifying and lonely, or grateful, wondrous and blissful moment now comfortably in the past. I worked very closely with Bernadette, a fabulous teacher and great friend who guided me through putting everything the trip had taught me into words and creating a story out of it that fit neatly between two covers.

What question do you get the most from the groups you speak to about your voyage? What question do you wish more people would ask?

People always ask if I’d do it again or what would I do differently. No, I wouldn’t do it again in exactly the same way because it’s impossible to go back. But, if I could have changed anything, I would have liked a slightly larger boat — 26 feet was tiny; a 32-footer would have been drier and more comfortable. People rarely grasp or ponder the simplicity of such a trip. They see the big phrase — “solo circumnavigation” — rather than wonder how much can be possible with so little. The engine was almost always broken — that’s another popular question: What make of motor did I have? It was in the years before GPS and satellite communications. Navigation was with the sextant, a watch, an almanac, some extrapolation tables and the sun, moon or stars. Every day I was able to calculate one fairly accurate position. The other 24 hours were spent reading, writing, sail handling, dreaming, eating, keeping track of course and speed and managing suspense over which spot would be marked by the next X. Once a day, I could see exactly how far and in which direction I’d traveled. The GPS has killed that delayed gratification. To communicate with home, I had to be in a place with an international phone office where collect calls could be placed. I sent letters and had letters sent back to me at general deliveries at future landfalls. There was no online community full of potential armchair criticism that would have crippled me. I had no refrigeration, lived off canned and dried food, and provisioned with fruits and veggies that could last. The boat carried 20 gallons of water in a tank with a foot pump, another 10 gallons in jerry cans and that was used exclusively for drinking and cooking. All bathing and washing up was done with salt water. Life ashore and access to the world has never again been as simple, uncluttered and straightforward as a month spent crossing an ocean from one place to another. Days and weeks melted together while seeing nothing more than waves, clouds with occasional visits from sea life — birds, dolphins, whales, fish — sailing a vast watery wilderness with a single-minded purpose, to head west, to head home.

Do you have a favorite souvenir from the trip that you still keep? Where did you get it and what is its significance to you?

My boat’s name was Varuna, the Vedic deity of the cosmos, and somebody gave me a Varuna statue that went all the way around the world, then traveled with me on the two other boats I’ve owned and sailed since. I also love my sextant, passed down by my father. It’s a beautiful precision instrument that has become obsolete with the GPS, but once was almost all of life to me. I take it down from its shelf in my office now and again to show people or, most recently, to look at the solar eclipse through the shades.

Your famous voyage is referred to as a “solo” circumnavigation, but you were not, in fact, alone the whole time. Tell us about Tarzoon, the cat who accompanied you for the second half of your voyage. He certainly was a brave kitty to climb aboard something surrounded by water. What did he mean to you on your voyage, and then later at home in Corinth?

He had no choice. He boarded Varuna in Vanuatu as a kitten and spent the first year of his life on a 26-foot boat. All experience had to come to him. His first steps ashore were on an Egyptian dock he used to visit other sailboats. He liked to swim, he fell overboard three times and re-boarded safely, he caught flying fish, squid and once, even, a canary on deck. We were extremely close. My first night back in New York Harbor was spent at the Coast Guard station in Sandy Hook, where I went ashore for a shower and to gather myself for the next day’s reception. When we prepared to leave for that last crossing of New York Harbor to Lower Manhattan, where the voyage officially ended, Tarzoon was nowhere to be found. He’d disappeared. I was crushed. That really put a damper on all the excitement of a return. One week later, I got a call from the Coast Guard. While at their dock, Tarzoon had gone ashore and clambered aboard one of their cutters headed back out to sea for a week. It was only when they returned and turned off the engines that they heard meowing coming from behind the instrument console. By the time we’d located a car and driven out to fetch him, they’d removed all kinds of electronics and were trying, unsuccessfully, to coax him out. As soon as I walked onto the bridge and called his name, he burst from one of the holes and straight into my arms. We were together for 21 years. He died in his favorite chair here in Vermont and now there’s a crab apple tree growing where he was buried.

It must have been a terribly helpless feeling to learn of the death of your mother while you were so young and so far away. What do you recall from that day, and how has your mother’s memory moved and inspired you?

I’d known she was sick for years before leaving. We all knew death was inevitable. She had cancer and refused medical intervention, had been slowly wasting away. But she’d been truly excited for me about this trip. She had never agreed with my father about anything ... until this. I think it made her hang on and fight for more days as long as possible, until she couldn’t anymore. She was only 41, her relatively short life taught me a huge lesson about how fast time passes and the only measure is what we do with it, and doing our best. This is all we can control.

About 10 years ago, you persuaded your ex-husband, also a sailor, to collaborate on a major family adventure — you and your teenage sons, Nicholas and Sam, spent five months in a 36-foot boat sailing from the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Tahiti, where your ex-husband then took over for the final five months of the trip, which ended in New Caledonia, east of Australia. What was the most challenging thing about that adventure, the maritime logistics or the family emotions? Who learned more, the boys or you?

With the boys I retraced many of the same waters I’d traveled with Varuna when only a few years older than my older son, and it was way scarier. Alone, I was responsible for just myself. Though not ideal, I could be expendable, could procrastinate, feel sorry for myself, let things go. I felt so responsible for my son’s lives, was totally stressed out by ensuring their happiness, health and safety. They hadn’t chosen this adventure for themselves. It was my big, fat idea. The older son was into it right away while the younger hated it, would say things like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, this isn’t even a 1. Why can’t I be back home?” I wanted them to have the time of their lives, everything to be perfect, which meant tons of work on a boat and constant attention to being upbeat. I got way better at mechanics, electrics, plumbing and general boat maintenance than I’d ever been. They came aboard as total newbies and by the time I’d broken them, and myself, into this whole new world order at sea, my time with them was up. Their father took over a smoothly running machine. After 10 months, both boys loved the sea, had no regrets whatsoever, recognized what a gift they’d been given.

What are your sons doing now? Do they hear the call of the ocean?

The sailing trip with the boys, and the resourceful other sailors they met underway, inspired both of them to want to know how things worked, and they pursued marine systems engineering degrees in college. Now, one works at sea on big ships, keeping the engines and systems running, and the other has opted for land-based life, maintaining stream traps in facilities around New England. Here’s a good story. A year ago, before I sold my last boat, I wanted to sail it down to the Caribbean and put her on the market there, thereby avoiding the chore of hauling and winterizing her up here. I asked my younger son, who had just finished college, if he could be around to mind the house while I was gone and he said he’d rather do the sail, that he’d like to try a solo voyage. So I helped him get the boat ready to go, provisioned, filled the tanks with fuel and water, and left him on a mooring in Newport Harbor waiting for a good weather window — one that never came. Days passed and with increasing anxiety I monitored the forecasts full of systems barreling east across the waters he’d be crossing. It was cold and stormy, the hairy Gulf Stream promised to be hairier than ever and I couldn’t sleep, eat or hold a conversation. I was literally a nervous wreck, imagining him being pounded by massive waves, getting hypothermic from the cold. Worst case scenario, he’d die. Best case, the boat would need an enormous amount of repairs after the guaranteed pounding. In the end I couldn’t do it, couldn’t face the idea of letting him sail off into the hostile wintry horizon, and pulled the plug. I didn’t let my 22-year-old engineer son sail off to sea by himself. As a mother, I knew my father had done an amazing thing by encouraging and enabling such a trip for me at 18 with relatively little experience. It was a tremendous act of faith in my abilities and the universe conspiring to help me along the way. But, when it was my turn to return the favor for one of my offspring, I couldn’t do it. I went back down to Newport and hauled and winterized the boat after all. And my son interviewed for and got a job instead. Perfect. I was able to resume eating, sleeping and talking.

How is it that you ended up settling in Vermont?

When we were still married, my husband and I knew we wanted to live somewhere rural and special. We had friends we visited up here, and after a cross-country trip meant to find a place to settle, we came back to Vermont to pick up our cats and realized this was where we wanted to be. There are a lot of sailors in these hills, and I think it’s because there’s a certain amount of independence and preparedness that goes into living here that is also required in the boating life. There’s also plenty of natural beauty, extreme weather to excite and test us, and the potential for solitude and self-reliance.

Have you planned your next big adventure, or is organizing 10-day sailing charters all around the world adventure enough these days?

As the years pass, the meaning of adventure changes. In April, I sold a boat I had for three years, one I’d purchased for some more solo sailing. I thought it would be a good bookend, having done the big adventure as a coming of age story, why not relive some version of it as I entered middle age? It might have been a bit of a midlife crisis, but then other more pressing middle-age concerns arose, those related to taking care of an aging parent. The charters are a fun way to stay involved with the sailing world and earn a partial living, and I’m not starving for a huge adventure. I think I can check that desire off the list — been there, done that. My father needs me now, and that role reversal is a whole other kind of story to try and live well.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series of illustrated interviews. Suggestions for future subjects are welcome at sbraley@vnews.com.