The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald

Sail News

Thomas Tangvald aboard the remains of Melody, at anchor off Culebra, four years after he sailed her there nonstop from Great Britain 

The first boat Thomas Tangvald ever owned was just 22 feet long. She was an odd craft, a narrow plywood scow with a flat bottom, leeboards on either side, and square ends—little more than a daysailer with a rotting deck and tiny cabinhouse tacked on. Thomas paid just $200 for her. He proudly named her Spartan and immediately moved aboard. He was but 14 years old at the time, a skinny lad with a tousled mop of blond hair, an earnest smile, and a sharp mind.

Thomas’s home prior to this had been his father’s much larger 50-foot cutter, L’Artemis de Pytheas, a primitive, home-built teak vessel. Thomas was born on this boat, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and had lived on it his entire life as his father roamed the planet under sail. In moving aboard Spartan, he was for the first time asserting some measure of independence, physically separating himself from his father, Peter Tangvald, and his 7-year-old sister, Carmen.

Peter Tangvald was a renowned, somewhat notorious bluewater cruiser. He had been married several times, having famously lost one wife in a pirate attack and another one overboard. Some wondered if he had murdered these women. Now he was a single dad in his mid-60s, with two kids to look after. Recently he had suffered two heart attacks and was palpably weaker than before.

Thomas with his father and sister aboard L’Artemis de Pytheas at Curacao, a year before the wreck 

Thomas with his father and sister aboard L’Artemis de Pytheas at Curacao, a year before the wreck 

In July 1991, nine months after Thomas moved aboard Spartan, Peter decreed his family should sail from the Puerto Rican island of Culebra south to Bonaire to stay clear of hurricanes. He also decided he would tow Spartan behind L’Artemis some 400 miles across the breadth of the Caribbean to get there.

It was a pretty crazy plan. For one engineless sailboat to tow another all that distance was in itself challenging. But Peter also decided to split up his crew. Spartan had a large open cockpit, and to keep her from being swamped en route to Bonaire, he decided Thomas should stay aboard to repeatedly bail her out. That left Peter and his weak heart to mind both L’Artemis and young Carmen on his own.

No one knows exactly what went wrong, but on the fourth night of their voyage, both L’Artemis and Spartan were wrecked on the windward shore of Bonaire. Thomas had just gotten up to bail out his boat and witnessed the tragedy in full. In the dark night he sensed first they were much too close to shore, but saw no sign of his father on deck aboard L’Artemis. Then Thomas saw a white line of breakers ahead. He saw L’Artemis lurch up into a shelf of mercilessly sharp coral. Then he saw the towline to his boat go slack. Half naked with no pants on, he grabbed his surfboard and jumped overboard in the nick of time.

Thomas spent six hours paddling around before he finally struggled ashore the next morning. His father’s boat, he found, had been ground into “millions of little bits of teak.” Thomas’ body was covered with friction burns, and by the end of that day he was lying in a bed in the local hospital. Over the next two days he was taken back to the wreck site to identify bodies. His sister was found afloat near shore. His father was found on shore with his face smashed in.

Not long afterward, Thomas had two dreams. In the first, his father came to him looking very different than before, but Thomas still recognized him.

“Yes, it’s amazing, isn’t it?” said his father. “I’m all better now.”

In the second dream, Thomas was studying a huge map, trying to decide where to search for his father. But then he remembered he didn’t have to look for him because he was already dead.

* * *

The second boat Thomas owned was as small as the first, just 22 feet on deck. But she was also much more seaworthy. This was a traditional Itchen Ferry cutter named Melody. Where Spartan had been little more than a flat, hard-cornered box, Melody had a deep hull, a long keel, and sinuous curves that yielded to passing waves rather than resisting them.

Thomas visiting on a friend’s boat in Puerto Rico during the time he lived aboard Spartan 

Thomas visiting on a friend’s boat in Puerto Rico during the time he lived aboard Spartan 

Thomas purchased this boat in August 1996, in the Thames estuary east of London, some five years after losing his family, during the summer after his second year in university. Her price was £5,000.

Thomas had changed a good deal since that awful night on Bonaire. When he first joined his new foster parents—old cruising friends of his father’s who now lived in Andorra, high in the mountains between France and Spain—Thomas wanted only to return to the sea as soon as possible. But his intellectual curiosity had prevented this. Propelled by a genius IQ, he crammed two years of test prep into just one so he could attend school in Great Britain. He was invited to study at Cambridge, but was put off by all the “Keep Off the Grass” signs on the campus. Instead, he enrolled at the University of Leeds, where he studied advanced mathematics and fluid dynamics.

During his first year at university, Thomas reveled in the social scene. “He was like a proper ingénue,” marveled one friend. “An amazing intellect with no formal schooling, a child of nature deposited in modern society.”

But in his second year, as he came to understand how profligate that society was, Thomas grew harder in his opinions. He resented television, the “God box” his roommates spent so much time staring at. He complained of all the “arrogant people with all their flash clothes and snobbery.” And more and more he came to focus on what he termed his “post-university dream ship.”

Thomas, of course, had a great deal of sailing experience. Voyaging was the ether he was born into, but he had never set out on a voyage of his own. His very first venture aboard Melody, a 200-mile jaunt up Britain’s east coast from the Thames estuary north to the River Humber in September 1996, proved quite challenging.

For the first bit of the trip Thomas had crew, an inexperienced friend from school named Dan. Battling contrary wind, it took them four days to sail about 40 miles from the mouth of the Thames to Ipswich, where Dan had to leave the boat to catch a train home.

Thomas carried on alone and soon found that Melody’s engine was not functional. This led to the boat’s battery running flat, which left Thomas with no lights to show at night. He spent many anxious hours watching for ships on the heavily trafficked coast and at one point barely averted getting run down by a freighter by persistently shining a flashlight on his mainsail.

Thomas with the Round Island Cup he twice won racing aboard Melody in the Isles of Scilly.

Thomas with the Round Island Cup he twice won racing aboard Melody in the Isles of Scilly.

For a full week, Thomas was weatherbound at Southwold, not far north of Ipswich, hiding out from gale-force northerly winds. By then he was pressed for time, as his third-year university lectures were due to begin. He left Southwold earlier than he should have, with the wind still blowing hard from the wrong direction, and barely made it through the steep breaking seas at the harbor entrance.

Thomas faced more challenges when he finally reached the River Humber more than two sleepless days later. First, after his compass seized up, he had trouble simply finding the Humber. Arriving at the river mouth at nightfall, with the ebb tide and river current raging against him, he could make no headway, even though he was sailing full ahead at 6 knots. A pilot boat towed Melody into the town of Grimsby on the river’s south shore but left Thomas tied up in an insecure cul-de-sac with steep quay walls on three sides. He had to stay up all through that night, fending the boat off to keep it from smashing against the high stone surfaces that surrounded him.

The next day, on a fair tide, Thomas sailed much further up the river. That night he did enjoy a good sleep at anchor, but the following day was accosted by the local coast guard after he intentionally grounded Melody on the low tide to scrub her bottom. Once he was afloat again, they towed him to a marina in the small town of Brough. Here Thomas got Melody’s engine repaired. He also took her mast down, preparatory to taking her further inland under low bridges, and soon set off again.

He didn’t get far before the engine quit again. With his mast on deck, Thomas had no choice but to anchor the boat. He jumped overboard, swam to shore through the icy-cold water, and hiked back to the marina to arrange a tow. Meanwhile, someone who spotted him in the water alerted the coast guard, and they immediately scrambled a helicopter to rescue him. Thomas, fortunately, reached the marina in time to call off the helicopter, but he did have to submit to being towed back to Brough by a coast guard launch.

Thomas was quite annoyed when he later found that local and national newspapers were carrying “absurdly sensationalistic” reports of his adventure. But he was not at all sanguine about the experience.

“Coming into the Humber was pretty frightening,” he admitted. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared for that long ever. Several people including the coast guard have told me the Humber is the second most dangerous river in the world—after the Orinoco. I think they may be right.”

* * *

Thomas did eventually succeed in getting Melody further up the Humber, and then up the Rivers Ouse and Aire, all the way to Leeds, which was 50 miles inland. He tied her up a few miles from where he lived and worked to prepare her for sea as he completed his third year at university. This last year at school, Thomas wrote was “spent under a dark cloud,” and by the end of it he was anxious to get away.

In early July 1997, having finished his classes, Thomas secretly departed from Leeds aboard Melody. He told his friends he would go back out to the east coast and then sail to France or Spain. But what he did instead was head west, further inland, down the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.

Thomas with Melody on the banks of the River Camel in Cornwall 

Thomas with Melody on the banks of the River Camel in Cornwall 

By shifting all the loose ballast in Melody’s bilge forward to the bow, Thomas found he could lift the heel of the boat’s keel just enough to get into the canal. Melody’s mast was still on deck, so she could still squeeze under bridges. Thomas had removed the boat’s worthless engine, so he had to scull her to make forward progress.

Much of the traffic on the canal, which stretches some 120 miles across the countryside of northern England through 91 locks, consisted of tourists on chartered holiday barges. Many of these people were inexperienced and sometimes collided with Melody. Her progress was painfully slow, on average just 5 miles a day. But Thomas was not in a hurry and found the experience “very relaxing and enjoyable,” a welcome decompression after the anxiety of his last year at university.

He needed still more patience to escape from the canal. By early August, Thomas had reached the end of the canal’s Rufford Branch and had to wait two weeks for a peak high tide that allowed him to lock into the River Douglas at Tarleton, about 16 miles north of Liverpool.

Thomas spent the end of that summer, almost two months, in the River Douglas. First he saw to re-stepping Melody’s mast with the help of the owner of an old fishing trawler that had a strong derrick hoist on deck. Then he holed up in a small creek just off the main river, working on the boat while waiting for another peak tide to get out the mouth of the river.

By now it was luxuriantly hot, and Thomas reveled in this, as it reminded him of Puerto Rico. He gorged himself on plums and pears he found growing along the lane that led into the nearest village. To get on and off the boat, surrounded as it was by boggy marsh, he ran a line from the top of Melody’s mast and secured the other end with a stake some distance away in firm ground. By climbing the mast and traversing the line hand over hand, and vice versa, he could come and go as he pleased without getting all wet and muddy.

Finally, as the summer waned, the water in the creek and river mouth was at last high enough for Melody to take wing. Thomas sculled the last mile or so down the Douglas and arrived on the deeper, wider River Ribble. Here he hoisted sail for the first time since the previous fall, when he’d entered the River Humble on the far side of Britain.

As Melody leaned to the wind in her rig, and as the water chuckled past her transom, Thomas smiled. Without the drag of a propeller, his boat was faster and more nimble, and he felt rather pleased with himself as he sailed out into the open water of the Irish Sea.

* * *

By now Thomas had evolved quite a bit. He still normally preferred to go barefoot, even in the cool, often damp British climate. He still wore purely functional, usually secondhand cast-off clothing. But his hair was very different. Where once it was quite short, he now wore it in long, unruly dreadlocks, the better, he said, to keep “the boring people” at bay.

The biggest change was that he had grown more critical and cynical, as his upbringing put him so at odds with the materialism of Western culture. Meanwhile, he also felt himself reconnecting to the natural world as he spent more time living aboard Melody, like a torn and damaged tendon reknitting itself to the solid bone of its purpose. Instead of putting calendar dates on his letters, he now simply wrote the name of the month and beside it sketched an image of the current phase of the moon. And as he had as a boy standing agog in the companionway of his father’s boat, “in awe at the spectacle of the world,” he carefully studied the gyrations of the heavens above him.

By November of that year, Thomas had moored Melody to trees overhanging a slate shingle beach in a small cove a short distance up the River Camel on the north coast of Cornwall and was preparing to winter there. While sailing to Cornwall, the chainplate for Melody’s forestay had suddenly ripped off her bow, and she also started leaking badly up forward.

It thus was clear the boat needed a good deal more work before Thomas could chance a long passage back to the Caribbean. Fortunately, the 11-foot tidal range on the Camel made it easy to get the boat out of the water to work on her hull. Thomas also turned his mind to the problem of heat and converted an old bus muffler he found into a small wood-burning stove. He made a chimney pipe for the stove by riveting together a series of empty tin cans.

Thomas did find one immediate ally in his life on the river. This was Robert “Boogie” Corke, who was, like Thomas, something of a boat bum. He was in his 40s and lived hand-to-mouth on the shores of the Camel while working to fix up his antique 36-foot crabber. Boogie was a generous soul, and he and Thomas quickly became fast friends. Over the months to come, they spent much time together, and Boogie fondly remembered them swapping stories and smoking a bit of hashish on the beach “as frost formed on our shoulders and backs.”

It was through Boogie that Thomas met other local people who lived on shore, including a 43-year-old divorcée named Jean Buchanan. In spite of their great age difference, some 20 years, he was immediately attracted to her.

Thomas was by now a very yin-yang proposition viewed from a female perspective. He had, like his father, a certain base appeal. He was physically attractive, but he was also objectively somewhat repulsive. He bathed infrequently, brushed his teeth with clay, and now lived like a medieval peasant in a tiny boat with no amenities. When he hurt himself, he licked his wounds like a dog to heal them. He cooked on a tiny Primus burner and heated his boat with fallen tree limbs and driftwood he gathered along the shore. He relieved himself in bucket and subsisted mostly on rice, potatoes, porridge, and kidney beans.

But Jean had enough of a nautical background to have some sense of where Thomas was coming from, and soon they became lovers. It was Thomas’ first fully consummated romantic relationship. And for all his faults, Jean loved Thomas unconditionally. She, like Thomas, had suffered in her childhood, and she thus felt a deep kinship with him.

“Like me, he was always in survival mode,” she recalled, “battling with insecurity.”

* * *

Thomas’ connection with Jean helped civilize his life in Cornwall. In all, he spent more than two years there. During the winters he always had Jean’s nearby home to retreat to. During summers he cruised the nearby Isles of Scilly aboard Melody with Jean and her 12-year-old son, Ryan. He also worked at a boatyard owned by Jean’s brother and distinguished himself by twice winning the Round the Island Race, a popular local event organized by the Scillonian Sailing Club. But both he and Jean understood from the beginning that they would eventually part ways.

Thomas enjoys a happy moment with Jean Buchanan 

Thomas enjoys a happy moment with Jean Buchanan 

Thomas worked hard to prepare for his departure. He had, he hoped, solved the problem of the leak in Melody’s bow. With Boogie’s help, he unstepped Melody’s mast with a rope and tackle dropped from a high bridge spanning the river and rebuilt the mast step under it. He reorganized the boat’s interior and rebuilt her rudder. He also re-ballasted the boat to make up for the missing engine and spent many hours melting down scrap lead to pour into molds made from beer cans and old roof gutters.

But his final preparations were quite casual. To provision the boat, Boogie recalled, Thomas brought her up the river on an early flood tide to a nearby town. He walked to the grocery store and came back with about £40 worth of food and a few gallons of water. Boogie urged he would certainly need more water, “but he assured me it would rain, and that was that.”

As for navigation, Thomas borrowed charts from Boogie and traced out the relevant bits on pieces of paper, enough to get him clear of southern England. For a passage chart of the North Atlantic, he had a page from a world atlas. As for the approaches to Puerto Rico, Thomas was confident he would remember it all well enough once he got there.

Once he had his provisions aboard, Thomas waited for the tide to turn. Then he said his goodbyes, cast off his lines, hoisted sail and headed down the river toward open water. For both Thomas and Jean it seemed a very tragic moment. After Thomas left the dock, Jean jumped in her car and raced to a hill overlooking the river entrance. Melody passed below outbound with her sails pulling hard, and Jean saw Thomas had scrawled across them “I LOVE YOU” in huge letters.

It was, she wrote later that day, “the most beautiful yet saddest sight I will experience for a long time!” And she added: “My tears could have easily carried Melody across the big pond.”

This was on April 6, 2000. Thomas had the wind behind him as he sailed southwest away from Cornwall, and it grew fresher as he and Melody passed 200 miles west of the northwestern tip of France. Here he found the largest waves he would encounter through all of his 47-day voyage. One wave, he wrote, “came at me like a monstrous eyeless almost reptilian-scaled beast, the water swelling up to accommodate its submarine advance.”

The wave broke “in a mad rush of spume” all across the deck amidships. “The boat was almost going into orbit,” Thomas remembered, “just swept along weightlessly in the frothing mass for a moment before sighing down the back of the wave.”

He slept very little in these strong conditions, jumping at every loud noise and fretting about his loose ballast, those beautiful lead pigs he had cast and laid so carefully in Melody’s bilge. “600 Kg tumbling out of the bilge would not even give me time to grab a jerrycan before I’m swimming,” he noted.

But these were fast days, during which Melody covered much ground—160 miles the first day and 140 the second, very good numbers for such a small boat. This got Thomas across the Bay of Biscay, but then he suffered through two short gales that spawned 40-knot winds blowing straight against him. The motion was terrible, and again there was one particular wave Thomas remembered well.

“The boat must have come out of the water,” he wrote, “since it came down with such a crashing thud I was absolutely astounded that the side of the boat didn’t split open.”

On the day between the gales, as Melody rolled in leftover swell with no wind in her sails to steady her, Thomas saw a distant shape on the horizon that soon became a very large tanker. And it was headed straight for him. With no engine, he could not motor out of its path. He had no radio, so he could not hail it.

In the end, the huge ship passed so close to Melody she was sucked into its hull. She bounced off its side, then spun about in her own length as she passed through the turbulence cast up by massive propellers. Thomas, looking up, grateful his little boat was still intact, could see the tanker’s name emblazoned across its stern: IRIAN.

* * *

After the second gale, it all came much easier. The wind became lighter and Melody was much slower, covering not even 60 miles each day. On the 16th day, Thomas sailed past the Canary Islands and finally turned west across the North Atlantic. Here the northeast tradewinds found him, and for 10 straight days Thomas made no changes to the set of Melody’s sails, just the sort of storybook sailing every bluewater cruiser dreams of.

During the last two weeks, however, the trades slowly died away. There were periods of glassy calm, punctuated with windy rain squalls. To keep Melody moving, Thomas now had to frequently handle sails—taking in reefs, letting them out again, changing headsails—and he often had to steer by hand through the tricky bits when the wind was shiftiest.

And through it all the air kept getting warmer as Melody slowly drew closer to the Caribbean. The sun passing straight overhead each afternoon made the grey wood on her deck burning hot to the touch. Inside her tiny cabin it felt like a sauna.

“What bliss to be sweating all over again,” Thomas exulted.

Thirty days after he’d last seen land in the Canary Islands, Thomas at last spotted the tiny island of Sombrero, a rocky uninhabited outpost with a tall lighthouse about 30 miles northwest of Anguilla. Here the wind grew a bit stronger and blew more steadily, whisking Thomas along to his final destination.

During the following day, as the calendar rolled over into May 23, his 24th birthday, he passed south of first the British and then the U.S. Virgin Islands. He smiled as the strong rhythms of island tunes pumped out of his AM-FM radio. By the time he reached the Spanish Virgins and Culebra, it was after dark. As he rounded Punta del Soldado, at the southern tip of Culebra, he could hear waves breaking on shore and myriad chatterings of frogs and insects reaching out from the dark hills. The air was full of the smell of the place.

“Hot moist earth and putrefying vegetation,” he later wrote. “I almost cried with joy.”

By 10:30 that evening Thomas had cast anchor in Bahia Sardinas on Culebra’s west coast, just off the main town of Dewey. He had at last found his way back to where he’d started before he lost his father and sister.

“I always knew I’d come back here,” he wrote. “I just didn’t think it would take so long.”

This might well have been the happiest day of his life. It was certainly, he asserted, the best birthday he ever had.

06-Author.1

Charles J. Doane is SAIL’s cruising editor. This article is adapted from his new book, The Boy Who Fell to Shore: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald, published in October by Latah Books (latahbooks.com). 

October/November 2022

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