Uli Thiel was ‘born into sailing.’ (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)

Uli Thiel was ‘born into sailing.’ (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)

Sailing different from ‘anything in this world’

Uli Thiel spent 25 years sailing around the globe

Thirty-two years after nearly being caught in the eye of a deadly cyclone, Uli Thiel can still remember every detail.

The Lac La Hache woman was among dozens of sailors and crew who participated in Australia’s deadly Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race in December 1998. Within two days of leaving sunny skies in Sydney, a severe low-pressure front hit the majority of the fleet as it sailed down the New South Wales coast towards the Bass Strait.

Five yachts sank, six sailors died and 55 boats capsized after their crafts were pummelled by winds of up 70 knots and waves as big as 20 metres.

Helicopters were everywhere, rescuing those in capsized boats. Thiel and her six-member crew were stranded off the coast after “we fell out of a 10-metre wave and hit the bottom of that wave and broke the hull on the keel,” she said.

“That was my worst experience about sailing but we made it,” said Thiel, 66, who had been hired by the owner of the ship because he needed someone with navigation and radio licenses. “I had a broken shoulder on board. A girl was puking for 15 hours and I had a guy who was laying in his bed saying ‘we are dying now anyways I’m not doing anything more.’”

The crew had to bail for 15 hours until help came. They couldn’t fix the keel because the water tank was on top of it.

For 15 hours, Thiel steered the boat, with three lines hooked on the cockpit and the wheel. At one point they lost the boat’s owner who went overboard but he was buckled in and came back on the next wave – minus his rubber boots.

Although an experienced sailor trained in navigating by the stars, Thiel had no idea where they were. All she knew was that she had to stay out of the eye of the storm, which was racing at about 200 km around them.

“In that 15 hours, I was once in the eye of that cyclone,” she said. “It was very interesting. It’s very quiet in there, there’s nothing going on, nothing. You’re just on that edge. When you’re on that round edge of the hurricane, don’t go in there because then you’re gone with that twister of water. That’s why a lot of people don’t make it. I always stayed on the outer side of there.”

Thiel said she “prayed a lot” while the crew was “very scared and were thinking we were dying.” Thankfully, her SOS was heard by the captain of a fishing vessel who had just returned to Eden, a tiny port north from Melbourne. He immediately turned around to get them. By the time she reached land, her body was black and blue.

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“I didn’t know where I was during that storm. The rescue team told us we were 40 miles off the coast, which is a lot,” Thiel said. “You should always have land but we had to go with the flow because I had water in the boat.”

The race was one of the toughest experiences for the German-born Thiel, who likes to say she was “born into” sailing. By the time she was two months old, she was sailing with her father on the Baltic Sea.

As a youngster, she and her brothers built their dinghy and would sail it in their backyard swimming pool. At eight years old, instead of going home from boarding school on weekends, Thiel would spend the time sailing on the North Sea. “To me, that was more important than going home.”

Over the years, she learned how to read the waves, the wind, and even the stars to navigate her journeys, which took her around the world. Her ex-husband was the captain while she was the first mate, skipper and chef on both their own ships and megayachts that they worked on for over 25 years. The walls in her Lac La Hache trailer are covered in photos of the various ships.

Thiel – a trained social worker – would combine her work with pleasure, taking youth from a Munich drug addiction clinic on their travels. The youth would work on the ships, helping them not only to beat their addictions but often find new careers as deckhands or stewardesses after their stints were up. The couple also taught sailing lessons.

“My husband and I donated a lot to it and we saw that these kids needed help,” she said. “To me it was my job and I loved to train them on the boats. And they can’t swim home. If they wanted to leave the boat, I told them ‘jump overboard and swim home’ and they said ‘no I can’t do that.’”

During a trip to Alaska, Thiel and her husband discovered Vancouver and started making plans to emigrate, which happened in 1986. They became partners in the Chilco Lodge, but moved to town when their house exploded from a gas leak. When they divorced nine years later, Thiel moved to the 108 Mile Ranch, where she ran a safe house for women for four years.

Although she doesn’t have a boat anymore, Thiel said she would jump at the opportunity to sail again. Although it’s hard work – sailors work 24 hours and have to know everything from greasing pistons to understanding radar – sailing provides people with a broad outlook on life.

“It’s a totally different lifestyle, you can’t compare that with anything in this world. You’re out in the elements, you’re out in nature,” she said, adding she and the crews would try and work in banana, coffee or cocoa plantations, while she also asked chefs in various countries to teach her how to make their cuisine.

“Sometimes I was upside down in the engine room and fixing something because there wasn’t anyone else. It’s a very fulfilled life.”


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Uli Thiel was ‘born into sailing.’ (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)

Uli Thiel was ‘born into sailing.’ (Kelly Sinoski photo - 100 Mile Free Press)