THOMAS TANGVALD: In His Father’s Wake

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Thomas Tangvald on Oasis

HERE’S A HOT STORY from the Where Are They Now Department that blew my mind a bit while I was cruising around in the Spanish Virgins last week. Spotted a feature in All At Sea, a local Caribbean sailing comic, by a young blonde rasta-looking dude about sailing 2,000 miles to windward from Vieques to Brazil in a converted wooden fishing smack with a pregnant wife and young son. Byline: Thomas Tangvald.

Yes, THAT Thomas Tangvald. Last known whereabouts (in my own mind, at least) was a reef on the east coast of Bonaire in 1991, where, at age 15, he eyewitnessed from a surfboard in the dark of night the crunchy death and destruction of his famous cruising dad, Peter Tangvald, and his little half-sister Carmen. Which, amazingly, was in fact the last in a triptych of awful tragedies that defined his childhood. Panel one being the eyewitnessing at age 3 of his own French mother Lydia being gunned down by pirates in the Sulu Sea. Panel two being the loss (at age 8) of his Chinese stepmother Ann (mother of Carmen), who got clubbed overboard by an errant boom during a transatlantic passage from the Canary Islands to Grenada.

 You can read all about this in Peter Tangvald’s autobiography, At Any Cost: Love, Life & Death At Sea, which is exactly what I did (I re-read it, actually) as soon as I got home from Puerto Rico.

Tangvald the Elder started cruising full-time in 1957 after emigrating from Norway to the United States. He knocked around for a while in two antique wooden boats (this included one complete circumnavigation, documented in his first book, Sea Gypsy), then he designed and built from scratch a traditional 50-foot wood boat of his own, L’Artemis de Pytheas, in French Guiana during the early 1970s. In this boat he wandered the world for nearly 20 years with three different wives (there were also three earlier ones) until he finally cracked up  on that reef in Bonaire.

L'Artemis de Pytheas

L’Artemis de Pytheas under sail in 1976. Peter Tangvald was constantly modifying her sailplan. Over the years he tried three variations on a yawl rig, a schooner rig, and a cutter rig

Peter Tangvald

Peter Tangvald, in foreground, manhandling L’Artemis during her construction in French Guiana. He built the centerboard hull upside down, then flipped it by hand using only ropes and tackle

Peter Tangvald and family, 1970s

Peter with Thomas and his mother Lydia aboard L’Artemis. Lydia was a devout Christian and a very determined woman. She was killed during a pirate boarding south of the Philippines when she appeared on deck, against Peter’s orders, brandishing a shotgun

Peter and Thomas Tangvald

Peter with Thomas shortly after Lydia’s death. Peter was held in Brunei on suspicion of having murdered his wife, and this photo was taken by local police as they recreated the incident. Peter had told police that the pirates who killed his wife took mercy on him after seeing him in the cockpit with his little boy clinging to his leg

Ann Tangvald

Ann Tangvald, Peter’s fifth wife, was of Chinese descent and gave up a job running a Salvation Army school in Malaysia to join the crew of L’Artemis. Here she helps scrub the bottom while minding her baby daughter Carmen

Study Peter Tangvald’s story, and you’ll see that crossing oceans with heavily pregnant seasick women was a recurring theme. Thomas was born at sea aboard L’Artemis during a passage across the Indian Ocean. Carmen was born during a cruise along the Portuguese coast. Another theme was that younger women seem to have constantly been hitting on him. Lydia, Thomas’s mother, who was only a teenager at the time, very deliberately wooed Peter away from his third wife in French Guiana. Ann, her successor, was the young headmistress at a school Thomas was attending in Malaysia when she suddenly propositioned the poor grieving widower out of the blue. Peter’s last wife, Florence, was also a teenager who insisted on moving aboard L’Artemis soon after she met the (again) grieving single dad on the ICW south of Norfolk, Virginia. Their daughter, named Virginia after the state in which her parents met, was born on the same settee as Thomas while the family was anchored out in Puerto Rico.

Peter Tangvald and family, 1980s

Peter Tangvald and family aboard L’Artemis de Pytheas in the Spanish Virgin Islands. The woman on the rail is his last wife Florence with their infant daughter Virginia in her lap

Florence, unlike her predecessors, survived her liaison with Peter Tangvald, as the two separated not long before he set out on his fateful voyage from Puerto Rico to Bonaire in 1991. Thomas by then had a small boat of his own, a 22-foot gaff sloop called Spartan, and was aboard this vessel being towed by L’Artemis when his father inexplicably piled up on the reef. Thomas’s brief description of the tragedy forms the epilogue to his father’s book, which was published posthumously:

In seconds L’Artemis was on it, the bow plunging down and the stern rising with such violence as to knock all the wind out of the main. ‘Non! Non!’ I screamed, as if it were going to make any difference. It can’t be real, I thought, it must be a particularly large wave. But when I noticed the limp towline, I knew this was the real thing. I looked at my Dad’s 50-foot boat being tossed about like a piece of driftwood in the surf. The boat set itself parallel to the coast. The next instant the rig snapped off with a crack audible above the thunder of the roaring waves.

I rushed inside, fumbling with the knot, frantically trying to untie my surfboard in complete darkness, for there was no moon at all. Once free, I shoved it in the cockpit and groped for a pair of pants, found none and gave up, leaving only in a wool shirt and rain jacket. I jumped in the water with my surfboard, paddling for Dad’s boat, wanting to be with them and to scramble ashore together. But when I got closer, I was afraid of getting crushed by the boat.

I stayed as close to L’Artemis as possible, waiting for a break in the waves to dash in and jump ashore. Under the light of the stern lamp, I could see the boat being destroyed with ghastly efficiency. She would leap in the air with the rising water and, as the water went back out, the boat would drop 10 feet onto the sharp coral with the sickening noise of cracking wood and my sister’s hysterical screams coming from inside. For a minute or two, I saw my Dad sitting in the companionway shining a flashlight out to sea and then across the reef. I put my surfboard up in the air, but I don’t think he saw me.

Then L’Artemis’s stern lamp went out from the successive shocks, leaving her completely in the dark. I paddled out and way from the breaking waves. After a little while, I didn’t feel panic at all. Instead it was a lot like a dream. I figured I just had to keep paddling to stay warm, and wait until sunrise when I could climb the coral and find them both waiting for me.

After some three hours, the sun finally came up and I could see the coast. At around 9 o’clock, I finally got on shore without too many scratches but, after staying six hours on the surfboard, I had massive friction burns. Immediately I set out searching for my father and sister–but they weren’t there.

Thomas Tangvald in Bonaire

Thomas examines the splintered remains of his father’s boat in Bonaire in 1991

Peter Tangvald grave

The bodies of both Peter and Carmen Tangvald were recovered and interred on Bonaire

According to one source I’ve found online, Thomas was sent to live with friends of his father’s in the tiny European mountain nation of Andorra and spent three years there before going off to attend school in Great Britain. After graduating and working in Cornwall for a while, he bought himself a tiny 22-foot Itchen Ferry gaff cutter and sailed it to Culebra in 2000.

Thomas Tangvald on Melody

Thomas aboard his 22-foot cutter Melody, which he sailed singlehanded non-stop from the UK to Culebra without electronics or proper charts. He taught himself navigation and built his own sextant aboard his father’s boat as a boy

According to his own account in All at Sea, Thomas ultimately settled down and started a small farm on Vieques, which he ran with his wife, Christina, and their young son, Gaston. For reasons not explained, he decided some time ago he wanted to give this up and emigrate to Brazil. He decided, too, the family must travel by boat and so acquired a 34-foot open-cockpit “nativo” sloop, Oasis, that he had known and admired when living in Puerto Rican waters with his father as a boy.

Thomas Tangvald and family

Thomas with his wife Christina and their son Gaston on their property on Vieques

Oasis before modifications

Oasis soon after Thomas purchased her. Her design is based on traditional Puerto Rican fishing smacks, and she was raced successfully for many years

The modifications Thomas made to Oasis are described in All at Sea‘s March issue. The first leg of the journey to South America, wherein we find Thomas and family racing to get to their new home before Christina gives birth to their second child, is covered in the just released April issue. The exciting conclusion is scheduled to run in May.

Oasis after mods

Oasis in Barbuda en route to South America in April 2012. In addition to adding a house, Thomas cut down the sailplan and converted the boat to a gaff rig (Photo courtesy of S/V Fri Flyt)

Raising sail on Oasis

Thomas raises the main in Dominica while Gaston peers out the companionway

I am heartened to have learned all this and am particularly pleased that Thomas’s personal mode of seafaring–in traditional wooden boats, with no engines or electronics–so closely mirrors that of his father. I’m sure, too, it is no mere coincidence that Thomas, like his father, managed to get himself into the predicament of having to play skipper while tending a pregnant seasick mate. That he has gone through this to reach South America, where his parents first met and where his father built the boat he was born on, also seems more deliberate than accidental.

I look forward to the May issue of All At Sea, with bated breath as it were, and meanwhile wish this young man all the best. I do hope we hear more from him.

What’s that? You’re wondering about his half-sister Virginia?

Seems she’s now an edgy alternative-type performer who lives in Montreal.

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17 Responses
  1. ALex

    It’s a compelling story on a sailing level but it’s got that “creepy” factor with all the teenage brides involved.

  2. Charlie

    @Alex: I know what you mean. You do have to wonder about that. Peter’s accounts of those relationships, however, has the teens as the pursuers. His last wife Florence allegedly propositioned him right in front her dad. Though Peter was reportedly a very humorless ascetic man, women for some reason found him highly attractive. charlie

  3. Nick Kats

    What a great & extremely interesting article Charlie!
    These guys weren’t about dying, they were about living. Can’t change the end of life, but sure can change how one lives. Off my podium now!
    Delicious to see how others live so on their own terms. I look forward to the follow up article.

  4. J Waite

    I was friends with Thomas in a boat yard in Las Croabas PR in the late 80’s. My mom was with Dmitri Bernhardt who was restoring “sixpence” and so I haunted the boat yard on the daily. I met the Tangvald family when they showed up at the boatyard to work on L’Artemis. Thomas used to make the most amazing models of sailboats out of scraps that would float and sail nicely. He would build sails from plastic bags and rig them properly and everything. I sailed with Peter, Thomas, and Carmen to Vieques and back on once occasion. Peter never struck me as a creepy guy in any way. He was stoic and serious and yet quietly warm and caring. I lost contact with the Tangvald family when we left PR right before huricane hugo. We moved to Hawaii and I had to no way to keep in touch. I was really sad when I heard the fate of those three. It would be great to make contact with Thomas again.

  5. Florence

    I’m Florence,his last wife, and no, I did not propositioned him in front of my father. As a matter of fact, Peter asked me to marry him in San Juan, Puerto-Rico. I didnt tell my father that I had married him until much later. Peter was indeed an adventurer and that made him very attractive. However, he was also very austere and given that I am more prone to hedonism, well……

  6. Charlie

    @Florence: Thanks for the comment! Would love to hear more from your side on your relationship with Peter. Also: are you or Virginia in touch with Thomas? charlie

  7. Some of the gossips here are far from the truth.
    My daughter Florence started baby sitting for Peter when our boats met in Virginia. Thomas is not only an unusual sailor but became a gifted yacht designer. Expect to hear more about him in that area.
    Virginia is not an “edgy alternative” performer. She studied classic music and like Thomas, has her own strong style, somewhat unconventional.

  8. Charlie

    @Jacques: It’s not exactly gossip. My source for most of what’s up there is Peter’s book, as I think I made clear. I am, however, very willing to believe that Peter’s account, particularly as to the inception of his relationships with your daughter and others, was very distorted. As for Virginia: I think some might think that “unconventional” and “alternative” mean pretty much the same thing! I certainly have no argument with unconventional! Thank you for your comment. charlie

  9. Kevin Campbell

    Glad I happened upon this story. 2 years ago I met Thomas on Jost Van Dyke when I arrived in the BVI after sailing my boat there from New York. We became acquaintances after sharing the anchorage for a couple of weeks. He was sailing to Brazil because he wanted his new child to be born there so as to have citizenship there. He knew first hand the difficulty that could be caused by not having that particular piece of paper. He was building a cabin for his boat in preparation for the sail to Brazil. He was planning on a solo voyage at the time with Christina to sail down on Foxys fishing vessel. Guess that didn’t work out.Very interesting humble folks. Have some great pix of them and the boat and have always wondered how they made out. Hope to be able to chase down more of the story. If you should see this Thomas all the best from Kevin of Starchaser

  10. Clare Allcard

    I’m Clare Allcard. In the 1957 my husband Edward Allcard, raced Peter across the Atlantic single-handed for a dollar. Peter won. They remained the best of friends. After Florence left Peter he had a massive heart attack and was in intensive care for ?12 days. Whilst there he wrote to Edward saying how worried he was about Thomas and Carmen’s future if he died. We wrote back and said not to worry, we would look after them. He said he was most relieved – as the doctors had given him less than a year to live! Three years later, when Thomas was 15 and Carmen was 7, Peter wrote to say he was sailing south to get out of the hurricane area and would be travelling with Carmen on board and Thomas in tow. Edward wrote back at once urging him not to: Peter suffered from angina. L’Artemis had no engine and his only crew was 7 years old. We don’t know if he ever received the letter. The American embassy contacted us from Madrid (we live in Andorra in the Pyrenees) telling us of the tragedy and Thomas’ survival. We left almost immediately for Bonaire. Thomas and I went to the reef to see what we could recover. I took the photo you published. Amongst various possessions we found an empty bottle of angina medicine. It is my belief that he had an attack of angina and thus was driven to try to sail along the north of the island on a dead lea shore. Poor Thomas came to live with us in the mountains. A boy who had never been away from the sea. French was his first language so at 15, I sent him to the French Lycee. He had hardly ever been to school before. I would say he had the best brain of anyone I have ever met but he, pretty naturally after the free life he had led, loathed school. So after one year we home schooled. He wanted to be a yacht rigger. Until, that is, I bought him “A brief history of time” which he read in one evening… I also bought a biography of Stephen Hawkins and another about an Indian maths prodigy. One day he asked what one had to do to go to university. I was secretly ecstatic but I told him he had to get three A levels and that he didn’t want to do that as it was a lot of work and would take two years. “I’ll do it in one!” And he did. Before having a single exam result but on a simple interview, he was offered a provisional place at Cambridge to study maths. I was thrilled. “Oh but I can’t go there!” he cried. “Didn’t you see the notice? It said “Keep off the grass”! I can’t go there.” So he went to Leeds on a very generous grant from British Gas. He used some of the money to buy Melody. He wrote a brilliant letter about his hair-raising solo trans-Atlantic crossing arriving in the West Indies on his 25th birthday. “The happiest day of my life!” he wrote. I still refuse to believe he is dead. Thomas is a survivor. Like Jaques Mertens I believe he has found a quiet little cove in Brazil where he is following his passion for horticulture. Just pray God I am right.

  11. Charlie

    Clare: Thank you SO much for sharing all of that. I know you and your husband by reputation, but hadn’t realized that it was you who cared for Thomas after Peter’s death. You obviously did an excellent job. Like you, I am praying Thomas is still alive! best regards, charlie doane

  12. Frank Justicia

    I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Tangvald in Puerto Rico. It was, however a rather short relationship since a short time later he had his Boinaire incident. It was, however very different with Thomas. I ran into him years latere in Culebra, Puerto Rico. Upon learning his name, I asked him if he was related to Peter Tangvald. It all started there, he became my friend and worked for me on and off for a long time. When I sold my Bertram, he designed and helped me build the boat I now have. I was very sadened by the news.

  13. Glen Read

    ([quote=Florence]I’m Florence,his last wife, )
    Florence, Virginia, I am happy to know there are people still around that knew them all. I met Lydia and held Baby Thomas in my arms just a few months after he was born at sea on the way to Taiwan where I too was working. I met Per and Thomas several times later in the Red Sea and other places.
    I am sure you know by now that Thomas has been missing at sea since early last year apparently sailing to Brazil. I am not sure if Christina and the children were with him or not. My last communication with Thomas was in Oct 2012 from the same town where L’Artimas was built by E-mail and he said he was planning to leave for Brazil in a couple of months. The dates have me totally confused as my time line indicates he was in French Guiana in Oct 2012 but his blog (04/01/2014 in Tangvald around the seas) indicates they sailed together and Christina had her second baby “Lucio” in Oiapoque Brazil 3 days after they arrived.

  14. Glen Read

    Clare Allcard, I am very happy to read your stories of Thomas growing up in Europe and that you can share some of this remarkable man’s tales. The last time I saw him was shortly after Lydia had died and Thomas was still clutching Per’s leg as I climbed aboard L’Artimas in the Gulf of Suez. Thanks you for sharing. I am from Toronto living in Seattle WA and it is interesting that Florence’ daughter Virginia, Per’s last wife lives in Montreal.

  15. Hugo Staub

    Hi Thomas, I am the skipper of Pacifique, the black steel ketch, you used to take my dinghy for a sail in the bay, remember ? All the best Hugo

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