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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
He wrote a three part series on fluid dynamics, a lot of which goes over my head but is still interesting to read:
Traditional Puerto Rican sailboats
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:
In memory of Thomas
Added 21. January 2016: Melanie L. Wells-Alvarado, In memory of Thomas