The Boy Who Fell to Shore
This all started innocently enough, in the spring of 2013. Phil “Snake Wake” Cavanaugh, an old sailing buddy, and I arrived at Marina Puerto del Rey in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to reconnect with Lunacy, my Tanton 39 cutter, so we could cruise the Spanish Virgin Islands for a couple of weeks. We were hustling through routine preparations, scoring groceries and parts needed for minor repairs, when Phil returned to the boat from Puerto del Rey’s chandlery and casually dropped a magazine in my lap—the March 2013 issue of All At Sea. Once I got around to reading it, my mouth fell open.
Inside, on page 52, was a feature story, the first in a series of three, by one Thomas Tangvald.
I recognized the name immediately. Back in the 1990s, early in my own career as a bluewater sailor, I’d read a very memorable book entitled At Any Cost. This was an autobiography by Thomas’s dad, Peter Tangvald, who was in his day a renowned bluewater sailor. He was the man who inspired Lin and Larry Pardey to roam the planet in a sailboat without an engine. And his autobiography, some will recall, was posthumous. The last pages of his book—written as an epilogue by Thomas, who at the time was just 15 years old—described how Thomas lost his dad and younger sister in a terrible wreck one night on the windward shore of Bonaire.
I cannot tell you how happy I was to connect those two disparate dots over that chasm of 20 years—from the sad orphaned boy, stranded on Bonaire, to the seemingly confident and competent young man writing in All At Sea of his “micro-farm” on Vieques and of his plan to emigrate to Brazil by sailboat with his wife and young boy. I was very pleased—ecstatic even—to learn that Thomas seemed to be doing so well.
When I got home, I wrote a long enthusiastic post about Thomas and his father’s career on my blog WaveTrain (wavetrain.net) and, of course, looked for the next two issues of ALL AT SEA. In his trilogy of feature stories in this magazine, entitled “Two Thousand Miles to Brazil,” Thomas described how he modified Oasis, a 34-foot Puerto Rican nativo racing sloop, and transformed her into a modest barebones bluewater boat. It was, by the sound of it, an agonizing process. He also described how he sailed this crude vessel through the Caribbean basin and ultimately arrived safely in Brazil, where his wife Christina just three days later gave birth to their second child.
Thomas, at last, had arrived in his promised land! And he was the father of a newly born Brazilian citizen. The future looked bright.
So I was stunned and genuinely gutted when I got word just a year later, in May 2014, that Thomas had disappeared at sea while sailing solo on Oasis off the coast of Brazil. No wreckage or remains were ever found, and no one knows what really became of him. Some believe he must still be alive, hiding out from the modern world somewhere. One old cruising friend of his later assured me Thomas couldn’t possibly be dead—he was much too good a sailor for that—and that he must now be king of a lost tribe up a river somewhere.
Though I had never met him, thoughts of Thomas haunted me for nearly a year. Eventually, I realized I’d have to do something with the energy he had created within me. So I embarked on a quest to tell his story, a project that has consumed me for the past six years.
The deeper I got into the story, the more obsessed I became. Anyone who has read At Any Cost will know even the bare bones of Thomas’s early biography are quite out of the ordinary. He was born during a passage on his father’s homebuilt boat, L’Artemis de Pytheas, in the Indian Ocean, two weeks from land. At age two, he saw his birth mother, a young French woman, shot to death by boarding pirates during a passage across the Sulu Sea, south of the Philippines. At age four, he saw his first stepmother, an Asian woman, badly beaten and nearly raped by thieves in Tunisia. At age seven, he saw this woman lost overboard during a transatlantic passage from Europe to the Caribbean. Finally, there came the awful denouement—having known nothing but the cruising life afloat, he was suddenly cast ashore, all alone, on the jagged coral shore of Bonaire.
The full story of Thomas’s life is both inspiring and terrifying. For a number of years as he was growing up, he had such limited contact with human society he believed most people must live on boats, just as he and his family did. He received almost no formal education, and mostly educated himself, reading the books he found on his father’s boat, watching the natural world around him, and listening to what grown-ups talked about. By the time he was orphaned, Thomas was fully fluent in three languages, had taught himself celestial navigation, and was fascinated by mathematics and physics. Ultimately, he had little trouble gaining admittance to prestigious universities in Great Britain.
Having largely satisfied the requirements for a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Leeds in advanced mathematics and fluid dynamics, Thomas might easily have followed his passion and become a yacht designer. But there was an unfathomable darkness within him that prevented this. Some readers of this magazine may recall Thomas’s career on Culebra in the earliest years of this century—all the decrepit boats he tried to maintain and ultimately lost, and his run-ins with the police there. Others may recall his time on Vieques—the exquisite little house he built, his micro-farm, the Rasta Pasta food truck he ran with Christina, and the Norwegian TV crew that once descended on the island like a comic horde so as to lead him back to the wreck site on Bonaire.
My ultimate purpose here, of course, is to titillate you into buying my new book. And perhaps you are laughing at me, thinking I have spilled all the beans and have shared too many spoilers. But no, I assure you, we have only scratched the surface here.
It truly is an amazing story… and I am still very obsessed by it.