The Woman Who Left the Harbor
This is The Story… of a woman who was faced with a terrifying choice. She left the safe confines of her family’s home to enter the unknown, and embarked on the greatest challenge of her life.
This article is a written version of Episode 5 of The Story Podcast: The Woman Who Left the Harbor.
Season 1 features twelve women trailblazers who changed the world, and it’s brought to you exclusively by Salesforce.
And now… onto The Story
Tania knew something was wrong.
Culture creates prisons, and she was trapped inside one.
School was a struggle, but she managed to stick it out and graduate high school.
Afterwards, Tania felt the pressure to attend college. She was surrounded by friends and classmates who already accepted offer letters to prestigious universities.
Tania was different. She didn’t care about going to fancy colleges. She wanted to be a writer.
But for now, she was a bike messenger in New York City, delivering envelopes across Manhattan during the day and hanging out at shady bars until 4am in the Lower East Side.
She told her family and friends that she wanted to be a writer, and they all insisted that in order to be a writer, she needed a college degree.
Disheartened but determined — she went to her father for advice.
Tania’s father was a tough man… One summer in Switzerland, he told Tania to come over and grab a metal fence. She walked over, grabbed the fence, and instantly received a strong jolt of electricity. Stunned, she watched her father laugh and tell her that,
“Sometimes, you only learn things in this world the hard way.”
Was it harsh? Yes. But it was a lesson she would never forget.
Although her father was tough, he also had a softer side and positive hopes for his children’s futures. He viewed the world as a place to explore. Only by going out into it and through taking smart risks could you begin to understand it. Only after you fell on your own, and learned to pick yourself up on your own could you properly experience it.
Although her relationship with her father was strained, they managed to reconnect on a family sailing trip. Sailing was the one constant that kept the family together.
So she went to her father for advice.
As a struggling bike messenger, she was surrounded by people telling her to redeem herself by going to college. She didn’t think it was necessary, and wanted to become a writer without paying for an expensive degree.
Her father listened but thought she was making a mistake.
Tania didn’t think she was, and that tension caused argument after argument.
He wasn’t having any of it. And neither was she.
At first glance, her father had two choices. He knew she needed structure and guidance. He could try to pressure her into attending college. Or, he could support her. Skipping college by itself wasn’t bad, but he knew she didn’t have a plan.
He knew that the easy path always carried serious tradeoffs. If she chose the easy path, she would get in the habit of choosing comfort over the struggle required to achieve anything. He saw what happened to people who spent decades seeking comfort. It was never pretty.
He heard the passion in his daughter’s voice, the yearning for freedom.
Her father thought about it, and knew what she wanted most… to buy a sailboat of her own.
So he presented her with a simple offer.
“I guess you can skip college.”
The girl’s eyebrows raised.
“And I’ll loan you the money to buy a sailboat”
A smile spread across the girl’s face.
“But…” sighed her father.
She was frozen in anticipation.
“You have to sail it around the world,” he said.
Her eyebrows slumped, and she took a step back. Was he serious?
“And,” he said, raising a finger, “you’ll have to write about it. Turn the trip into a book.”
Tania didn’t even know how to drive a car, much the less a boat! She had never handled a boat by herself before, and had only taken one course in celestial navigation.
The thought of sailing on a small boat in the open ocean, alone, was terrifying.
After a few days of thinking about the proposition, Tania wasn’t sure what to do. Sailing around the world meant that she would have to leave her friends on the Lower East Side, her family, and her mother who was battling cancer.
But her father was adamant. It would be hard, but she could do it.
He believed in her. And that belief rubbed off.
In her mind, Tania imaged herself on a boat, with the wind in her hair and the ocean all around her. There was a chance in front of her to see the world. In a mixture of fear, elation, and confusion, she spoke before she could think.
“I’ll do it.”
The words felt like they were said by someone else, and she instantly regretted them. What had she committed to?
Soon after, Tania and her father were headed to a boat show in Annapolis, Maryland to find the perfect vessel for her journey. On the last day of the trip, they found a 26 foot sailboat. It was smaller and older than the hundreds of fancy boats around it.
But the 26 foot sailboat was built to last. Her father extended her the loan, she signed it and was the new owner.
Tania named the boat Varuna after the Hindu goddess of the cosmos.
The next steps were preparation for her voyage ahead. She secured food, water, maps, tools, and the few belongings she owned.
Her father still wasn’t sure if she’d actually do it, but he wished her luck.
Her mother didn’t want to let her go and reminded her that they might not get another chance to see each other. Her mother even asked:
“Tania, may I come and be with you on Varuna? You know that Mommy is sick and that she will not get better.”
Tania wasn’t sure what to do, and with a heavy heart, she told her mother no. She would need to do this on her own.
Then at 18 years old, with no formal training and no crew, Tania launched Varuna from South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan
Well, she wasn’t technically by herself. She did have a first mate named, Dinghy.
But Dinghy was her cat.
When she set sail, the year was 1984.
She had no cell phone or means of communication other than a radio. She had no GPS or tracking system because civilian GPS systems were not yet widely available.
So she was forced to use a sextant for celestial navigation. A sextant is a navigation instrument that measures the angular distance between two visible objects.
If that sounds confusing — that’s because it is. The navigators’ sextant was created in the 1700s. It allowed sailors to use the sun and the stars and their own location, to pick out and head to the right point on the horizon.
Imagine trying to learn how to use a Sextant, by yourself, on the open ocean.
But Tania was a fast learner. She mastered navigation — even through choppy waters at night.
Sailing was treacherous, lonely, but also exhilarating.
In her first leg of her journey was from New York to Bermuda, the new boat’s engine was malfunctioning constantly.
When she got safely on the shores of Bermuda, she was exhausted and wanted to quit — to end her trip and stay on the island. It would have been easy to stop there. At that point, she had already done more on her own than many other people. But it wasn’t what she committed to do.
On the island, she and Dinghy met a little kitten named Tarzoon. Tarzoon, was, as you can imagine… ridiculously cute. She adopted him, took him on board Varuna, and soon found the courage to set sail again.
It took her six more months to reach Tahiti. When she was there, her celebration was cut short. She caught up with her family back home, and discovered that her mother had lost her battle with cancer.
She remembered her mother’s last request to her. How she had been begging to come along with her. A wave of regret and sadness washed over her.
She was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, but she was utterly alone. And she would never see her mother again. Her mother’s last request, begging to be near her went unfulfilled.
On top of it, she was barely a quarter of the way around the world.
She wanted to quit. But she had made a promise to sail around the world. So she got ready to embark from Tahiti. Before she could leave, she met a man named Olivier, and they shared a brief romance. She met another cat too, named Mimine, and she added him to her feline crew.
Soon, her commitment and the rest of the journey loomed.
So she set sail again.
The next leg of the journey put her face to face with storms, sickness, loneliness, and despair. At the worst moments, she realized who the ultimate enemy was… herself and her mindset.
She learned that every time she felt fear creeping up, she had to fight it back.
In Australia, one night she noticed that Dinghy the cat was bleeding. She tried to nurse him back to health, but soon he took a turn for the worse, and she had to take him ashore.
Ashore, she carried Dinghy for miles to the find a vet. At the veterinarian’s office, he ran some tests, determined that Dinghy had cancer of the kidneys. He tried to operate to remove it, but it was too late. Dinghy was dead and she didn’t even get to say goodbye. The last few months of him missing his litterbox hadn’t been from spite. He just couldn’t help himself.
It was just her, Mimine, and Tarzoon now.
On her arrival in Egypt, she caught a terrible fever. She lost fifteen pounds and all of her strength went with it.
In the Mediterranean, she suffered through a terrifying collision with a tanker and a lightning storm off the coast of Gibraltar. The boat was almost destroyed — and her confidence rattled.
She repaired the boat and set sail again.
Her father began to visit her regularly at port cities. He checked in on her progress and was there to celebrate the milestones.
But at the end of the day, it was her, on the water, by herself. She got some support at the ports, but she circumnavigated the entire ocean.
Two and a half years later, in November 1987, after completing over 27,000 miles…
Tania Aebi returned to New York Harbor at age 21.
She had left with no credentials.
She returned as the first American woman to circumnavigate the world solo — and the youngest person ever to do so.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” –Grace Hopper
Tania Aebi’s story is about shattering norms. It’s about moving out into the chaos of the world and turning it into order.
Tania Aebi isn’t a household name, but she is a successful, unique, and courageous individual.
Her story is a powerful reminder that our names don’t have to become “known.” You don’t have to do what the crowd does. All of us can become free and unique individuals by seeking out the greatest challenges we can find.
Along the way, there will always be safe paths waiting for us.
There will always be safe harbors to dock in. But we can’t remain docked in safe harbors forever.
Leave the safe harbor, but if you find yourself riding tumultuous waves or shipwrecked, revel in it. There are always gifts and lessons for those who take radical agency of their own lives.
It won’t be easy, and it will mean you’ll be painfully isolated from people who choose to remain docked in the harbor their whole life.
But do you want to be like most people?
Tania Aebi’s own words offer a powerful insight into how her voyage around the world transformed her mind.
“It happens rarely, but whenever I do read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television, on a variety of topics, I find myself wondering, How? How can this happen? How can people be so gullible?
[I’m renewed with] gratitude to my father for having given me the chance to dodge full immersion in the homogenizing machine, and makes me more determined than ever to pass this gift of becoming an individual on to my own children.”
–TANIA AEBI, world record holder, first circumnavigation of the world by a solo female sailor
It’s scary to think about leaving the harbor. But ships that don’t leave the harbor never have interesting stories to tell.
Leave the harbor, sail out into the unknown, and come back and dock. You’ll be better for it, and so will the rest of the world.
That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?
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