A tribute to Thomas Tangvald

Now, after launching this blog, there’s one thing that I need to start out with. According to an article on WaveTrain posted in May 2014, no one has heard from Thomas Tangvald since he left for Brazil back in March. Thomas’ step-grandfather was the one who originally informed WaveTrain of the sad news. Given that it’s been close to a year soon I think we can safely, albeit very sadly, assume that he is no longer with us. I actually cried when I found out a week ago, even though I had never met the man.

Thomas, Christina and Gaston

Background and a long story short

Thomas was born in the mid-70’s in the Indian Ocean, in the Straights of Malacca, on board his father’s sailboat L’Artemis de Pytheas. His father, Per (also known as Peter), was born in 1922 in Norway, to a wealthy businessman and his wife. After a few failed business attempts Peter went to sea. After a few deliveries, a circumnavigation and a wrecked boat, he decided to build his own dream boat.

Peter Tangvald building L'Artemis de Pytheas

Peter Tangvald building L’Artemis de Pytheas in French Guiana

Thomas’ mother Lydia – who was incidentally also born on board a boat – was a french girl who got to know Peter for the first time while being a six year old child as she was cruising with her parents. Peter was around 30 at the time, but Lydia claimed she had already back then decided to marry him some day. Later she happened to bump into him in French Guiana while he was building L’Artemis de Pytheas singlehandedly. They did marry. There are more details in the book At Any Cost: Love, Life & Death at Sea : An Autobiography and it’s a very good read. You can also read up on Thomas’ viewpoint on his blog. Lydia was later killed by pirates in the Philippines when Thomas was only three years old.

Peter, his wife Lydia and Thomas

Peter, his wife Lydia and son Thomas

His father, Per “Peter” Tangvald

Peter Tangvald wrote two books in total, Sea Gypsy and At Any Cost: Love, Life & Death at Sea : An Autobiography, the former being an account on his first circumnavigation and the latter being more of a thorough autobiography. Thomas’ life wasn’t easy but it was certainly filled with life. Being born on a cruising sailboat he got to see places most people only dream of. With Peter being a hardcore sailor, having learned the tricks of the trade as a young boy in Norway, he sailed engineless and thus Thomas got to learn the intricacies of pure sailing early on.

Dorothea

Dorothea

L'Artemis de Pytheas

L’Artemis de Pytheas

Peter Tangvald cruised around the world on board L’Artemis until he was wrecked on a reef off the east coast of Bonaire in 1991, supposedly because of a heart attack. Aboard was his daughter Carmen and son Thomas, who was 15 at the time. Thomas was the sole surviver. His stepsister Virginia Tangvald and her mother Florence were not on board.

Our family has experienced many tragedies, but when you put yourself on the quest for freedom and finding one’s true nature, there is no other way of living that does not feel like a tragedy in itself. That is the legacy Per Tangvald.

Thomas, traveling the world

Thomas spent 15 years on board L’Artemis de Pytheas and splits the time spent into two categories, the life at sea and the life at harbour.

At sea

Leaving a harbour would be a rather sad affair for me leaving friends and sometimes little girlfriends behind.

Life at sea felt – despite the weather changes – rather monotonous, with the sailing being somewhat of a routine. He wasn’t allowed outside the boat while sailing until he was 10 or 11. He spent most of his time in his room/cabin in the bows, where he entertained himself by playing with lego and if sea sickness allowed, reading. Anyone familiar with sailing knows that the bows is where the most motion is while at sea, but Thomas made that into a fun experience. When a wave pitched the bow upwards, he felt nearly weightless and then when coming down, crashed into the bunk. He would sometimes jump a bit at the highest point and thus remain weightless for a brief moment.

I could spend hours at a stretch just looking out from the companionway hatch contemplating the waves rolling on and on from horizon to horizon. Sometimes at night I would sit in the companionway and marvel at the stars. The air is generally astonishingly clear at sea. The blackest black is not as black as the space in between the stars there, except that upon closer scrutiny that empty space has hundreds of stars too, almost too faint to distinguish individually, so the velvety blackness becomes elusive, like the concept of absolute nothingness filled with infinity.

Thomas also came to know and recognize the stars by name and constellation. When landfall was approaching, a huge excitement grew within him, regardless of the smell or stink coming from land.

On land

If Peter expected to stay more than a few weeks, Thomas would enroll in the local school. In this way he ended up studying in around fifteen different schools.

Father would row me ashore so I could get to school in the morning, and later on when a bit older I would scull or sail my dinghy ashore myself.

He felt very bored at school, often just counting the hours until he got to go back home, to the boat. He wasn’t a fan of school at all and remembers only a few things he was taught, one of them being that history lessons were far from objective, and that the viewpoint would differ depending on which country he happened to be in.

Almost all the important things I learnt, was from listening to adults converse, and reading. That, and always asking a lot of questions. School was definitely a waste of time. It could be argued that one does learn social skills at school, but that can be learnt anywhere there are people, not necessarily at a school.

Eventually he discovered the thrills of skipping class. He would sit close to a window and when getting fed up he’d slip his bag out of the window and ask to be excused to go to the bathroom. After being granted permission he then spent the day exploring the hills or bodysurfing.

During times he wasn’t attending a specific school, the schooling took place on board, reading, which is how he initially learned to read.

Up till a certain age my father would always read or tell me a “bedtime story”. When I was six, one of those times, instead of the usual story he explained to me what a loan was and how not only do you have to pay interest in addition to paying back the money, but also if you miss your payments the bank can just take back whatever you had bought, even if you had already paid almost the whole loan back, in fact more so, due to the interest.

I have never taken out a loan.

When Thomas was around the age of nine he started reading the many books on board on boat, mainly about boat building and naval architecture. When he was ten, his my father taught him how to draft a boat’s lines plan. “This was much more interesting than the drivel they were teaching at school!” Later, he started making model sailboats, and by time had made nearly 30 of them, even if not all of them were completed. This gave him lots of useful experience in testing out different design concepts as well as giving him much enjoyment.

At the age of 13 he borrowed Marchaj’s “Aero-Hydrodynamics of Sailing” as well as the “Seaworthiness“, which were a step above Herreshoff’s, Skene’s, and Uffa Fox’s books in thoroughness. These two books may well, according to him, have been the real motivating reason he ended up studying mathematics at the university.

Later years

Thomas sailing in Puerto Rico in April 2004

Thomas sailing in Puerto Rico in April 2004

After the wrecking in Bonaire, Thomas moved to Andorra to a good friend of his father’s, Edward Allcard. He lived there for three years before going off to study in the UK. Edward had promised Peter to take care of his children if something were to happen to him, as he had had a heart attack when Thomas was 12 and was worried about his children’s safety. After graduating, with a bachelors of science in Mathematics and Fluid Dynamics, Thomas bought a small 22′ Itchen Ferry gaff cutter and sailed it, engineless like his father, to Culebra, Puerto Rico, without even having proper charts. This was in 2000.

Thomas and his Itchen Ferry cutter

Thomas and his Itchen Ferry cutter “Melody”

After arriving in Puerto Rico Melody was hauled out and after spending a few years on land she, as wooden boats do, was leaking when re-launched in 2004.

Melody staying afloat with the help of barrels and a bilge pump

Melody staying afloat with the help of barrels and a bilge pump

He was a strong proponent for engineless sailing and believed that the world would have to return to the glory of sail one day when the oil started running out.

Thomas eventually set down on Vieques, on a small farm, with his wife Christina and son Gaston. After Christina got pregnant with their second child they decided to move to Brazil to give birth to their son there. For this purpose he bought a 34′ native sloop, Oasis, and started refitting it for its purpose. This included converting the sailplan from bermuda to gaff and also building a cabin, dinghy, fixing leaks among other things.

Oasis up and running

Oasis up and running

These things took time and with his wife pregnant, time was running out. So they had to set sail. This might definitely have something to do with his disappearance, since Thomas was a competent and experienced seaman. We will probably never know what happened.

Building Oasis' cabin

Building Oasis’ cabin

Thomas’ blog

His blog was started in August 2013 and it’s well worth reading from start to finish for anyone interested in either Thomas, sailing in general, or both. Here are some handpicked posts from it:

Fluid dynamics

He wrote a three part series on fluid dynamics, a lot of which goes over my head but is still interesting to read:

How lift is made
Induced drag
Planform efficiency and effective aspect ratio

Sailing

A kid on a boat
Basic lessons on knots

Traditional Puerto Rican sailboats

The Puertorican Nativo
Finding the Oasis
Glimpse at Brazilian workboats (the last post he published, January 8th 2014)

TV-documentary about Thomas Tangvald

Alex Rosén made an episode in 2009 in the Norwegian TV-show “Folk i farta” where he traveled to the Caribbean to meet Thomas and they went together to dive looking for pieces of the wreck of L’Artemis de Pytheas. You can watch the two-part episode (partly in Norwegian) online here:

Folk i farta, part I (March 5 2009)
Folk i farta, part II (March 12 2009)

In memory of Thomas

Added 21. January 2016: Melanie L. Wells-Alvarado, In memory of Thomas

19 comments on “A tribute to Thomas Tangvald
  1. I’ve just been surfing the net re Thomas Tangvald and came across this. It was to our home in Andorra that Thomas came. Thomas’ father, Peter, was my husband, Edward Allcard’s best friend. They met I think in Tangier in ?the 50s and raced each other single-handed across the Atlantic for a dollar. Peter won. Edward was an early single-handed sailor and eventually circumnavigator. (Some say he holds the record for the most protracted solo circumnavigation. He bought his 1911 boat for $250!) When Thomas was 12, Peter had a massive heart attack and wrote from intensive care that he was very worried for the future of Thomas and Carmen, then aged five. We wrote back that he mustn’t worry, that if anything happened we would take care of them. Peter left both children to us in his will. Tragically Carmen was killed in the shipwreck off Bonaire but Thomas, aged 15, came to live with us in Andorra. But my point is that the relationship was through friendship not blood. So Edward was not Thomas’ step-grandfather. Last October he turned 100…

  2. I am trying to get in touch with any heirs of Peter Tangvald as I would like to publish a new edition of Sea Gypsy, the book that inspired larry and i to sail engine free for 45 years. Thanks in advance for your assistance.

  3. hello Thomas,

    je ne sais pas si tu as gardé ce moment en souvenir…
    j’ai joué au foot avec toi sur le quai de Fort de France….en 1984 ou début 1985.
    J’ai écris un petit mot ci-dessous pour me rappeler certains beaux moment de ma vie. la rencontre avec vous trois, ta petite sœur qui avait un an je crois, toi qui avait 7 ou 8 ans et ton père homme fantastique s’il en est.
    Fort de France 1984
    Peter Tangval le grand navigateur, a navigué toute sa vie sur toutes les mers du globe. Il arrive au port de Fort de France où je travaille avec son très beau bateau en bois l’Artemis et ses deux enfants. Un garçon de plus ou moins 7 ans et une petite fille qui a tout juste un an. IL vient de perdre sa seconde femme en remontant du Brésil. Elle était du dernier quart de nuit et lorsqu’il s’est levé à six heures, il ne la pas trouvée sur le pont. Tout simplement disparue. Tragique car sa première femme s’était fait tuée en océan indien par des pirates, quelques années avant.
    Il se liera assez facilement avec moi alors que sa réputation de sauvage fait reculer les tentatives des autres navigants. Nous sympathiserons au point qu’il veut m’embarquer pour un projet autour du cercle polaire. Projet qu’il pense faire dans un an lorsqu’il aura réglé les papiers pour sa petite fille. Il faut qu’il soit aux US avant que sa fille n’ai deux ans afin de lui faire obtenir la nationalité américaine. Je lui donne un coup de main pour caréner son bateau. Je joue au foot avec le petit gars qui s’ennuie quand même beaucoup. Travaillant au port et ayant mit un peu de sous de côté, je leur offre leur première viande rouge depuis plus d’un an. Ils sont touchés et heureux de ce petit geste. Nous faisons un barbecue arrosé d’un excellent thé dont il a le secret. Le carénage durera une vingtaine de jours avant qu’il ne largue une nouvelle fois les amarres. On se promet de s’écrire, de se revoir mais c’est la dernière fois que nous nous verrons. J’apprendrais plus tard qu’il est décédé 7 ans après notre rencontre.Triste car ses eux enfants sont encore jeunes !

  4. This is great!

    I completely stumbled over this while looking at a link sent to me about a friend who had her first article published in “Sail” magazine this month…below the article page was the reference to “Sea Gypsy”….a story, and a book I had been looking for years for… but searching online for references to “The Sea Gypsy” never turned up…I gave up on it, but not the story.
    Two or three links later, here I am.

    I spent most of Fall ’03 thru to Spring ’04 cruising the Leewards thru to the Spanish Virgins, and settling in Culebra for a couple of months on my Bristol 35, “Delia” from Cape Cod. In Culebra were my friends onboard their boats “Lady Helen” and “Charis”…we were in Dakity harbor, one of the truly wonderful anchorages. That’s where I met Thomas Tangvald.

    Thomas was pretty close to my friends Micheal and Melanie on Lady Helen, and was living aboard his “boats”, a collection of three rafted craft of various type, three dogs (including two insane Jack Russels), one girlfriend (at this moment I can’t recall her name, it will come to me).

    Thomas was more social to my friends on LH then to me, he discussed plans for multihulls with Micheal, but we all got together at times for the normal social hours usually involving the cheap rum one buys at the Kmart in St. Thomas on the way to Culebra. Thomas could drink…to be honest, he was probably alcoholic…but when I learned the story of his family all I could think was if ever one had a good reason to have a drinking problem, he had it hands down.
    I had heard the basic events of his cruising family then, and when I tell them now, the same reaction from people dropping jaws as mine dropped back then.

    I have some photos of Thomas including one of him standing atop the recently refloated hull of “Melody” which was gotten out of the (then defunct) boatyard in Culebra and towed to Dakity where it kind of floated while being constantly pumped… hoping the hull planks would swell tight. That seemed hopeless at the time, it was still “in project” when I left Culebra around May ’04, and I pretty much lost touch with Thomas though it was a story I told to this day.

    My friends on Lady Helen could certainly add to the story, they stayed on in Culebra for some time. I didn’t know the follow – up story on Thomas, his leaving for Brazil. That is a very sad part of this. Somehow though being lost at sea almost seems his charted destiny.
    I don’t know, maybe that’s so wrong, but it doesn’t come as a shock. I don’t think he feared the sea one bit.

    Anyway, I have some images on a drive in storage, some in print I’d be happy to share. They’re good, I’ve been a pro photographer most of my adult life.

    Lin, I really hope you can re-publish the book, I’d love to get it in an Ereader format. (I live aboard, paper books are nice, storage space is better…)

    If someone would like to contact me directly, I’m
    [email protected]

      • Melanie’s photos are great! I didn’t know she had these, or had kept up on Thomas…
        I’ve stayed in touch with Melanie over the years, we usually talk about photography…I must have never asked her about Thomas.

        http://melwells.weebly.com/thomas-tangvald.html

        This is great, now I have to talk to Melanie. Just sent her the link to your blog. I should be getting a reply something like “you’re kind of late to the party!”

        These have to be ’03-04, Melanie and Micheal were in Culebra developing and running a website for the island “Isla Culebra” which is still running.

        I really miss those days, those guys.

        Oscar, thanks SO much for this, it’s not over.

        It may take me a couple weeks to get to my deep storage where a drive is with some images, but Melanie’s are really great, invaluable.

      • Hello Oscar,

        I’ve located a couple of photos of Thomas, but really only one stands out…but it’s a great one of Thomas standing, posing, on the then refloated “Melody” in Culebra in the spring of ’04.

        Melody is floating with the aid of barrels, and there is an active pump running just aft of the cabin trunk.

        I’m happy to share if there’s an email to send to.
        Please let me know, thanks.

        Greg

    • Greg, I’m sure our paths crossed in Culebra. I lived there (in town) from 2003 – 2008. Thomas was a friend, His girlfriend with the dreads was Stephanie, I think. 🙂 Thanks for posting your memories

      • Hi Kristen,
        It’s nice to see this get picked up every now and then…although I wish someone would write a third book tying everything together. Have you come across the “WaveTrain” blog?
        You must know Melanie also.
        Lin had mentioned bringing back the books on Kindle, a great idea. I had thought of having my copies digitized as well…but I’m not sure who owns the rights.
        Take care…

  5. In 1985 on the quays of Fort de France, I crossed 3 days to work on the saffron of your dad. To thank me, i offered me a quick-tempered one evening. You were rather shy there in the time. Your sister was 18 month if I me souvien well.
    One very great moment in my tramp’s life.
    And now i’am an artiste.
    Georges

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