Her original homecoming beset by a storm, Donna Lange finally finished what she set out to do in 2005 from Bristol, Rhode Island. She sailed alone around the world.
And thanks to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, marine photographer Billy Black, there were a few of us there to watch the 5-foot-2-inch sailor steer her 28-foot Southern Cross, aptly named Inspired Insanity, towards Brenton Reef and then past Castle Hill, into her home waters of Narragansett Bay.
Lange was due to arrive in Bristol in April, but she was waylaid by a fierce nor'easter 185 miles east of Bermuda. She lost her sea anchor and her boat's steering system was damaged during the storm, which produced 60-knot winds and 40-foot seas. She was forced to hand steer for 36 hours straight, and finally got a tow into Bermuda.
Having already crossed her outbound tracks, Donna had by then officially completed her great circle, but she hadn't done what she'd set out to do. So after flying to Rhode Island to attend a day of festivities and a welcome-home celebration that had already been planned for her, she went straight back to Bermuda, determined to finish her voyage to Bristol.
With engine repairs that would have made a self-imposed May 7 departure from Bermuda impossible, a feisty Donna concluded, "It was too complex a job," and chose to leave under sail alone, trusting the wind to carry her home.
The day before her real homecoming, I got the word from the boss, "Donna arrives tomorrow, and you're going to be there."
So around noon on the 16th, I drove down to Newport Shipyard and hopped onto We're Here, Billy Black's 22-foot power catamaran. Also on board were his assistant, Gretchen Thor, Donna's good friend, Maureen "Moe" Roddy, and Millie, Billy's wonder pup, a veteran of many such excursions.
It was windy, choppy, and hazy as we headed out of the harbor in search of Inspired Insanity. Shortly after passing the reef, Moe thought she saw something in the distance. She grabbed the binoculars but it turned out to be a false alarm. A few miles farther out, though, she took up the binoculars again, and this time spotted a mast in the distance, and guessed that it most probably was her friend's.
As Billy steered the boat in the direction of the sighting, we kept our eyes peeled. As we got closer, suddenly we all knew that it was in fact Donna, and Moe got on the radio to tell her we'd be alongside soon.
When We're Here pulled up alongside Inspired Insanity, we were the only two boats as far as the eye could see. It seemed like there should be a crowd, a celebration, maybe a band playing? But on the other hand it was also cool-just two boats on a big gray ocean, sort of like scoring a couple of invites to a really exclusive party.
At this point, Gretchen took the wheel and put the boat where it needed to be for Billy to capture the unfolding homecoming with his camera.
One of the first things we all noticed was how Donna had her sails rigged. During a dead calm a few days earlier, she was below when she heard a loud noise-the forestay broke. She didn't have a lot of options so she came up with an idea on the spot. She decided to use the jib halyard as the forestay and raised the jib on a spare halyard, sailing loose luffed for the rest of the trip. "I'm self-taught," Donna said. "And my techniques have improved."
Billy continued to take pictures as the five of us tried to make conversation over the wind and the engine. Donna raised various burgees and even fixed her hair to get ready for her close-up. I've never seen anyone try to comb her hair in such high winds, but hey, a girl's gotta look good!
As Donna walked around Inspired Insanity in the ocean swells, she was the picture of balance and coordination, an extension of her boat.
As we followed her into Narragansett Bay, the Claiborne Pell Bridge in Newport loomed ahead. Billy was almost done taking pictures-and Millie was clearly in need of some warmth-as Gretchen pulled We're Here right alongside Inspired Insanity so that Moe could pass Donna a well-deserved bottle of champagne.
We all cheered as she shook the bottle, popped the cork, and toasted her success with a fountain of bubbles. We waved and shouted good-byes as Donna continued up the bay to Bristol, and we headed back to the dock.
The following day, I called Donna to ask her about things that simply couldn't be shouted back and forth over wind and motors. Donna said she had little company on this leg of her trip except for a few storm petrels, porpoises, and whales. She did see a single boat one day out of Bermuda. As the two vessels passed each other, she realized that she knew one of the crewmembers on board. "It was Josh," she said. "He's the son of someone I know in St. Thomas."
Even on the phone, Donna sounds strong, capable, and confident, and ready to get on with the next stage of her life, which includes plans for humanitarian work, and more immediately, a captain's job on a Hylas 50. I asked her if she was ever frightened on any part of her circumnavigation. "I held an inkling of fear before it became a thought of fear," she said. "I wouldn't allow the fear to happen."
The most difficult part of the journey? "Worrying that I wouldn't get home to my kids."
For more information about Donna Lange visit her website (www.donnalange.com).