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Jan/Feb 2011 Issue 191: Tania Aebi circumnavigates

Dec 28, 2010

Maiden Voyage, the book that Tania Aebi wrote about her 1985-87 circumnavigation, should be read by anyone who has ever faced challenges armed with only bravery, fortitude and chutzpah. It is a Dickensian tale: the loving, but unwell mother, the demanding father, the anarchy of the streets of Manhattan, the rebellious teenaged protagonist. Fearing for his daughter’s future, the father made young Aebi an offer she couldn’t refuse. Instead of going to college, he proposes buying a boat so she can do a circumnavigation. Aebi jumped at the chance and at the age of 18 departed New York aboard a 26-foot Contessa sailboat.

The fact that Aebi had never had any solo time aboard a sailboat adds to the surreal aspect of the story. A second reading, more than 20 years after the release of Maiden Voyage, still leaves the reader dumbfounded at the nerve this 18-year-old had. And also a great deal of respect for what she accomplished aboard her boat Varuna.

In her telling, in May 1985, when she sailed from New York Harbor she was so inexperienced that when anchoring for the first night off Sandy Hook, she didn’t even know how to give the anchor enough scope so that it could reach the bottom. Yet she carried on and by the time she arrived back in New York, two and a half years later, she was the youngest American girl to have successfully circumnavigated single-handed. Along the way, she met the man who would later become her husband and the father of her two children, was capsized, almost run down, suffered through her mothers death and began a 20-year relationship with her cat Tarzoon.

At the time of her voyage, Aebi was an accomplished bicycle messenger in New York City. But she was determined, and, as it turned out, very lucky. Understanding only basic seamanship and little about weather, she had virtually no navigation skills. Though she had taken a celestial navigation class, she hadn’t passed.

It seems almost impossible to imagine, but in the 1980s almost all long-distance sailors relied on a sextant and sight reduction tables to find their way. Realizing that she needed to get to work, on her second day at sea bound for Bermuda, she cracked her navigation books. “I sat on the deck with the sextant, pointing it into the sun, burning my pupils through the two mirrors, aligning the sun with the horizon to determine the exact angle between the two. I tried and retried; but the fixes just didn’t seem right.”

Aebi finally found the problem with her sights wasn’t the math. It was her sextant. She discovered this on her way to the Marquesas. The frame of her plastic sextant was so warped that her sights were always off. Fortunately she had a Freiberger aluminum sextant and even though it was more difficult to use, it measured the angle of the sun perfectly.

Aebi primarily did sun sights, advancing LOPs over the course of the day. Let’s join her on Varuna on the way to the Marquesas. We have her doing a meridian passage sight of the lower limb of the sun on Oct. 16 (we’ll use the 2010 Nautical Almanac). The DR at the time of the sight is 19° 50’S by 136° 27’W, the height of eye is eight feet. The Hs of the lower limb of the sun is 79° 02.8’.

A. Calculate the time in GMT of meridian passage.
B. Find the Ho.
C. Calculate latitude.

A. Time in GMT meridian passage 20:51:48
B. Ho 79° 16'
C. Latitude 19° 49.1'

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