SEA GYPSY: Early Adventures of Peter Tangvald

Sea Gypsy cover

I continue to be fascinated by the Tangvald family: young Thomas, who sailed with his young son and pregnant wife from Puerto Rico to Brazil aboard an engineless 34-foot nativo racing sloop and was subsequently lost at sea off the South American coast sailing the same vessel singlehanded in 2014; and his father Peter, who lost two wives at sea and was himself killed along with a 7-year-old daughter after he piled up on a reef off Bonaire in 1991. So I have purchased and recently finished reading Peter Tangvald’s first book, Sea Gypsy, which was published in 1966 and has long been out of print. This does not document the infancy of Peter’s bluewater cruising career, aboard a 45-foot yawl Windflower that he sailed from England to California in 1957-58, but rather its adolescence, aboard a 32-foot cutter Dorothea on which he circumnavigated from 1959-64.

Peter Tangvald was very much an old-school purist when it came to cruising. Accordingly, one of the first things he did after buying Dorothea, a conservative Harrison Butler design, was take out her engine, as he believed an engine “spoils all the fun and romance of sailing, besides the fact that they are a continual nuisance, take up a lot of room, give a bad smell in the boat and require continuous maintenance.” He also later removed the toilet, as he preferred to use a bucket instead and believed you shouldn’t carry any gear on a boat that you don’t understand and can’t fix yourself, an adage that has since been cited approvingly by such famous barebones engine-phobic cruisers as Don Street and Lin and Larry Pardey.

Dorothea plan

Interior plan of Dorothea. As you can see from this Tangvald gained a great deal of useful storage space aft by taking out the engine. He also decked over the cockpit well, a trick that Larry Pardey emulated when he built his second boat Taleisin

Dorothea lines

Lines drawing of Dorothea. Harrison Butler, an amateur yacht designer, was renowned for his seakindly hulls

Throughout this book you’ll find various descriptions of impressive close-quarters maneuvers conducted under sail alone, including entries and exits through dodgy atoll passes in the Pacific. Tangvald clearly took great pleasure in sailing his boat into places others told him he should not go. And this is all the more impressive once you realize that Dorothea (Tangvald mentions this once and only briefly) originally had no fixed backstay, which made tacking the boat that much more difficult, as running backstays had to be cast off and picked up along with the two sets of headsail sheets.

I was also very interested to learn that the concept for the self-steering gear Tangvald devised for Dorothea was borrowed from none other than Bernard Moitessier, who he met in Trinidad while aboard Windflower, shortly before Moitessier lost his boat, Marie Therese II, on a reef off St. Vincent. Ironically, Tangvald considered Moitessier’s misfortune to be indicative of his windvane’s efficacy.

The fact that Bernard lost his boat a few weeks after we talked about the vane does not show it was no good; sailing between the islands of the Caribbean he had adjusted the vane for St. Vincent Island, set the alarm clock so he would wake up safely before arriving there and gone to sleep. He did not wake up until the ship was in the breakers off St. Vincent. The boat was a total loss and Bernard was lucky to escape with his life. It was a brilliant demonstration of how accurately the automatic pilot worked, though at the same time it showed that his alarm clock was somewhat unreliable.

Dorothea under sail

Peter Tangvald on deck aboard Dorothea while under sail, presumably toward the end of his circumnavigation. This photo shows the boat with a fixed backstay set on a stern boomkin, which Tangvald must have installed at some point en route, though it is not mentioned anywhere in the text of his book. Also note the windvane aft, which turns a trim-tab on the main rudder. Here it clearly looks as though the backstay must interfere with the vane, which leads one to wonder if the vane is somehow offset to one side of the transom

Dorothea at Aden

Another view of Dorothea, in need of paint on her arrival in Aden after crossing the Indian Ocean. Here the windvane looks to be mounted on centerline, but with not enough room to clear the backstay with the wind ahead. Tangvald must have had some method for coping with this, but does not describe it

What you won’t find in this book is much practical advice. Unlike Moitessier, for instance, who included a fair bit of technical information in his books so that others might emulate him, Tangvald glosses over most details of boathandling and maintenance, presumably because he imagined he was writing for a more general audience. This is a trait this book shares with Tangvald’s second book, the posthumously published At Any Cost, which focuses mostly on the voyages he made aboard his last boat, L’Artemis de Pytheas, a 50-foot centerboard boat he designed and built himself (and rigged variously as a yawl, schooner, and cutter).

This book, like its successor, does provide some detail about Tangvald’s endlessly complicated love life (he was married six different times), but with an important difference. In At Any Cost Tangvald portrays himself as a more-or-less passive actor in the inception of his relationships and would have us believe his last three marriages were the result of women (two of them just teenagers) hitting on him rather than the other way around. In Sea Gypsy he is more forthcoming and allows us to view him as being much more proactive.

In just the first few pages we are treated to a hilarious scene of indelicate triangulation. Tangvald advertises for female crew while first fitting out Dorothea in England and makes it clear to a likely candidate that he doesn’t expect their relationship to be platonic. “One thing you should realize,” he tells her. “If I were satisfied to sleep all by myself in that quarter bunk I would have looked for a man crew.”

Very soon afterward, however, there is a serious complication.

A couple of days later on a grey rainy morning I opened the hatch and saw an elegant woman walking toward the Dorothea. There was something strangely familiar about her. Then I realised it was my wife. An instant later she stood by the ship and gave me a sour-sweet smile: ‘May I come aboard, dear?’

It was rather inconvenient, but I am raised as a gentleman, so how could I refuse hospitality to a woman on a rainy day, especially if she happens to be my wife?

I soon discovered that Lillemor had come to stay, and I prefer not to recall the half-hour when I had to break the news to my prospective crew. I can truthfully say that at the time I wished that I had been born a woman-hater, so that this awkward situation would not have arisen.

Lillemor (who was Tangvald’s second wife) was however never very comfortable aboard the boat and did not last long as crew. By the time Tangvald reached the West Indies he was on his own again and on the prowl for other romantic opportunities. He found them quickly enough and even led two American men he met in a restaurant in Martinique on a successful girl-hunting charter to nearby St. Lucia. There Tangvald eventually fell in with Bjula, the daughter of a local voodoo sorceress, who insisted on piercing his ear with a rusty sailmaker’s needle and marking him with a gold-ring earring before they consummated their relationship.

Next morning as I rowed her ashore she said in a voice which became deeper and strange:

‘You have had many girls in your boat. In the morning you row them ashore and at night you look for a new one. But now it is different. You will never get another black girl in these islands, because my blood has got into yours with my ring. But I will stay with you. I will come back tonight.’

Whether it was due to the magic she had learned from her mother, or rather because the other girls were afraid of her and did not want to hunt on her property, or whether I was happy with her and did not search any farther, I do not know, but the fact remained that her words came true and I never slept with another black girl in the whole of the West Indies.

Tangvald was obviously quite taken with Bjula. He describes their relationship at some length and notes with pride that he never took off her earring, but still he seems to have had zero compunctions about leaving her when he met a nice Frenchwoman, Simonne, who caught his fancy.

Tangvald w/sextant

Tangvald with the earring imposed on him by Bjula

Simonne w/fish

Simonne cleans a dorado on deck

Simmone, who eventually became Tangvald’s third wife, was aboard Dorothea for the rest of her voyage around the world. She did have to leave the boat in Tahiti for a while to see to her job as a school-teacher back in Martinique, and though Tangvald protests in his book that he felt “utterly lonesome” without her, he did enjoy a protracted dalliance with a Polynesian woman in her absence.

During his long sojourn in Tahiti (which was interrupted by a solo passage to Honolulu and back) Tangvald also had an opportunity to work as an extra during the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Trevor Howard as Capt. Bligh and Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. He was very proud of having a speaking part, just a few seconds long, in a scene with Brando, playing a crew member who wants to remain loyal to Bligh.

So of course I had to see if I could find him in the movie, and I think I succeeded.

Tangvald in Mutiny

This photo here is a screen grab from a copy of the movie I bought on Itunes. I am at least 95 percent certain that the man second from the left, with his shirt open to his waist, is Peter Tangvald. (The man on the right, of course, is Marlon Brando.) Play the movie yourself (this scene starts at 2hrs 18min) and you can hear Tangvald’s voice, with a vaguely Scandinavian accent, protesting that he is not a mutineer and wants to join Bligh in the ship’s boat.

POSTSCRIPT: I managed to buy my copy of Sea Gypsy, a first edition, at AbeBooks for just $5. If you prefer to shop at Amazon you can pay considerably more. Also, I must remark that the cover of the book (see image up top) is about the ugliest I have ever seen on a book about bluewater cruising. What designer in their right mind could ever conclude that puke-brown and puke-orange were appropriate colors for marketing a book about ocean sailing???


THOMAS TANGVALD: In His Father’s Wake

THOMAS TANGVALD: Declared Lost at Sea

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7 Responses
  1. Nick Kats

    More candy from the one & only! Love the pic of the boat, a classic. Very interesting, no cockpit AND no engine – that really simplifies life & opens acres of space. When my engine fails I’m instantly a far better sailor & much happier, when the engine starts again I lose all that & there is something in me that is pissed off about it… Hard to visualize no cockpit, would like to see the changes that come with this.

  2. Charl

    @Nick: I’ve been aboard two boats with decked-over cockpit wells at dockside–Taleisin (which has a beautiful cedar bathtub under the cockpit!) and a Garcia Passoa (it had a huge aft saloon under the cockpit). In both cases I wondered what it would be like working a cockpit like that while underway. I’m still curious about that!

  3. Priscilla

    Yesterday I did some work for a blue water boat named Sea Gypsy. 🙂

    “one of the first things he did … was take out her engine ”
    My last husband sailed engineless for 45 years by time we met, as soon as we married he became relentless that I remove the engine from my boat too, “the Pardeys this and the Pardeys that …” He doesn’t have a toilet on his boat either. And damn, he even looks like Peter.

    Curious that Tangvald bothered with a windvane at all. Can’t tell from the pictures, but with that transom-hung rudder Dorothea surely had tiller steering. Sheet-to-tiller steering is just as accurate as a windvane, and doesn’t require any equipment. Side note, notice the a sculling oar.

    “endlessly complicated love life …” It astounds me how often sailors straight out ask me for sex. One did some work for me and asked for sex instead of money, but all the rest just ask for it, they don’t even offer anything in return! Even friends have asked when they come visit, when I say “no” their responses? “I brought condoms!” Gosh I wish I had time to read for pleasure, this book would probably have me howling with laughter.

    Charlie, you said the book was old and used, maybe the colors faded over the years, or the acid in the paper reacted with the ink; the colors look pink and green to me, some blue too. It is a very cool picture, is there any mention of the artist?

  4. Charlie

    @Priscilla: About the windvane–in the book Tangvald explains he didn’t need one for his previous boat Windflower. Dorothea did have a tiller, but he does not discuss sheet-to-tiller steering.

    The cover design is by James Leech. The colors fade to blue and pink, as is evident on the book’s spine, which is not shown.

  5. LB

    At one point in my existence, decades ago, my simple library consisted of Peter’s book along with Moitessier’s, Chay Bligh’s and Slocum’s. It now runs to a few thousand of this that and the other thing, but with the exception of Lin and Larry’s first book, no serious improvement from those original four books.

  6. Johan

    The tan color may not be appropriate, but I think it is a lovely cover illustration for the book (the billowing sails!). And the red sunset on the shore trees and mountainside is ethereal.

    I am amazed how Peter Tangvald later could build the beautiful L’Artemis de Pytheas all on his own, in the jungle of French Guiana, and make it seaworthy upon the oceans!

    What an adventurer! Fully grabbing and absorbing life. Walked his own path, daringly, and completely at odds with (against) modern society. Of course, that must take its toll. Also make him irresistibly attractive to some women. And not to forget, he was naturally manly as well.

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