I remember like it was yesterday. Watching her interview with Jane Pauley and thinking, “How does a girl my age know how to sail around the world?”
It was the spring of 1985 and I was a sophomore in high school. The girl, Tania Aebi, was 18 years old and about embark on what many believed was a too-dangerous journey, single-handedly sailing a 26-foot sailboat named Varuna around the world.
I also remember when she successfully arrived back in New York City two years later to much fanfare, celebrated as the first American woman and youngest person at that time to have accomplished a solo circumnavigation.
But it wasn’t until this year, more than 30 years later, that I read her acclaimed book, Maiden Voyage, and my questions about how she did it were answered — each detail of her often harrowing, often joyful experience revealed. I finished the book wanting to read it again.
Aebi started sailing when she was 16, on a trip with her father across the Atlantic from the United Kingdom to New York. The option to sail solo around the world as a novice sailor was one presented by her father as an alternative to attending college. As I read Maiden Voyage, it wasn’t hard to see why he was criticized for sending his young, inexperienced daughter into a risky situation with suspect equipment, but Tania didn’t see it that way.
Instead, she embraced the adventure and time after time heeded her father’s advice to rely on her common sense. She learned to use a sextant for navigation, dealt with water rushing into her boat during a storm, and manage through the loss of her engine more than once. Her mother died while she was at sea. That solo sail was fueled by grit, determination, resourcefulness, and acceptance. It was also made possible by the kindness of strangers.
Although Aebi did sail for days and weeks without seeing another human, that was balanced by the friendship and assistance from people in faraway lands when she ventured onshore. The experience of human kindness and observing each new culture was the foundation of the answer to my most pressing question after completing her book. Instead of how she had done it, I wanted to know — with a half-century of insight — how it had shaped who she became.
Her answer to that question, learned in hindsight, was realizing the importance of belonging to a community, wherever that may be, whatever that may look like.
“Everywhere I went it was great because I was seeing the world and seeing all of these different people on these little islands. Everywhere I went there was a community, and these people belonged to it,”Aebi says, acknowledging that her own background had less stability. “It was just like being anchored and having a sense of place, which I had never had before.”
A reflection on the importance of faith during that early journey also influenced her perspective through the years — “faith in the universe, faith that you can do something, the faith that my dad had in me, and faith in good.”
Today, Aebi’s tightly knit Vermont community, where she raised her two sons, is precisely where she wants to be. Gardening, spending time with neighbors, managing through the cold winters, and caring for her father who lives close by. She does travel for speaking engagements to talk about her early experiences, and she occasionally serves as a charter captain on sailing trips. But in a world that more and more often glamorizes wanderlust and escape, it is impactful when she says finding a place to call home is more important than anything. “I am doing what I want to do. I love being here. I love my community.”
A reflection on the importance of faith during that early journey also influenced her perspective through the years — “faith in the universe, faith that you can do something, the faith that my dad had in me, and faith in good,” she says. At the end of the day, Aebi’s experiences taught her that people are inherently decent. She believes that still today. “I kind of trust people,” she says. “You have to.”
From a practical perspective, Aebi also learned to trust that challenging moments will pass, which has shaped her approach to life on and off the water. Mechanical systems fail, parts break, Mother Nature can be uncooperative, mistakes happen, things often don’t go as planned — “I have a pretty good grip on the ‘this too shall pass’ approach to most things. No matter how hard it is, soldier on and it will pass,” she says. Her advice to anyone embarking on a challenging journey? “Do the best you can; it doesn’t always have to be the best.”
So, what about Aebi? Would she sail around the world again?
That was the original plan. “When I looked at 50, I wanted to go out to sea again alone and kind of process,” she says. “I got a boat, a Contessa 32 about five years ago. I wanted to bookend at 50.” But that trip didn’t materialize. Her father continues to need more care, she had her own brush with breast cancer, and Aebi ultimately sold the boat, a decision and a process she seems at peace with.
Aebi has sailed on long voyages with her two sons, both now grown with degrees in marine systems engineering, and she may still embark on another solo journey. “The pull right now would be to be alone again. To have those days and days. It is meditative,” she says. Maybe she will solo sail again, maybe she won’t. She has nothing to prove.
When I first spoke with Aebi, I wanted to believe we had a lot in common: She is an exceptional writer and earned a master’s of fine arts from the University of Vermont. I write around my work schedule. By the time she was 21, Aebi had sailed around the world alone. I sail on vacation and still struggle to tie knots correctly. She is a legend. I am a fan. An honest assessment would reveal that maybe the only thing we truly share is an over-the-shoulder glance at our 50th birthdays and the reflection on what that means.
For Aebi at least, it means living for the present and appreciating the world she has carved out for herself. Not worrying about what didn’t happen or what will happen, rather being grateful for an early experience that gave her access to some incredible people and the opportunity to share unforgettable stories along the way.