You Can Go Home Again

Taking her teenage sons offshore to follow part of the route of her solo circumnavigation could've been a disaster, but in the end, Mom finds her plan coming to fruition. A feature from our October 2008 issue

French Poly 368

French Polynesian beaches and palm trees lingered in Tania's dreams for two decades before she returned there with her boys.Dave Norton

For 17 years, ever since I gave birth to the first of my sons, I'd dreamed about taking them to the South Pacific-specifically, to French Polynesia. What made the Marquesas so special wasn't merely that I'd traveled from the Galapagos across 3,000 miles of ocean as a 19-year-old to get there. It was that I'd never seen anything so beautiful. No landfall thereafter ever quite matched up.

Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, Tahiti, Moorea: These were the islands I recalled best from my own youthful sail around the world, places residing in my memory as the acme of all that was most magical. I'd spent six months in French Polynesia, outwaiting hurricane season while nourishing myself with the friendships, insights, and learning that gave me the strength to keep going so I could head back out to sea alone, sailing ever-westward toward home.

Young, with hair unmarred by gray and a mind uncluttered by worries of bills, taxes, and earning a living, I dreamed of the day I'd be married and have a home, garden, and children. Never, I told myself a million times, would I give them what my father, acting on his own adventurous nature, offered me, what my cancer-stricken mother, facing her own mortality, supported, and what kept her clinging to life for as long as it did. Never could I send my daughter to sea just to see what she could see. The fact I'd had two boys instead of girls changed nothing. No matter what Grandpa said about bubble-wrapping children to the point where they never learn about limitations that aren't set by parents, I could never send them out to sea on their own.

I could, however, take them. As my boys and I, 21 years later, crossed 4,000 miles of Pacific, I wondered how the Marquesas had changed; maybe we'd find marinas, beach hotels, and unchecked tourism. I'd seen what 20 years had done to the less attractive Caribbean islands. Who wouldn't want to exploit the loveliest place on Earth?

The Marquesas
But distance and the cost of airfare still make all the difference. Approaching along the length of Hiva Oa, Shangri La, our 36-foot steel sloop, surfed down waves marching toward the jagged cliffs. No trophy homes clung to the hillsides. The island seemed as savagely alluring as I remembered, and memories of my long-ago landfall, singlehanded and triumphant, normalized this one. It was unusual for a mother, alone with her two teenage sons, to be arriving in the Marquesas under sail. Less unusual was their teenage apathy. I called the kids on deck repeatedly, but after 32 days at sea, the sea-slug wannabes kept reading below. "C'mon, Mom. It's a pile of rocks."

We anchored and checked into the country in the most populated bay, a short hitchhike from the village of Atuona, which was shaded by fewer mango and breadfruit trees than I remembered. S.U.V.s and pickups traveled back and forth along the one road encircling the bay, and rides into town were plentiful. But people still crossed the island on horseback to visit fruit groves providing produce to cosmopolitan Tahiti, 750 miles away. The local consensus was that Tahiti had hogged most of the change that had come to French Polynesia. In Hiva Oa and Ua Pou, new post offices had been built, along with a few more food stores, pharmacies, hardware and dry-good shops, banks with A.T.M.s, and a few sleepy restaurants and guesthouses. But the islands still felt far from the rest of the world. I expected the boys to be as captivated by the Marquesas as I'd once been. They weren't.

Even Sam, perennially attracted to a freebie, was uncharmed by the mangoes, papayas, limes, tamarind, and coconuts growing on the roadsides. The San Blas islands had given them a different set of expectations; for six days among the flat islets off Panama's Caribbean coast, they'd tasted snorkeling, hunting, and exploration, anchored in waters of dazzling clarity, and wanted more. Across the Pacific and from one dramatic Marquesan anchorage tucked under towering peaks to another, I heard the same refrain: "Why didn't we just stay in the San Blas for a year?"

Yes, I asked myself in fatigued moments, when it was hard to keep believing that it would take time for them to appreciate that what we were doing was a privilege, not a punishment. Yes, I thought, why didn't we indeed.
The breathtaking silhouettes of the jagged ridges above our anchorages in Tahuata and on the north coast of Hiva Oa, the beautiful and friendly people we met, our hike under the awesome spires of Ua Pou, the waterfalls, the awareness that this was a remote and special place you could really only access by boat after having earned it by crossing thousands of miles of ocean-none of this mattered to my boys. They wanted simply to snorkel and swim in opalescent waters. The Marquesas, they'd say, were a waste of time. Then Rangiroa made up for it.

The Tuamotus
Twenty-one years ago, navigating with only a sextant and sailing a boat with a broken engine, I'd bypassed the low-lying Tuamotus, also known as the Dangerous Archipelago. These atolls, only as tall as the tallest coconut palm, a descriptor every guidebook loves repeating, were just hazards I avoided. Now, using a G.P.S., we made a beeline for Rangiroa, the most popular atoll among a palisade of them lying between the Marquesas and Tahiti and one that promised the boys exactly the kind of snorkeling and swimming they craved. We were sailing in the off-season, so I figured that this most-visited Tuamotu would be just as devoid of boats as our Marquesan anchorages had been. In addition, this anchorage was protected from potential seas kicked up by the robust easterlies that had given us our most perfect passage-perhaps, even, my all-time favorite.

The brisk trade-wind sail between Ua Pou in the Marquesas and Rangiroa in the Tuamotus took five sunny days and coppery moon-filled nights. Shangri La performed beautifully, averaging 160 miles a day. We zoomed along, our days programmed by routines we'd developed around watches, homeschooling, mealtimes, the 1500 daily-position check and log entry, and morning weather reports. A squall cast a picture-book rainbow from horizon to horizon as we made landfall at Tiputa pass.

This was our last real passage together. Four months earlier, when our trip began in Curaçao, the three of us had been overwhelmed by it all: the new smells, the space restrictions, the heat, our fast-paced schedule, the thousands of miles of ocean before us, technical issues, the self-discipline necessary for homeschooling, learning to live with limited water and electricity, the oodles of time together.

En route to Rangiroa, I realized that four months had been nothing. We were reaching the place I'd dreamed about, not just geographically, especially since the Marquesas had proven to be such a flop, but personally. With the end drawing nigh, I began to think back. It'd taken two teenagers and their mother-typically a mutually exclusive combination-a relative blip in time to adapt to this radically different life. Pretty remarkable. I didn't regret any of the group-dynamic whining or feeling sorry for myself or resenting the kids for not being more enthusiastic. The one idea that I always had faith in was that there'd be no other way to get to the pride part without first being overwhelmed. As long as I knew that there'd be an end to it, so what if doubt and fear ruled some days?

Rangiroa was the turning point. Now I could sit back on the stern-pulpit seat and take in a glorious sunset while holding a drink in a hand that was clean because I'd gone for a few days without looking at the engine; instead, I swam and snorkeled and went ashore with the boys. Watching Sam and Nicholas excitedly call to each other while they fed our school of pet remoras, I now knew that the kids had finally adapted to life aboard. They no longer groaned about not having regular access to freshwater showers; they stopped changing outfits daily and now only wore swimsuits; they'd become comfortable enough to cook, do dishes, handle sails, anchor, and perform minor repairs. They both got their PADI open-water diving certificates in Rangiroa and used the dive-school gear when they replaced the prop-shaft anode. They were, finally, fully participatory sailors enjoying the cruising life. I felt proud. Getting us here had been the right thing to do.

We spent two weeks in Rangiroa's turquoise waters, the only sailboat holding behind a bight fringed by a brilliant white beach and coconut palms. We were 180 miles from Tahiti, our destination.

Handover in Tahiti
For 17 years, being Mother had defined me; the Captain part of my life was a peripheral thing. Now I felt like my two life theses had combined to form a new synthesis: this very trip. Soon, the boys' father would be moving onto the ship I'd rebuilt and sitting on the bunk I'd warmed up. Divorces are never easy; sacrifices have to be made, and giving him the boat and boys for five months of the adventure I'd planned on my own was a biggie. Two weeks later, at the end of February, Olivier arrived.

The northwest coast of Tahiti had indeed become a sprawl of houses, stores, and traffic jams. We spent a week on the boat together with the kids, the first time we've had more than a couple of grudging hours in each other's company in eight years. Though he might tell an entirely different story, because you never know with him, I thought it went well: no bickering, no complaining, and a lot of laughing with two offspring visibly relieved that we could act so maturely, which was the least we could do for them in the same part of the world where we first met, fell in love, and started everything that had led up to this moment.

Nicholas and Sam saw me off at the Marina Taina. Weeping, I climbed out of Shangri La's cockpit, then looked at her and my kids one last time before flying home to Vermont, there to trade in the snorkel, goggles, and bathing suit for snowshoes, woolens, and a shovel. Shangri La already smelled different, my personal things had been replaced by Dad's clutter, and the fridge, as Sam said indignantly, was already going from being opened twice a day on my watch-once for out, once for in-to 20 times on Dad's, just to be able to drink cold water, no less!

Fast-Forward to Vermont
At home, the snow accumulated, mimicking the piles of notes, receipts, statements, and bills gathering inside. I plowed through, entering and disbursing figures on spreadsheets, tallying up columns, and remembering. I still could clearly recall moments in stores with people who'd helped with advice, hints, and introduction to products and gear I'd never heard about. I remembered reading each book I'd ordered, navigating across areas that purchased charts had covered, using a more complete tool collection than I'd ever owned at home, figuring out, finally, where to install the new compass and EPIRB, gratefully enjoying how well the Monitor worked.

At first, the adventure with my boys was as fresh in my mind as the swirling snow. Between checking online updates at Buoyweather to see what their first passage together with Dad would be like, I wandered about the empty house, the smell of a T-shirt washed in a Panamanian detergent, a Budget Marine receipt, my flowering hibiscus plant, and a broken hammer each triggering the sensation of being back aboard. I replaced the bald car tires, planned some house projects, and missed my kids and Shangri La.

The boys and I were on opposite sides of the world, another extreme in a year of extremes. We'd gone from being three of us living atop each other in 36 feet, as close as we've ever been, to having thousands of miles separating us, as apart as we've ever been. Had the whole effort been worth it?

Financially, if I could sell Shangri La for close to what I'd paid for her before all the new outfitting, then the trip, everything included, would cost $50,000-good value for a year's worth of top-notch education for the boys. Physically, at times, the workload had seemed ridiculously demanding, but it'd all gotten done. I was still in one piece and not much worse for wear.

As a parent, I hadn't wanted my boys to become Zen Buddhists, but I'd hoped they'd become more reflective and grow familiar and comfortable with thoughtfulness, dreams, and gratitude. I'd hoped that they'd be awakened to an earthly humility during long watches under the heavens, surrounded by so much space, silence, and water, and come to understand a bit more clearly how the only real power and impact we have on our little worlds lie within the choices we make and our accountability to them. I wanted them to learn to fear setting limitations on themselves and to be grateful for the lessons that would quietly work their ways into the fabric of their existence better than those from any book or lecture from Mom.

At 16, my father had introduced me to the sea. I've spent a lifetime being grateful, but I also wanted to relive a version of my lonely trip with my own children, on my terms. Now I have to wait and see how a similar experience will affect them. The seeds the sailing life plants need watering and fertilizing by more life, requiring time to turn into something tangible.

Six weeks after I'd hugged the boys good-bye, my father forwarded this e-mail he'd received from my eldest.
"Hey, Grandpa," he wrote. "I hope this finds you well fed on sushi. I'm on watch on our longest passage with Dad from Raratonga to Apia. As unlikely as it seems, I was doing some thinking, about how lucky we are to have a mom who had the guts to put this trip together and pull it off. I also realized that it wasn't just Mom who was responsible, but that you were a major factor in this trip, directly and not so directly. You stuck Mom on the boat as an 18-year-old and launched the nautical chapter of our family into being. I don't know how to thank you enough. Without this decision, neither Sam's nor my existence would've come to pass, much less our trip. I just wanted to say thank you for your part, and that your 'spoiled little grandsons' aren't blind to everything around them.
Much love, Nicholas."

In 1987, Tania Aebi became the youngest woman to circumnavigate solo. These days, she's a writer and lecturer and directs sailing flotillas. You can read the crew of Shangri La's blog at the BoatU.S. website (www.BoatUS.com/cruising).