Cruising pioneer Peter Tangvald’s son, Thomas, disappeared after sailing from South America in 2014. Kathy Catton recalls her memories of him
Thomas Thor Tangvald was born at sea on his father’s boat, L’Artemis de Pytheas. It was 1976, by which time Thomas’s father Peter Tangvald was already a seasoned, competent sailor, having completed a five-year round-the-world voyage on an earlier boat, Dorothea, a 32ft cutter, with no motor, electricity or transmitter.
For Thomas, his life on the ocean, and less so on land, was a dichotomy of restrictions and freedoms. Sometimes gruelling, sometimes exhilarating and often brutal. By the age of 15, Thomas had witnessed the deaths of his mother, his stepmother and his father and half-sister.
My path collided with Thomas’s when we arrived at Leeds University in September 1994. Both aged 18, we seemingly had much in common. We had a love of languages, a love of sailing, and we both had the desire to find freedom. But that was where the similarities ended.
When Thomas first told me about the shipwreck that killed his father and half-sister on the coast of Bonaire, in the Dutch West Indies, he seemed very casual about it.
It was early in our relationship, and I couldn’t understand how he could recount something so heart-breaking in such a straightforward manner; he almost appeared hardened to the trauma.
But he was not without vulnerability. As he wrote in the epilogue of his father’s posthumous autobiography, At Any Cost:
“… Then I saw the broad white line, the boiling foam of relentless, charging waves crashing onto the shore. 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 was going to make any difference…”
Thomas described to me how he rushed to grab his surfboard as L’Artemis de Pytheas’s bow slammed into the coral rock. In complete darkness (there was no moon that night), Thomas struggled to untie the knot securing his surfboard. Then he jumped into the water to paddle to his father’s boat but realised he might get crushed by it, so he waited several hours for the sun to rise before perilously making his way ashore.
Little did he know at the time that he’d lost his father and half-sister to those wild waters.
Within weeks of this disaster he found himself in the mountainous country of Andorra with his new guardians, Edward and Clare Allcard.
Thomas’s dream, according to Clare, was to be a yacht rigger. Realising he was capable of much more with his genius-level intellect, Clare piqued his interest in going to university to study mathematics and fluid dynamics.
She gave him a copy of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time and Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography on Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. He read them in a day and asked Clare, “What do you have to do to go to university?”
The path was set for our encounter.
When I first met Thomas at Leeds University’s Boddington Hall, one of the first things that struck me was his open smile and massive hair! His accent, his unusual outlook on life, and even the way he walked intrigued me. It was so smooth, graceful and secure, no doubt the result of a life born and lived at sea.
We hit it off right away and spent hours in his room listening to music and talking about our futures. He was a purist: a fit, healthy vegan. He had a commanding presence and a fascination with details. He saw both the beauty and the pain in nature. He was completely absorbed in whatever made him feel good, both physically and emotionally.
Thomas was unconstrained by the modern trappings of life; he lacked the ‘socialisation’ filters that inhibited me and would happily climb the walls or roam campus on 2m stilts or engage in more illicit activities, unconcerned about the opinions of others.
“He was like a proper ingénue,” says his good friend, Dan Barton. “An amazing intellect with no formal schooling, a child of nature, deposited in modern society.”
In his final year of his studies at Leeds he bought Melody in the River Blackwater on the north side of the Thames estuary.
Melody was a 22ft traditional Itchen Ferry cutter, built with oak frames, teak hull planking and a pine deck. She carried a modern Bermudan mainsail and was ballasted with lead – half of it fixed in her keel, the rest loose in her bilge.
Thomas wrote to me of his journey sailing Melody north up the east coast to the Humber River and then up the Ouse and the Aire, as close as he could get to Leeds:
“Going from Harwich to Southwold the wind got lighter and lighter until I was becalmed. My battery ran out… [and hence no navigation lights] and there was a tremendous amount of shipping… I was getting quite worried that the tide would sweep me onto some shoals, but I just managed to avoid them.”
Thomas would happily embark on voyages such as this with very rudimentary tools and systems. He would rely on gut instincts and natural skill.
Sailing with no more than a small tracing from another yachtsman’s map, he found himself travelling from Southwold for the Humber, sat mid-shipping channel with the tide against him unable to manoeuvre or signal his presence.
Unfortunately he hadn’t marked a weir blocking the way, so he had to go all the way back down the Aire onto the Ouse again, up to Selby, where I met him for an afternoon before lectures began again. I was amazed to see how well resourced he was, albeit without a proper map or functioning compass.
Although Melody was scruffy, there were plenty of smaller tools, and stationery stored on the boat, as I remember. And he was very much at ease on board.
He later wrote: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alive as when I was sailing,” and, “It made me realise just how … little freedom most people have. Most humans live hardly at all – they might as well be dead for all the shields they have put in between themselves and L I F E.”
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But behind his smiles and delights at being on board again, to me, he still had tears behind his eyes. A thinly veiled façade couldn’t always hide his hurt and suffering.
But his sailing life continued. After completing his studies, he sailed single-handed across the Atlantic to the Spanish Virgin Islands and other islands in the Caribbean.
At the age of 27, he met his wife, Christina, and over the space of six years, they had two boys. In March 2014, aged 37, Thomas set sail alone in an ill-equipped and vulnerable boat, Oasis, from the coast of French Guiana, bound for the Brazilian island of Fernando do Noronha.
Sadly, he was never seen again.
The full and complex story of this remarkable and vulnerable man is now told by marine journalist Charles J Doane, in his book The Boy Who Fell to Shore: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald.
Although it’s a haunting and harrowing story, it’s a riveting account of a terrifying and tragic life.
Author Charles, with whom I corresponded about the book as he was writing it, writes beautifully in a non-judgemental, compassionate manner.