Thomas Tangvald was born on a boat under sail. He was a toddler when his mother was murdered by pirates in the Sulu Sea. He was not yet ten when his stepmother was struck by the boom and swept overboard in an accidental jibe far offshore, never to be found. And he was fifteen in 1991 when his father and young half-sister died, tossed up on a reef on the windward side of Bonaire, boat and people smashed in the middle of the night. Thomas at the time was being towed 300 feet astern of his father aboard his own leaky boat. Neither vessel had an engine. Neither had a VHF radio. There was nothing Thomas could do. He abandoned his own boat before it was wrecked, and survived the night on a surfboard. The next day he identified the remains of his father. His half-sister’s body was found the day after that.
In March of 2014, when he was not yet 40, Thomas Tangvald left French Guiana, bound for Brazil singlehanded aboard another decrepit sailboat, and has never been seen again. He almost certainly perished at sea, leaving behind a wife and two young children. But, bearing in mind the story of his short, intense, fascinating life, told by Charles Doane in The Boy Who Fell to Shore, it’s possible to entertain the thought that Thomas somehow survived, as he had survived so many other scrapes, and might be living somewhere removed from the tainted modern world from which he had learned to distance himself at an early age.
Toying with such notions leads to clouded thinking. So does tempting fate and getting away with it too many times. Doane is careful to separate the regrettable conclusion from the fantastic.
Thomas’s story had to be told within the context of his father’s life, his guiding principles, and his achievements. Peter Tangvald was one of a generation of shorthanded and singlehanded ocean sailors who started their adventures in the 1950s and ‘60s, and who wrote and appeared in books and magazine articles that captured the skills, derring-do, and romance of the calling, but often didn’t do a great job of revealing the downsides of the lifestyle and the character flaws of some of its pursuers. Peter was a skilled sailor and a charmer (he was married seven times) but also dogmatic, reckless, and lucky well beyond the standard issue of the sea gods. His was a tragic act to follow but, almost inevitably, Thomas had to try.
Peter and Thomas, their many women, and most of their friends were part of the global cruising and liveaboard community, which is much larger now than it was when Tangvald the elder, along with Robin Lee Graham, Bernard Moitessier, and a handful of others became famous among sailors. Even with YouTube and TikTok and harbors stuffed to the gills with plastic boats, it’s still a small part of the sailing population and a minuscule part of the population overall.
Charlie Doane (an old colleague and friend) is no stranger to this community. If you’ve read his earlier book, The Sea is Not Full, you know how well-qualified he is to speak on the topic. He has walked the walk plenty. This is from his introduction to the new book:
“For the fact is most people living on land don’t even know such a community exists. Just as Thomas for a time could not imagine there was a much larger society beyond the harbors and anchorages where he touched land, those on shore can’t see that those littoral refuges and the sea beyond them are home to a much smaller society…
“Once inside the bluewater cruising community, you soon realize how small and tight-knit it is, with only one or two degrees of separation between most persons within it. You realize also how spread out and dissipated it is, and how, in spite of this, people often run into each other again and again. We are, I’ve always liked to think, a small tribe spread out over a very large territory.”
Telling the story of the Tangvalds, père et fils, became a mission for Doane. He's done it expertly and compassionately, with the help of surviving family and friends who provided memories, insights, and documents. With members of the cruising tribe as a Greek chorus, he spins a fascinating, inspiring, melancholy yarn, one that will provide rich connections for anyone who has spent time in that world, as well as both inspiration and caution for those who might want to become part of it.