I left out of ignorance,” said a fatigued Tania Aebi in a voice hoarse from interviews and a cold caught at sea. “I was in a fog. I didn’t really learn how to navigate until I got to the Galapagos Islands.” Humble words from a seaworthy, sea-weary young woman. She had just returned to New York after piloting her 26-foot sloop on a 2½-year-long circumnavigation of the globe, becoming the first American woman ever to make such a trip solo.
The rebellious eldest daughter of Swiss-born New York artist Ernst Aebi, 50, Tania had graduated from high school and was working as a bike messenger when her father made her an offer she could have refused. Tania wasn’t enthusiastic about going to college, but she wanted to become a writer. Aebi offered to buy her a boat to sail around the world if she would agree to write about it. “One day,” says Tania, “I said ‘yes,’ and we ordered the boat. Then it was too late.”
Aebi (pronounced Abby)set out in her $40,000 sloop, Varuna, on May 28, 1985, her only other sailing experience being a six-month cruise of the Atlantic she had made with her divorced father, her two sisters and her brother. Hearing of her father’s round-the-world offer, many sailors accused Ernst Aebi of taking a cavalier attitude toward Tania’s safety. “I didn’t feel it was irresponsible,” he says. “It’s a lot less risky to be on the ocean than to be hanging out in bars at 4 a.m. on the Lower East Side like she used to do.”
Aebi’s journey was sponsored in part by Cruising World magazine, for whom she has written nine articles so far. In one she wrote, “It’s been a crash course in life out here…. I’ve learned about the world firsthand, not through the pages of a textbook.” She did, however, encounter a textbook example of bureaucratic unfairness, when she made a casual 80-mile detour to ferry a friend from one South Pacific island to another. Because of that side trip, the Guinness Book of World Records may not recognize her as the first American woman ever to sail solo around the world on the grounds that she didn’t make the entire trip alone. “I didn’t think about the record,” Aebi said later of the decision to give her friend a lift. “I just did it.”
During her odyssey, Aebi endured her share of travails on and off the water. Her mother, Sabine, died of cancer in January 1986; Tania flew home from Tahiti to be with her at Christmas but was back on her boat one week later. This past summer Tania survived a collision with a tanker in the Mediterranean and nearly capsized in a terrifying lightning storm off Gibraltar. For all her hardships there were compensations. Aebi spent an idyllic five months in Tahiti and found romance on the island of Vanuatu with fellow sailor and adventurer Olivier Berner, 34, a Swiss geologist. Berner was part of Aebi’s welcoming committee in New York.
More details of her saga will be known, no doubt, when Aebi delivers on her promise of becoming a writer. For now, she just shrugs nonchalantly when asked how the trip has changed her. “I’m not that different,” says Tania, now 21. “My name is still the same. I’ve learned the world’s a nice place. And,” she is careful to add, “I value my life more. I’m glad I did it. But I wouldn’t want to do it again—not by myself.”