The Around the World Club

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Donna Lange is one of three sailors who completed solo circumnavigations this year

Donna Lange is one of three sailors who completed solo circumnavigations this year

After nearly 300 days at sea alone, a 46-year-old mother of four says she found inner peace sailing through the heart of a powerful storm.

Donna Lange was in the final leg of her 31,400-mile solo circumnavigation when her sea anchor failed in heavy weather April 16, 185 miles west of Bermuda. As the upstate New York native steered her Southern Cross 28,

Read the other stories in this package: A voyage 25 years in the making   Fastest Aussie — by less than a day

Inspired Insanity, through rain and 60-knot gusts toward the island, a 40-foot wave broke over the port quarter, knocking the boat down and leaving Lange clinging to the dodger.

The knockdown damaged the sloop’s self-steering system, which meant that Lange would spend the next 36 hours at the tiller without sleep, guiding the boat through the storm until she was met by a towboat and taken to port in St. Georges, Bermuda.

“That storm happened for a reason. It was indicative of how far I’d come and how I’d changed,” says Lange, speaking before a crowd of nearly 100 friends and family members during an April 21 homecoming ceremony at the Herreshoff Marine Museum in Bristol, R.I., where she kicked off her circumnavigation in November 2005. “The storm turned out to be larger than I imagined, but I felt confident in my skills and equipment to deal with the conditions. It was incredible to be in the midst of something so intense and be at peace.”

By completing her circumnavigation, Lange became the 275th person and 46th American to sail around the world alone, according to Ted Jones, commodore of the Joshua Slocum Society (www.joshuaslocumsocietyintl.org ). During the ceremony, Jones presented Lange with the society’s Golden Circle Award. (The Golden Circle is awarded to solo circumnavigators in six levels; Lange qualified for Level 3, a solo circumnavigation that rounds Cape Horn, the Cape of Good Hope and CapeLeeuwin.) Also in attendance were museum president Halsey Herreshoff and fellow female sailor Pat Henry, who sailed around the world between 1989 and 1997.

“Single-handers are problem solvers. They have to deal with things like sleep deprivation and equipment breakdowns,” Henry says. “Donna handles these problems with panache, spirit and faith.”

Lange’s friend Jane Pares calls the solo sailor an inspiration. “I think Donna is an inspiration to all to live life more fully, to be grateful for all the good in our own lives, and to show courage and determination in all things,” says Pares, a media relations associate for International Marine Brokers, who met Lange when the sailor reached Pares’ native New Zealand. “She’s an inspiration to not be deterred by stumbling blocks that might appear in front of us, and an inspiration to accept the challenges life presents us and see them as learning opportunities.”

Lange’s ex-husband, Fletcher Brightman, says he never doubted that she’d complete the circumnavigation. “Even if it took her five years, I knew she’d do it,” says Brightman, who is 48. “She’s always been a strong-minded woman. I’m very proud of her.”

For Lange, the voyage was about more than the physical challenges associated with navigating the globe. “I had questions about life, and I went to the sea for answers,” she says in an interview with Soundings.

Lange’s life changed one early winter morning in 1998. After working a late shift as a cardiac nurse at the Berkshire (Mass.) MedicalCenter, she fell asleep at the wheel of her car driving to her home in Burnt Hills, N.Y., a 1.5-hour commute. Her vehicle drifted into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a tractor trailer, which careened into the SUV behind her, killing the five passengers inside. “It was an absolute horror,” says Lange.

After the accident, Lange says she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled to move on with her life. Her nearly 20-year marriage to Brightman ended; she was looking for change. “I tried to make my life work, and I was failing,” says Lange. “I couldn’t get the faces of those people out of my mind. I was desperate to find out what was real in life.”

Lange accepted a job as a chef aboard the tall ship ClipperCity in Baltimore. “She dumped out a drawer on the floor, took a few things and said, ‘Take care of the kids,’ ” Brightman says. “And off she went.”

It was aboard the gaff-rigged topsail schooner — which sailed the Chesapeake Bay — that Lange learned to sail and fell in love with life on the water. “We sang our shanties and drank our rum at night,” she says. “The ocean called to me, and I listened.”

In 2000, after her contract aboard ClipperCity ended, Lange was living on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She began searching for a boat she could sail from port-to-port, playing music. A friend recommended a used Southern Cross 28 that was for sale. “I was told it was an appropriate offshore boat for my size,” says Lange, who is 5 feet, 2 inches tall. “I knew she needed a lot of work. The rig was old, the bowsprit was ruined, she needed a new electrical system and wiring, but I bought her. She was all I had, and I needed her.”

By August 2001 Lange sailed the sloop, which she named Inspired Insanity, to Venezuela and back to St. Thomas. She had more work done to the boat and set out for Ireland in July 2002. It was during that passage — in 40-knot winds and 15- to 20-foot seas — that Lange’s seamanship was first put to the test.

“I lost the mainsail, the steering vane and the rudder,” she recalls. “I was scared and tense. I wasn’t speaking or thinking. I spent 14 straight hours on deck watching the seas, concentrating. I kept telling myself: I’m still strong. I can’t turn back.”

Lange completed the passage in 33 days. After a layover of about a year, she sailed to the Cape VerdeIslands in September 2003 and returned to the Caribbean, where she earned a 100-ton captain’s license. Itching for more time at sea and with still-unanswered questions about her life, Lange made a commitment to herself to sail around the world. She did more extensive work to Inspired Insanity and set off from Tortola for Bristol in July 2005. Four months later she started her circumnavigation, heading east across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, bound for New Zealand. On that long passage, she weathered a number of gales.

“It was a lot tougher than I had imagined,” Lange says. “That stretch really tested my skill. In getting through those storms is when I started to become one with my boat.”

Lange arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, after nearly 170 days and 17,300 miles at sea. She remained in New Zealand for several months — that’s when she met her friend Pares — repairing the boat and preparing for the second half of the circumnavigation.

“Certain people were gracious enough to donate money and equipment, so I was able to have much more communication equipment on board for the second half,” says Lange. “But the most significant change was in the food. Heading to New Zealand I didn’t have enough provisions. Leaving New Zealand, I had plenty. I also took with me spirulina, an algae that’s also a dietary supplement.”

Lange started the second half of her circumnavigation last November and rounded Cape Horn about 50 days later, making a two-week stopover in Ushuaia, Argentina, on the Beagle Channel. “It’s incredibly windy here with continual gales and snow in the hills,” Lange wrote of her stay in Ushuaia on her Web site (www.donnalange.com). “It only pauses for a few hours before another front comes barreling through.”

Lange left Ushuaia Jan. 27 and headed north along the South American coast. She made her way to the Caribbean, and it was on the home stretch to Bristol that she ran into the storm.

“For us sailors, [Donna’s] accomplishment is beyond average comprehension,” says Neil VanGundy, 51, of Fort Dodge, Iowa. VanGundy befriended Lange after meeting her in January 2004 in the Virgin Islands; he manages her Web site. “There’s not too many of us that can truly imagine the fury of the seas. And you combine that with an old 28-foot sloop sailed single-handed by a woman who stands 5 feet, 2 inches — you got guts, strength, stamina and absolute determination beyond any of us.”

After the homecoming ceremony, Lange flew back to Bermuda and sailed Inspired Insanity to Rhode Island, symbolically completing her global journey. As of early June, she was living aboard at the Bristol town basin. Lange plans to harness her passion for the environment by committing much of her time to Oceans Watch, a recently formed organization to support the research and protection of the marine environment and provide humanitarian assistance to island communities (www.oceanswatch.org ).

“I’ve accomplished much of what I set out to do,” Lange says. “I’m back now, and I’ve reconnected with my friends, family and with my children. Now it’s time to care and to give back to the planet.”