Christian Liebergreen was resting in his bunk below deck. The weather was thick, but nothing he hadn’t seen before. Jonna, he was absolutely confident, was going to handle it. She was his yacht, and he was her captain. Together they were a good team. And this was Liebergreen’s grand adventure: sailing around the world alone, without stops or outside assistance.
Liebergreen, 29, had been at sea for more than eight months, and he was in the homestretch. The hardships he had endured along the way were many, yet they were fading to memory now that he could practically smell his native Denmark. With one sickening crack, it all changed. The sound of breaking aluminum hit him like a sledgehammer, causing pain that pierced bone and marrow. “I immediately knew what it was,” he says.
When the boat stopped and wallowed in the choppy English Channel, Liebergreen briefly and desperately clung to vain hope. “I would not, I could not, accept reality,” he says.
Peering through the companionway confirmed his worst fears: The stick was gone — after 30,000 miles and just a few days before he would have sailed into the Danish port of Skagen, where he started in July 2012. “It didn’t just hit me, it hit us,” he says. Jonna had become part of him. Had he broken down in tears, no one would have blamed him.
Dark blond, bearded and blue-eyed, Liebergreen is not sentimental or a great fan of fanfare and self-promotion. He is not wealthy, but he is independent. He refused to dial for dollars, like so many garish publicity stunts. Hence, few people outside his native Denmark have heard of this guy. He keeps a blog, but it’s in Danish only (www.jonnadenmark.dk). Good luck with Google Translate.
He likes extreme adventures on skis and bicycles and spent 26 months in northeast Greenland as a member of the Sirius Sledge Patrol, watching out for God knows what. He considered that experience sound preparation for a solo-sail around the planet because he’d learned about mental and physical rigor, solitude, self-sufficiency and “repairing your kit and yourself, without help,” as he puts it.
So no, Liebergreen did not puddle up in self-pity, wanting to crawl under mommy’s skirt and make this whole broken-mast episode go away. But before we get to the end, it’s helpful to examine how he got started.
Growing up in Svendborg on the island of Fyn, his thoughts of voyaging took shape early on. At age 15 he flirted with disaster trying to salvage a dinghy in a storm. He tried to be clandestine about it by hiding his life jacket so his mom wouldn’t find out. He also became infatuated with whales, a fascination that pushed him to enroll in the navigation school of the Danish merchant marine. Part of the education was a trans-Atlantic trip on the square-rigger Denmark, during which he met Clara West, a cadet with platinum blond hair who made quite an impression on him.
They lost sight of each other while she pursued a career as a nurse and Liebergreen went to work for a whale-watching outfit in Vancouver, British Columbia, and on merchant ships. “Competition is fierce; they have to be fast,” he says, complaining about the lost romance of going to sea. “It was more like work, not like adventure.”
Although that course didn’t take him where he wanted to go, he crossed tacks with Clara again. This time he wouldn’t let her slip away, as he explains with a dose of Danish humor. “I wrote her a letter that said, ‘I thought of you a lot, but I bought a boat to sail around the world by myself. If you are OK with that, I would be pleased to be your boyfriend.’ ” And she was, which says a lot about her. “She’s the true hero in my story because she stayed behind and could have lost someone.”
Small budget, big dreams
While on patrol in Greenland, Liebergreen socked away every dime to buy Jonna. It’s a Sagitta 35, designed by Sparkman & Stephens and built in Denmark in 1972. “She’s not fancy, but she’s strong, and she was the only boat I liked and could afford,” he says. That Jonna had been around the planet with a previous owner was a badge of honor, not a concern.
Refitting her took nine months, using only the best equipment Liebergreen could afford. “I had to remind people that this stuff has to last for 300 days of continuous use in a harsh environment without replacement or repairs,” he says. He consulted with Jan Møller, the only other Dane who has completed a solo circumnavigation, strange as that might sound.
Liebergreen went all in, plowing all of his cash — about 700,000 kroner ($125,000) — into this project. It was difficult, but he never considered a sponsorship because of the obligations that come with it. They would clash with his sense of freedom and independence. “This was my dream and I wanted to keep it that way,” he says. When he cast off from Skagen on July 18, 2012, only a few friends waved goodbye.
All went well initially until the lower shrouds began to disintegrate, which forced him to swap one for an original that already had survived a circumnavigation. Doubts about the quality of the rigging arose, but he scheduled more frequent inspections to stay on top of potential problems. For the most part it was smooth sailing, but he reckoned that the bill might come due later.
He regimented his on-board routines to get rest and proper nutrition, knowing he was the “most important part of the boat’s propulsion system that always had to work.” He’d painstakingly labeled his meals to keep track of his caloric intake, but every once in a while he vividly imagined delicacies flying into his mouth. “Like chicken, cold milk and rye bread with slices of cheese,” he says.
And his sweetheart? He tried to put Clara out of his mind. “It would have made me vulnerable,” he says. “I had to stay focused on the boat to make my dream come true. I learned to live in the moment, to want nothing else. But now I am happy to be with her again.”
Distractions and stimuli on a small boat in the middle of a big ocean are few, so he found time to reflect. “I’m not especially spiritual, but I can live with my thoughts without going crazy.”
Rounding Cape Horn was a milestone and a turning point. He finally felt he was heading home, and it helped buoy his mood. Watching the miles melt away, he started dreaming about that first kiss upon his return — except that Mother Nature had different plans.
Instead of sending favorable fresh westerlies for a fast passage home, she made him beat into a nasty and cold easterly of 30 knots. And Jonna, good old Jonna, took it on the chin. The lower shrouds became a concern again, and he took advantage of a brief weather window to replace the port one with an 8mm Spectra line. An inspection of the attachment points revealed no problems.
It was the replacement he had installed a few months before that let go and caused the rig to collapse with that sickening sound. Once the initial shock subsided and he understood that his journey was ending in the English Channel, not in Skagen, he also realized that he’d crossed his outgoing course line at Land’s End. He’d completed his circumnavigation, but he hadn’t finished his adventure. His shore team advised him to cut away the rig to protect Jonna’s hull, and they organized a tow to Brixham Harbour on the south coast of England. The engine was shot after it had swallowed a gulp of the Pacific.
Getting someone aboard the disabled sloop in the churned-up waters of the Channel was a hairy operation, but a guy named Gary managed to step aboard. “Shaking the hand of a stranger was weird,” Liebergreen recalls, “a far cry from Clara’s kiss I had envisioned.”
When he set foot on dry land 260 days after he had departed Denmark, he barely could stand, let alone walk. “People thought I must have been injured or crazy, but they still were nice and drank tea with me,” he says.
That was in April, and he vowed to get a new mast to sail those remaining 750 or so miles to Skagen. He returned to Denmark a folk hero because many people started to follow his blog, but he took his sweet time to get reacquainted with Clara and civilization, letting the phone ring. The happy end he had sketched for himself and Jonna proved elusive.
After collecting insurance money he ordered a new stick, but he says the supplier drifted into financial difficulties and his down payment evaporated. Now what? After a sober cost-benefit calculation he ditched the idea of sailing home. Instead he planned to have Jonna hauled back to Denmark to put her on the market. The boat that once was a part of him had become an albatross.
He’s asking about $58,000, which seems a bit stiff for a 40-year-old boat that’s been around twice. But he insists she’ll be better than new when he’s done with the repairs and fitting her with a new mast, a new engine and new sails.
Knowing when to hold and when to fold is a quality of winners and heroes. And Liebergreen made the call, not just because he’s not hampered by sappiness, but also because he’d remained the captain of his ship.
“When the mast broke, I did not sit down and cry. It was a pity, for sure, but all I could think of was finding a solution so I could move on. Sailing the last few miles simply was getting too expensive and complicated. Besides, it would have been just for show, anyway.”
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
October 2013 issue