This weekend marked the start of the week-long Toronto boat show, which is one of the few things that gets a sailor like me through the long, depressingly cold winters we get here in Canada. It is an almost carnival-like atmosphere of consumer confidence, with half—million dollar yachts on display and people from every corner of the boating universe.
It’s fun as hell. Wanton consumerism in glossy fiberglass.
I have, as many of you know, a small sailboat. A Contessa 26, specifically. Unlike most sailboats in its size range, the Contessa 26 has a claim to fame. In the 1990s, a Hawaiian teen named BJ Caldwell sailed a Contessa 26 around the world single-handed, becoming the youngest person to ever do so and breaking a record held by an eighteen year old New York woman named Tania Aebi, who sailed a Contessa 26 christened VARUNA around the world in the mid 1980s, becoming the first American woman and the youngest person ever to do so. It made her a bit of a folk hero, a legend in her own young time.
It’s a hell of a pedigree, and applies to my Contessa 26 more than many, as it sat on the factory floor beside Tania’s boat, its production delayed so her more famous sibling could be delivered on time for its famous globe-girdling voyage. In fact, some of the upgrades applied to VARUNA made their way to my boat. All that aside, the fact that both of these intrepid teens chose the same type of boat for their circumnavigations speaks highly of the tiny vessel. All of that I learned while researching my boat purchase two years ago. What happened yesterday at the boat show was different. I met Tania Aebi.
She had given a presentation at noon, supporting the publishing of her second book . Unfortunately I missed the presentation, but I did manage to see her off to one side, sitting at a table, about an hour after she was finished. I was surprised by her small stature, as I had never really given consideration to what she would actuallly be like in person. Introductions were made and we began talking about how her trip had been an inspiration and one of the factors which helped me buy the boat I love so much. She, in turn, shed a more personal light on her trip and life afterward, and her opinions of sailing and its place in her life since her famous voyage. We also talked about the surprising number of Contessa 26 owners she has talked to over the years.
What was interesting was how little emotional attachment she had to her boat after completing the biggest circle in it. For me, the boat is almost a kindred spirit, a steadfast friend who will forgive my clumsiness and bring me home safely every time. I definitely consider my boat a being, far more than just a thing. She has a soul. For Tania, though, it seemed the boat was a means for her to discover herself, and that the tiny ship was part of the equipment of the adventure – like a backpack or a pair of shoes.
It was interesting to discover that she had no boat now, though she was considering a purchase. She mentioned justification, she mentioned costs and maintenance. All things that apply to a boat, but are always secondary to the joy mine brings.
I secretly think that she believes all us “Contessans” as slightly mad. That we’d willingly purchase such tiny cramped boats and gleefully sail them to the ends of the earth, following in her footsteps. I think she believes we can find more practical boats for such trips, and save ourselves the grief of banged shins and skulls.
We may be mad for our love of these boats, but I will never know. What I do know is that when I first stepped aboard her two years ago, my boat sang to my heart, and it was clear that she was meant to be mine. Subsequent searches for larger boats, with more creature comforts (and headroom) have lacked that connection I had with my pocket cruiser, and I’ve left comparing them negatively to what I already had.
Maybe some day I shall step onto a boat that sings to me like that, but until then, I shall sail my little yacht over horizons and enjoy the smile she brings to my face each and every time she leans her diminutive shoulder down and heads into the breeze.
Like Tania, my boat may be small, but she’s also a legend in her own time. And in my mind.