In 1985, at age 18, Tania Aebi set sail from New York alone on a Contessa 26 sloop and went on to become the first American woman and the youngest person to sail around the world. Her circumnavigation lasted 30 months. Because a friend joined her for 80 of her 27,000 miles, she is not credited for being the then-youngest solo circumnavigator, but that record hardly matters (except to the recent spate of teens explicitly competing to be the youngest solo circumnavigator). Co-written with Bernadette Brennan, "Maiden Voyage" is her account of the voyage.
Ballantine Books, 1996
304 pages paperback
What It's About?
Aebi writes with delightful honesty about what led her to pursue her solo voyage. At age 18 she was unsure about college and casting about for something meaningful to do with her life when her father proposed that he'd buy her a sailboat instead of paying for tuition, but she'd have to earn it by sailing around the world. The plan was intended as work, not a lark or attempt to set a record. She'd have to learn singlehanded sailing and navigation by sextant and cope alone with everything the sea could throw at her. After some thought she accepted his offer and they bought the sloop Varuna. When she sailed off, she still didn't know how to find her position with the sextant (remember this was in pre-GPS days), a skill she managed to learn - along with everything else - by herself while underway.
Many solo sailers have written with great art and fascinating detail about their voyages and circumnavigations (see Bernard Moitessier, for example), but Tania Aebi's story brings a new dimension: leaving as a relatively innocent teenager and returning as an accomplished, thoughtful young woman, she tells a story not only of voyaging but also of inner growth and adventurous coping with the slings and arrows of sailing life - at an age, we can't but think, that most 18-year-olds now cope with little more adventurous than Facebook.
Although the book was written afterwards, it generally maintains an immediacy that keeps readers right there in the cockpit with her. She has a good eye for detail and describes both her thought processes and the marvels of the sea with equal skill.
Why It's a Good Read
There's always a risk that a sailing narrative can become monotonous from a lack of variety in shipboard life. Aebi avoids this problem with a richness of detail, whether it is the little things of daily life like eating or knitting, descriptions of storms and damnable calms, and the ocean's many moods and sea life, or exotic ports of call and interactions with others ashore. Her cat Tarzoona also becomes an important character in the story. Through it all, we experience her emotional ups and downs that often synchronize with the rising and falling seas.
The professional writer Bernadette Brennan helps bring maturity to the book's prose, although at times the writing feels a little too far from the young narrator, as in this passage: "Frustrated beyond belief at being entrapped by a calm so early in the trip, my body continued acclimatizing itself, and that night I awoke to see the dark shadow of a boorish squall passing astern."
But most of the time the prose flows well, and Aebi's interspersed log entries evoke the immediacy of the moment. For example, here she writes wryly during a period of high wind: "The ocean is everywhere; it's coming in through the chain plates, crashing over Varuna, in through leaky hatch gaskets and the Dorade vent, overflowing into the cockpit and down to the lockers. Tarzoon and I have the slats closed up tight, making the cabin air quite stale, and we scrunch up together watching Father Time march onward. What a way to grow old."
All in all, it's a good read full of interesting insights about life and sailing. It's not just a young person's book.
About the Author
Since writing "Maiden Voyage," Aebi earned her captain's license and has organized many learn-to-sail voyages to introduce others to the arts of sailing. Living now in a small Vermont town and raising two sons, she gives inspirational and descriptive talks around the country and overseas. She continues to write articles and columns for sailing publications, many of which have been collected in her second book, "I've Been Around," published in 2005.
Despite her fame as author, sailor, and speaker, Tania Aebi remains a down-to-earth person whose appreciation for humanity and nature is genuine and delightful.