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Contemplating Lessons of the Sea : Memoirs of a Solitary Circumnavigator

Associated Press

The floor no longer moves beneath Tania Aebi’s feet, and the view from her window these days offers more than heaving waves and billowing sail. She no longer spends week after week in solitude.

Life has changed for the young woman whose father sent her off, at the age of 18, to sail around the world alone because she wouldn’t do her homework.

Instead of standing by the tiller, Aebi now spends hours at a computer keyboard, putting down the memories of the months at sea and ports of call.

After working nearly a year on her book, Aebi said, she still finds that “writing about myself is harder than sailing.”

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The lessons she learned on the 2 1/2-year, 27,000-mile voyage are slowly becoming clear.

“I’m ruminating about it,” Aebi, now 21, said recently in an interview at her home in Newport, R. I. “It’s not like my life’s a neat pattern yet. It probably never will be.”

Nonetheless, she is starting to follow a more conventional path. The boat recently was sold and she married a man she met on the other side of the planet. And she and her father have bridged the gulf between them that sent her sailing around the globe.

“Before I left, he lost hope in me,” she confided. “He thought I was a total dud. He was an explorer and I did none of that.

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“Father proposed the whole thing to me and didn’t give me a whole lot of options.”

In 1985, Ernst Aebi, a well-known surrealist painter who lives in Manhattan, suggested to his bicycle-messenger daughter an intriguing scheme: In lieu of a college education, he would buy her a boat to sail solo around the world.

Aebi, a difficult student who graduated from an alternative high school, agreed. Her father says she was “shanghaied.” Soon, the 26-foot sloop Varuna was ordered, and on May 28, 1985, the neophyte sailor hoisted the sails and was on her way out of New York Harbor.

Many thought she wouldn’t make it.

But by the time Aebi floated through the Panama Canal and reached the Galapagos Islands she had learned how to use the heavens as her map. Her seamanship would later be tested when the boat capsized during a Mediterranean storm and when it collided with a freighter.

At the South Pacific island of American Samoa, Aebi gave a hitchhiker an 80-mile lift to another island, a generous oversight that ultimately cost her a pair of world’s records.

The people who keep the books say as a result of that gesture, the voyage couldn’t be classified as single-handed. Aebi would have been the youngest person and the first American woman to sail solo around the world.

But if she lost something in the South Pacific, she also found something: Olivier Berner, a fellow adventurer and solo sailor from Switzerland who was sailing to New Guinea in search of gold.

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He changed course and, sailing his own boat, accompanied her to Malta. When Aebi returned to New York last Nov. 6, Berner was there to welcome her. The couple were married six months later.

With the elation of accomplishment now displaced by the effort of writing her memoirs, Aebi says she has no regrets about the records she almost captured or the years away from her home, friends and family.

“I’ll never be 18 again,” she said. “That trip gave me an opportunity for 2 1/2 years to not worry about the future except for getting to the next port. I knew what I had to do, which was ultimately get back to New York.”

But, does the prosaic pale after a life before the mast?

“Life can’t be a bore when you have a deadline,” she said with a laugh, “and there are too many things I want to do--learn a couple of more languages, read a lot of books and get older.”


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