By Tania Aebi
At 21, she was the youngest woman to sail around the world alone, and her inspirational book about this odyssey, Maiden Voyage — co-authored with BoatU.S. consulting editor Bernadette Bernon — went on to become an international best-seller, and selected in 1990 as a “Best Book For Young Adults” by the American Library Association.
Now, more than 20 years later, living in Vermont, Tania Aebi is a divorced mother of two teenagers, hoping to give her boys a taste of something other than the video-games and paint-ball sessions that were their favorite pastimes. So the trio set sail for a year – the boys a little shell-shocked at first -- and made it all the way to the South Pacific together. The one-year adventure was an extraordinary challenge and responsibility for this mother, and the course was sometimes boisterous, but in the end she gave her kids precious gifts – family time together, a world view, and a sense of responsibility.
There we were, my oldest son, Nicholas, and me, driving along Route 2 through rural Maine on the way to the coast. It seemed like yesterday that I’d been driving him to kindergarten. Now, here we were, headed out to look at colleges along with thousands of other ’09 high-school graduates and parents. This rite of passage had snuck up on us quite soon after he’d dropped anchor for the last time on Shangri La, the boat that had sailed our family across thousands of miles of ocean.
When I’d just turned 18, and my father was escorting me through a somewhat less traditional transition from high school to college, our road led down the New Jersey Turnpike to the Annapolis Boat Show to find the vessel that would guide me through Ocean U. Over the next two and a half years, I sailed around the world by myself, my unusual father’s loony idea of an ideal education, far away from the tree-lined campus paths, routine, and structure I now envision for Nicholas. Fortunately for my dad, I lived to tell the tale.
I’d married another sailor I’d met out there pretty soon after my circumnavigation ended in New York, and life veered toward the predictable — becoming mother to two sons, lecturer, writer, co-owner of a small sailboat-flotilla business. Over the years, between raising kids, working, getting divorced, and going back to college, we established entrenched routines around school, piano lessons, tae kwon do, visitation, family trips. All along, though, an idea tugged at me. I always imagined that one day I’d pull my boys out of their comfort zone and introduce them to my old teacher, the sea. I wanted them to experience a little of my best schooling, have doors open to new thinking for themselves. The year I turned 40, the age my mother was when she died, I realized that all these dreams were just that — dreams! I’d never done anything about them. And now time was running out. The boys were almost launched, and any parental influence I might wield with them was diminishing by the minute.
The Year Of Shangri La
I made a radical decision, to buy a small sailboat, dust off my cruising skills, and take my boys sailing for a school year. That decision led to a dizzying chain of events that accelerated into frantic months of being completely absorbed by the finance juggling and preparation. We had Nicholas’ eleventh grade, and Sam’s eighth, to split between the parents. I’d captain the first half, their father the second — joint custody goes to sea. In March 2007, with only six months before the year needed to begin, I bought Shangri La, a 36-foot-long steel cutter, in St. Maarten, and got reintroduced to what the owner of a boat meant to travel long distances must worry about.
The day the papers were signed and Shangri La became mine, the imagery that had driven all this — kids diving from the bow into azure waters off sparkling, palm-fringed beaches, laughing with new international friends, teaming up with me to solve problems in all kinds of stellar bonding and character-building opportunities — was replaced by gritty responsibilities. I had to get Shangri La’s electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and sailing systems up and running, gather the endless lists of gear while carrying out projects aboard. And ashore! The home we were leaving behind also had to be battened down, bookkeeping put in order, home-schooling lined up, materials gathered. The sea exacts a mental and physical price when loose ends aren’t tied up. Worried I might be forgetting important details, anxiety dogged me.
In September, the boys and I said goodbye to our Vermont home and friends, family, and teachers, unpacked and filled Shangri La’s lockers, and took off. For the next five months, we sailed through the Caribbean from Curacao to Columbia, to the San Blas Islands of Panama, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific to the Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Tahiti. It was a stormy start. Removing two teenagers from their social lives, routine, and creature comforts, to be confined on a small boat with their mother for weeks and months on end, might sound loony. In those first couple of months, I don’t know how many times I wondered what had possessed me to do such a thing.
Sanguine Nicholas was okay, along for the ride and lazily trusting me to take care of things, nowhere near as enthusiastic and curious about learning as I remembered being at his age. My sweet, cooperative, little Sam was another story, turning choleric and complaining about everything: The weather was too hot; he wasn’t catching enough fish; we didn’t stay long enough in the beautiful San Blas; the first two ocean passages were tedious; the Panama Canal was boring. While I was preoccupied with myriad logistics, he became a growling teenager, and I, a progressively more overwhelmed mom.
One week out of Panama and about 600 miles into the 4,000 until landfall in the Marquesas Islands, we were beating into headwinds and fighting a countercurrent when I discovered a leak in a freshwater tank that reduced our supply, just as the wind generator overcharged the batteries to boiling. That night, sleep evaded me as we slammed into the waves through the scary darkness with thousands of miles of wilderness to traverse. Confidence scraped bottom. What, I scolded myself, had I been thinking?
And then, 10 days into the passage, it happened. As we crossed the equator, reliable trades swept in to push us downwind, horizon after horizon, and humors changed. Thoroughly alone, with one common goal of reaching a small group of islands thousands of miles away, we gradually settled in, developing a new shipboard routine of eating, sleeping, studying, and living well. As we talked about the world awaiting us in the South Pacific Islands, the boys knocked off their home-schooling lessons, and each sunset and sunrise became more beautiful than the last, every day’s run a shared achievement.
For 32 days on the passage from Panama to the Marquesas, the boys stood watches, learned GPS and sextant navigation, became familiar with the solar-, wind-, and alternator-generated electricity and how to measure consumption, grew accustomed to rationing water and food supplies, learned how to appreciate traveling thousands of miles with just wind and sails. Finally, Sam sweetened up again and got more into his fishing, Nicholas plowed through his books. We played cards and Boggle, planned and prepared delicious meals and teased, while the ocean around us, and the boat that sheltered us, drew us ever closer together. We’d found our Shangri la.
The remote and exotic Marquesas Islands weren’t quite what the boys had expected in terms of snorkeling and underwater fun, but the Tuamotus made up for it, matching the San Blas in blue water and epitomizing the ideal. We spent two full weeks anchored off a bight in the lagoon of Rangiroa where white beach sands framed by green vegetation emerged from a submarine world full of vibrant reefs and colorful life. Here, the boys earned their PADI open-water dive licenses, and we became one with our life -- paying attention to the skies and weather, while things such as freshwater showers and a daily change of clothes didn’t matter anymore. Bathing in the lagoon and always wearing swimsuits were enough.
Between dives, they completed the home-schooling program. Living on the boat brought them an appreciation of the way things work, their environmental impact, how much they really do and don’t need. Watching this happen made the weeks we shared in Rangiroa all the more precious because just as my labors began to bear fruit, I had to pass the plate. My five months with them were drawing to a close. From Rangiroa we sailed our last passage together to Tahiti, where the boys’ dad took over the turnkey operation. I flew home, and the three of them sailed on to Raratonga, Western Samoa, Wallis Island, and Fiji, to New Caledonia.
Leaving The Nest
Separated by half a planet, the boys and I stayed connected by e-mail; I read how Sam took over doing all the dishes and cleaning, and his brother, the communications. With the single-sideband radio, Nicholas sent regular fish reports, asked for rust-prevention instructions, and described a dawning curiosity about engines and mechanics. All too soon, in July 2008, they finished building memories with their dad, hauled Shangri La in New Caledonia, packed up the shells and souvenirs, and came home.
The time I spent at sea in my youth gave me direction, affecting my everyday and long-term choices and decisions. I’d hoped lessons learned by the boys would include a matured sense of responsibility and self-accountability in the world, gratitude for opportunities, and awareness that so much is possible, given the will to try and succeed. I knew they’d come away from a year at sea in a different place than they’d have been after another year at their local school.
When they got home, the boys were brimful of stories. Sam was all about blow-by-blow descriptions and Power Point demonstrations showing off every single fish he’d caught, and looking forward to starting an uninterrupted high-school career with this trip behind him. Nicholas was facing senior year, when many peers were talking college, and every single concerned adult wanted to know his plans. He’d enjoyed the time afloat very much, he told me when asked if he’d been thinking up answers, and was especially excited by a guy named Andy they’d met in Wallis Island, whose example had given him ideas.
Andy was sailing the 36-foot sailboat he’d built. He knew how to fix everything and anything, lived simply, and mostly gadget-free with his wife as they traveled the world, and was so happy and content that he’d written and self-published a book Nicholas devoured called The Best Life Money Can’t Buy. Nicholas came home knowing what he didn’t want — an expensive liberal arts education leading to a desk job. Nope, he said, he’d been inspired by Andy, and other sailors he’d met who knew how to fix plumbing, rewire electrical systems, troubleshoot engines. He wanted the independence gained by learning real, hands-on skills that could take him places. What did I think about him skipping college and going to a trade school to become a plumber, electrician, or an underwater welder?
“Well, absolutely,” I said, “but what if you went to a college where you could learn these skills. Maybe a maritime academy…” I suggested he could earn a degree in marine engineering and also get merchant-marine-officer licensing, that the schools have machine shops, engines, and electronics to take apart and put back together, a sailing team, a ship to work and travel on as part of a curriculum entirely geared toward teaching kids how things work. “Wouldn’t something like that be perfect?” He thought it might.
So, on November 7, 2008, a grinning Sam returned to another day of a ninth-grade year he was enjoying very much, while Nicholas and I crossed the stretch of northern New England that lies between our home in Vermont and fogbound coastal Maine to the Maritime Academy in Castine. In the same place I’d been at his age, he was preparing to make choices and decisions that would affect his life, and as my father had been for me, I was his advisor. Since he’d been gracious enough to leave the iPod on the kitchen table, we were talking. I mentioned that on this very day in 1987, I’d sailed past the Statue of Liberty and back in to New York Harbor, the last day of living out the circumnavigation challenge my father had offered me in lieu of college, and right into the future, which had led to our year with Shangri La.
I then pointed out another anniversary. Exactly one year earlier, to the day, he, Sam, and I had been motoring in through the breakwater leading to the Panama Canal Zone. The car’s windshield wipers rubbed against the glass as we shared a moment of silence. I remembered a squally day and squally moods as we steered past the huge ships at anchor awaiting transit, while I was anxiously awaiting an improvement in morale. Several weeks later, on the other side of the Canal and across 700 more miles of ocean, it arrived. I’d been right to believe it would. Now, my oldest son stands at an important crossroads where this, and other memories of his year at sea, are affecting the choices he’ll make. As he heads into adulthood, I can believe something else: He and Sam will always remember, and be influenced by, the kind of looniness that showed us all a Shangri la.
Tania co-owns a women-only flotilla chartering company that takes groups of women sailing all over the world. To go on her mailing list, write to firstname.lastname@example.org