Call For a Tow

September 15, 2008
Last Letter From Home

September 1, 2008
Saying Goodbye

August 15, 2008
The Circle Closes At Arue

August 1, 2008
Last Days In Rangi

July 15, 2008
The Road To Rangiroa

July 1, 2008
A Social Whirl

June 15, 2008
The Land of Men

June 1, 2008
Sweet Days in Hiva Oa

May 15, 2008
Homing In

May 1, 2008
A Perfect Day At Sea

April 15, 2008
Beating Across The Pacific

April 1, 2008
The Worrier Transits The Canal

March 15, 2008
The Boys And The Hunt

March 1, 2008
Sweet Landfall In Panama

February 15, 2008
Gloom in Cartagena

February 1, 2008
Connections With That Long-Ago Girl

January 15, 2008
Where the Boys Are

January 1, 2008
Life On The Hard

December 15, 2007
Last Letter From Vermont

December 1, 2007
The Final Countdown

November 15, 2007
Welcome Aboard Shangri-La

November 1, 2007
More Bad Dreams Than Good

October 15, 2007
When Our Systems Overwhelm Us

October 1, 2007
Shaking Off The Remoras

September 15, 2007
The Deal Is Done

September 1, 2007
The Search For Shangri-La

August 15, 2007
The Birth Of A Dream

August 15, 2007
Tania And Sons

August 15, 2007
About Tania

August 15, 2007
About the Family

August 15, 2007
About Shangri-La

August 15, 2007
Voyage Itinerary

August 15, 2007

August 15, 2007
Tanias Books

August 15, 2007
Chartering With Tania

November 1, 2007
More Bad Dreams Than Good

By Tania Aebi

This past April, I sailed my new boat across the Caribbean from St. Maarten to Curacao. It was my first sail with her, and my first long-distance passage in 13 years. For the delivery I brought one of my boys, the neighbor’s son, and an acquaintance for crew. Obviously, we survived to tell the tale, and so did Shangri-La. And, right now, she’s safe and sound on the hard in a Curacao yard and I’m back at home preparing to leave for The Trip, 11 months after taking the first steps toward making it happen. In that time, I’ve bumped up against an erstwhile nemesis so often that it has earned top billing. I’d like to tell you about it.

Tania’s first offshore sail as captain, with her son and his friend as crew, was preceded by nonstop nightmares about all that could go wrong.

Somehow, during the past 19 boatless years ashore — except in the trepidacious days leading up to an 8,000-mile cross-country car trip I did in 2001 with just my boys, our tent, and a little RAV4 — I’d managed, for the most part, to stow this worst-case-scenario monster on a top shelf somewhere near the trusty sextant and old charts. Fear is embarrassing, a weakness. We’d rather be seen as brave and strong, and so I cultivated the heroic image instead of my fraidy-cat side. My articulated fantasies were all about someday sailing with the kids, of floating in beautiful lagoons, snorkeling, fishing, swimming, hiking, and adventuring with fascinating characters. Under sail, we’d be with the wind at our backs, perfect white sails billowing as we raced dolphins and whales, hauling in one mahi mahi after another. We’d be tanned, beautiful and healthy. Adversity didn’t feature often, and when it did, it would be just another opportunity to showcase our incredible resourcefulness.

Shangri-La’s maiden sail, with Tania in charge.

You know this vision. It’s the one we all like to talk about. This kind of stuff feeds the boating industry’s hungry maws. Nobody in the pictures ever looks scared because fear is ugly, bad for advertising. Dictionaries say fear is a powerful and distressing emotion of risk or danger, either real or imagined, and along with a few other basics such as joy and anger, it’s innate in all human beings — and, as I said, ugly. And, in this past year, when my dream started becoming items on an endless notebook full of lists, with a real boat to choose, repair, and outfit for a voyage yet to execute, and a way of life to leave behind, my fears began lurking in the shadows again, ruining the pretty pictures in my head. Sometimes, I felt downright hideous.

At rest in Curacao.

At home in the hills of Vermont, between trips down to the Caribbean where the boat search, purchase, and refit took place, vivid memories of raging skies, growling waves, gasping engines, ripping sails, hairy navigation, the smell of sloshing bilge water, and churning tummies got dredged up from the depths. These images would come to me at the gas pump, before the kitchen sink, while planting tulip bulbs, and most inconveniently, in the middle of the night. I’d wake from nightmares involving a boat surrounded by reefs and no way out, sweating and asking myself what on earth was I doing. What had made me want to leave our house, our garden, the chickens, the community, everything that felt safe and comfortable, to head out to sea?

Tania, Jonah (Sam’s friend from Vermont), and Sam.

I was becoming a nervous wreck and acutely aware of the absurdity of these fears. I’d sailed around the world alone, fer cryin’ out loud, in a tiny boat, navigating with only that same sextant that was now sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase. I’d proved I could do it when I was 18, so why was I waking up every night terrified at 40, wondering what I’d gotten myself, and now my kids, into this time. How was I ever going to shake this awful bedfellow?

Then came the first passage. It was just a Caribbean crossing -- 480 miles from St. Maarten to Curacao. No big deal. Four days, at the most. A southbound quarter reach in the trade winds. A straight shot. Been there, done that. Easy cheesy. The perfect shakedown cruise. Yada yada…

Sam sits on the stern pulpit seat.

In the throes of preparations, these were all the things I kept telling myself, even as this puny 480-mile long trip took on Cape-Horn proportions. These fears and nightmares were in no way lessened by the fact that I knew my boat had already cut her teeth on the infamous Cape and a sail to Antarctica with her previous owners. In my mind, those successful trips didn’t give my new boat pedigree; instead, they’d only put untold amounts of stress on her rigging — for which I was about to pay.

Worst of all was the almost crippling fear of being totally responsible for the whole shebang. This trip was my idea, it was coming out of my wallet, it was following an itinerary I’d planned. If anything went wrong, it would be my fault. In my head, the chatter was frequently accompanied by the sounds of rushing water, a parting forestay, a dragging anchor, and the cold sweats would start. No wait, really worst of all was that I couldn’t confide in anyone. Nobody took me seriously. If I mentioned an inkling of fear, either I was told this was my choice, deal with it or give it up, or it was laughed off. Tania Aebi scared of a boat and the sea? Yeah, right. Good one.

Sam out cold in his cabin.

I felt seduced and trapped by my own bravado after years of gallivanting about on charter boats, leading flotillas and blithely talking about doing some real long-distance sailing with my kids one day. I’d blabbed myself into a corner and had become my father, except my fear was centered on what could happen out there, while his fear had been that nothing would happen that would be good enough for a story. Twenty-five years ago, with virtually no experience, immediately after buying his own first — and used — boat, he took three of his landlubbering teenagers offshore, hoping for breaking engines, terrible storms, any difficulties for better tales to tell. He drilled us on man-overboard exercises often enough to instill a mortal fear of falling overboard. He gave us some basic compass-reading instruction, put us behind the wheel, assigned watches and harnesses, and we did it. Mile by mile, day by day, we learned as we went, figuring out problems as they arose, until one day we all looked back and realized we’d covered thousands of miles and visited all kinds of cool countries and met all sorts of cool people. You’d think this family story would have been comforting. It wasn’t.

Sam and Jonah catch their first fish.

Then, about five days before setting sail on my new used boat, still perpetually overwhelmed by becoming familiarized with all her systems, laboring over upgrades, maintenance and repairs, I emailed John, a hardcore sailor and friend, and mentioned my apprehension over the upcoming passage. Characteristically, he ignored the doubts, and instead wrote back something about the Caribbean being stunning at that time of year. Then, he said, “You belong at sea.”

Reading those four words was a turning point. They were the reminder I needed, and they sustained me through the first frenzied hours of getting out of St. Maarten, fussing with the annoying windvane that wouldn’t work, frustrated by light southwest winds in the trades, trying to figure out which compass heading to use on a steel boat (GPS, Autohelm, or the Plastimo mounted above companionway—none of them were in accord), double-reefed while slamming through 25-knot winds and waves. In the middle of dark and moonless Night Two, I sat out in the cockpit alone. Kids and friend were sleeping, totally trusting me. I, in turn, realized that by now I thoroughly knew and trusted the boat and with her, was revisiting an old friend, the sea.

The boys took to the voyage, and had fun.

Perched on the stern pulpit seat, I tried to make myself feel scared, imagined the inky depths, malevolent clouds approaching, the anything-can-happen happening. Try as I might, I didn’t feel the intense fear I’d anticipated. What if John was right? What if I did belong out here? I cursed the self-steering some more, adjusted it again, and sat back to watch what the course would do. Shooting stars streaked across the sky periodically while those stars that chose to remain in place reflected off the seas and out from behind cloud shadows. Shangri-La slid through waters that bubbled and gurgled astern. It was just like in my good dreams, and I held onto that precious feeling, and hoped it would last.


The responsibility for this trip is mine, and sometimes bearing that alone gets to me. But I trust that the experience will be worth every bit of worry and work.