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HomeCruiseWoman at the Helm: Donna Lange - Solo Circumnavigator

Woman at the Helm: Donna Lange – Solo Circumnavigator

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Some people seek to find themselves by metaphorically climbing to a mountaintop and contemplating their lives while looking out at the world. Donna Lange didn’t stare at the world but instead sailed in and around it—all by herself.

Living in upstate New York, married 20 years and the mother of three – Ptarmigan, Cooper, and Keel – Donna lived a full life, enjoying active pursuits like whitewater rafting. At the age of 30, she embarked on a new career by obtaining her nursing degree. One night, she was in a terrible car accident while traveling home from work at the hospital. A number of people lost their lives and Donna was lucky to have survived.

Speaking with me while sitting on a bench at Nanny Cay Marina at the end of March, with only some 700 miles left in her circumnavigation (albeit some of the most challenging miles), Lange recounted what started her on a sensational seaworthy journey. “When I tried to move on from the crash, I found I was a completely different person. I needed answers. I needed my own Walden Pond, answers from nature. And, the best way I figured to do this was to embark on a massive undertaking like sailing around the world.”

Lange took a job on a tall ship, the Clipper City, out of Baltimore, Maryland, with the idea that the luxury passenger ship would follow its itinerary to circumvent the globe. Unfortunately, the ship’s plans changed but Lange, only a beginner sailor, had enough time on the water to know she wanted to learn much more about both sailing and skippering. To that end, she jumped aboard a charter yacht en route to the Caribbean and worked as a chef. She jumped off in St. Thomas and stayed for awhile freelancing aboard yachts, making both a very loyal group of friends and a steadfast following of fans who flocked to hear her guitar-strumming ballads played both in St. Thomas and in the British Virgin Islands.

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Lange purchased her first boat in November 2000, a Southern Cross 28 she dubbed Inspired Insanity. “The boat ended up being rotten to the core. The survey was all wrong,” Lange said. “So, I ended up stripping off the hull and rebuilding the whole boat.”  Working 24/7 for 18 months, she finally made the boat seaworthy.

Lange set off on her first distance voyage in August 2000. Her route took her to South America, then to Trinidad. She found further problems with the boat on this shakedown cruise and ended up sailing back to the States for a complete yearlong refit. Along the way, she played folk gigs like a traveling minstrel, which provided both money and an even bigger following of friends and fans.

She embarked yet again out of Newport, Rhode Island, this time on July 18, 2002, bound for a transatlantic crossing to Ireland. Along the way, Lange encountered one of the several times when the sea seemed to withhold it friendship. She wrote in her log: “I was to hit my first 9-force gale 250 miles off Newfoundland. Two days of gales culminating in 25-plus-foot seas and 45 naught winds. In the night, I was to lose the trim tab and rudder to my steering vane. I decided that I could somehow make myself steer the boat for the next 2100 miles without it…But it was to be an endurance challenge beyond my imagination that would teach me the meaning of true mediation…. dolphins, seagulls and petrels saved my psyche.”

Lange made it safely to Ireland, very tired. She enjoyed the country’s people for their friendliness and music for nearly a year. Then in September 2003, she embarked for Cape Verde, made landfall in Africa, and again met people who opened their doors and hearts and found that her music was a universal language.

Still haunted by the car accident, Donna wrote as she cast off from Africa, “I am not able to take on responsibility without panic attacks and unreal fear overtaking my body… My nervous system was out of control with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of letting people down. Hurting people. But for now, I sail on.”

Lange completed a 28-day Atlantic crossing from Cape Verde, Africa, to the Virgin Islands on January 13, 2004. Instead of resting on the laurels of her sailing ability and book loads of tales, she plotted her next voyage. This voyage would take her on her ultimate solo pursuit, back to Cape Verde, then around the Cape of Good Hope, and to New Zealand. After resting and rebuilding, she completed her circumnavigation on May 16, 2007, in spite of a horrific storm off the east coast. She arrived home to Rhode Island to accolades and lots of love.

One of the questions asked most often is, “Didn’t you get lonely out there?” Her answer tells a lot of what she ultimately discovered about herself on the trip. “I found the solitude in the vastness of the sea to be very dynamic. I have always been one to keep my needs to myself, responding to others. But, while sailing, no one else’s routine or timing had to be considered. Nature was much like a demanding three-year-old, completely irrational and uncontrollable. My boat is best described like a demanding five-year-old child, sometimes reasonable and predictable, sometimes not. But even so, the beauty of sailing solo at sea was finding the time and freedom to get to know myself.”

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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