Charles Doane, a marine journalist I’ve worked with at both SAIL and Cruising World magazines, has just written a book called The Boy Who Fell to Shore. (ISBN: 978-1-957607-06-1) It is an excellent read—so excellent that I threw it across my cabin many times, unable to handle its unadulterated emotional truth. I give it five out of five stars. And, in many ways, this biography offers a double value—the sad demise of a doomed son and the utter selfishness of his cruel father.
How cruel? How selfish?
For example, the father’s primary method of parenting was locking his two children in a home-made jail cell under the foredeck of his engineless, gaff-rigged wooden sloop—and letting them cry. Offshore, I suppose this made some sense. However, the confinement continued in harbor as well. And the father fancied himself a lady’s man. He’d snap the padlock on the cell and go into town to seduce a young lady to cook and clean for him. Occasionally, these ladies would pop out a child—and then be shot by pirates, fall overboard, or whatever. One young lass demanded an abortion—he gave it to her in the forepeak with a coat hanger, to save money. He was famously frugal. When his daughter Carmen needed $10 to buy medicine to save her eyesight, he wouldn’t spend the money—and then only begrudgingly allowed her to accept the medicine after horrified liveaboards in the harbor chipped in.
Within the blood-soaked pages of this riveting, extremely well-researched book, five different Tangvald family members die needlessly at sea—two of the wives, both of the children, and the egotistical Peter Tangvald as well.
The case could be made that Peter was the most selfish sailor ever.
How do I know? Why does this book devastate and crush and hurt me so?
Because I knew Peter well—so well, that I considered trying to legally take Carmen away from him in 1991 by consulting a VI attorney named Jenny Jerome. Because I knew the son Thomas in 2012, just before he, too, sailed off to Fiddler’s Green.
So much death. So much pain. All because of one self-centered, ruthless, uncaring, womanizer named Peter Tangvald.
In the 1960s, in Quinn’s bar in Papeete, my father James E. Goodlander came across the name Peter Tangvald from the lips of a sailor named Edward Allcard, who was sailing around the world aboard Sea Wanderer, a wooden 36-foot ketch.
Edward Allcard went on to write several books, including Single-Handed Passage (1950), Temptress Returns (1952), Voyage Alone (1964), and Solo Around Cape Horn (2016).
My father read them all, along with Sea Gypsy by Peter Tangvald (1966).
As a result of that chance encounter in the most famous sailor’s bar in the Pacific, Peter was a much-revered name bandied about our fist-banged galley table during my childhood afloat.
Thus, when Peter sailed into Great Cruz Bay (St John, USVI) in 1991 and anchored his engineless, gaff-rigged L’Artemis de Pytheas next to my boat, I immediately rowed over and invited him and his young daughter, Carmen, to dinner—along with our dear friends Larry and Lee Best of the ketch Perseverance of Boston.
Since our nine-year-old daughter Roma was only a couple years older than Carmen, the kids got along well. Peter was charming. It was a wonderful evening. After all, Peter and I were both writers and offshore sailors and fathers—why wouldn’t we immediately bond? The only disconcerting note was how Carmen would flinch when Peter would speak to her—like his words were whip lashes.
Now it should be noted, dear reader, that, during my own childhood afloat, many attempts were made by landlubbers to have me ‘taken away by the authorities’ from my loving parents. Thus, I was, am, and always will be pro-liveaboard parenting, pro-liveaboard kid.
But Carmen had no mother—she’d vaguely fallen overboard somewhere along the way. Peter needed to get work done on his boat to prepare for an offshore passage to Bonaire. Thus, we took Carmen aboard our boat daily to play with our daughter. It was rapidly apparent to us that she both loved and loathed her father, who was extremely strict and domineering.
Carmen was a lovely child. But we soon discovered that Peter was in poor physical health. He’d already had two heart attacks and was working on a third. Ashore, his nostrils would flare and he’d clutch his chest in obvious pain and panic. This was rather distressing, especially since we now knew that he locked Carmen in the forepeak ‘for her safety’ offshore or when he went ashore.
How ‘safely’ would she be locked in her jail cell under the foredeck if Peter popped his cork?
Thus, after consultation with my wife, I explored ‘adopting’ Carmen informally—especially since we now also knew that Peter had nonchalantly ‘dropped off’ his 14-year-old son in Puerto Rico.
Alas, Peter angrily bristled at the suggestion.
I then explored having Carmen ‘removed’ from her dangerous situation—but even if we managed that, the court wouldn’t be likely to award her custody to a live-aboard couple, no matter how loving.
Besides, Carmen loved her dad—as whipped dogs do.
It was a problem without an obvious solution—or without a solution I could implement in time.
“She’s gonna end up dead,” I told my wife, frustrated. “Peter is the most selfish man I’ve ever met.”
Peter asked me to help him ‘sail off his hook’ by raising his mainsail. I declined on the principle that if he wasn’t healthy enough to raise his own mainsail on an engineless sloop—then he shouldn’t be offshore with an innocent child locked in the forepeak.
Others in the harbor helped. The following day, I asked how it had gone.
“Creepy,” said the sailor as he openly shivered—almost as if someone had walked on his grave. “That poor little girl.”
Soon thereafter, we heard that he was in Puerto Rico, and getting ready to tow (WTH?) his son Thomas’s new sailboat to Bonaire.
This made no sense to me. Towing another vessel under sail from an engineless craft with a seven-year-old child locked in the forepeak…while wrestling with a severe heart condition? Yikes!
Was that crazy or was that crazy?
“He’s gonna kill that kid,” I told my wife again.
And, on June 22, Peter Tangvald did just that—piling up L’Artemis onto the dangerous Iron Coast of Bonaire at night. Both he and Carmen drowned. She screamed at the top of her lungs the whole time—so loud that Peter’s son Thomas could hear her from his surfboard just outside the breakers—the very same Thomas who’d 1.) witnessed his mother killed by pirates and 2.) had searched for his stepmother who’d been knocked overboard during a jibe… and now 3.) listened to his sister die screaming as he watched the beam of his addled father’s flashlight ineffectually dance upon the frothing rocks.
After smashing my fist into a wall a couple of times, I vowed to never ever think of Peter Tangvald again. Carmen was dead—while I and dozens of adult sailors knew it would happen. We had failed her.
I had failed her.
And I (mostly) didn’t think of Peter until I was sitting in a coffee shop in Thailand many years later and a young woman approached and asked if I was “Fatty, the writer.” When I admitted I was—she plopped herself down, stared me hard in the eye, and said emphatically, “I’m the wife that Peter Tangvald didn’t kill.”
My blood rang cold—was there no way to be rid of this man and his endless nightmare?
Years after that, I sailed into Jost Van Dyke between my second and third circumnavigations, and Tessa Callwood button-holed me. She asked if I’d do her a favor—to speak to a young lad and see if I could talk some sense into him.
Why? Because he was about to set off on an arduous 1,000 nautical mile beat against the Trades to Brazil aboard a rotten gaff-rigged vessel with about as much freeboard as an Optimist pram. Why was he in such a hurry to depart? Because his wife was pregnant and if they arrived in time—the baby would be delivered free of charge. The young lad would save a few pennies on delivery room costs.
“Damn,” I said, “I haven’t heard of such a stupid idea since 1991!”
The lad, of course, turned out to be a Waspafarian named Thomas Tangvald—yes, the very same.
I’d never met him. He’d been living with Edward and Claire Allcard, the guy my father had hoisted a few brewskis with 50 years previously in Tahiti.
Small world, isn’t it—a small, occasionally very ugly world.
Did I mention that Thomas and his pregnant wife Christina had a four-year-old son named Gaston aboard—who was always lashed firmly to the vessel for his own safety?
Or that Thomas disdained harnesses and safety tethers for himself? And virtually all other safety equipment as well—even if offered to him for free?
No, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
One single glance at Thomas and I knew that, at some point, he’d drenched himself in LSD. Plus, there was the whiff of a crack pipe about the lad. And he reeked of rum—not with the faint odor of the dilatant, but with a stench gushing from every pore.
Oasis, his engineless, gaff-rigged wooden boat, was a rotten mess. It had more leaks than a spaghetti caldron—more leaks than the White House. At the time of its demise, it wasn’t even ballasted correctly. South American thieves had made off with its valuable bilge lead. The only thing keeping that boat together were the roaches’ holding hands.
And instead of working on her, Thomas, who had once studied engineering, was swilling rum and lecturing the other drunks at the bar on the finer points of fluid dynamics—punny, right?
I met with Thomas on Jost every day for a couple of weeks—and never once saw him sober.
Each time I saw him he was drunk—occasionally almost incoherently so.
To me, Thomas was one of those eloquent drug-addled fools who thinks he knows everything about everything—from hydroponics to crane engineering to yacht design—yet can’t quite manage to tie his own shoelaces.
Harsh? Yes. Accurate? Sadly, from my emotional viewpoint, it was.
Did my heart go out to him?
Of course it did.
You’re damn right it did.
Because he’d never really escaped that jail cell under the foredeck. He carried it with him wherever he went—right up until that final moment when he, too, sailed into Fiddler’s Green. (Thank you, Lord, for arranging the wife and child to be ashore at the time.)
Thomas was, in my view, his father’s final victim.
What makes Charles Doane’s book so powerful? Most bios of sailors take a three-dimensional person and reduce them to a one-dimensional stereotype called a hero.
Charles didn’t do that.
He picked two complex individuals—and honored his readers by telling their complex, often unappealing truth. There were times in the book when I needed to stop, look away, and slow my breathing to prevent hyperventilation.
As Doane so eloquently writes of Thomas, “The great irony of his life was that he could never see nor comprehend how negative his father’s influence really was. Thomas always saw his father as a victim of tragedy, and so empathized with him. What he never grasped was that his father was in fact an agent of tragedy.”
Yes, those sailing Tangvalds made maritime history alright—five dead in four different incidents must surely be a new offshore record.