Much of my writing is influenced by the sea. Lighthouses turn up regularly in my short stores (such as When Death Came To Flannan Isle and The Lighthouse At The End Of The Road) while sailing and life on the ocean waves are very much at the heart of both my debut novel (For Those In Peril On The Sea) and the sequel which I’m currently working (or at least that I should be working on but at the moment I keep getting distracted by other things – such as writing this blog and indeed the Maths With Zombies one I’ve just started). Here, I’d like to give you some idea of why the sea and sailing are so important to me, and it goes deeper than the simple fact that I’m a marine biologist.
Sailing is something I loved from the moment I first did it. Not sailing on a dingy but proper ‘big boat’ sailing. My first time was on a 72 foot ketch called Taikoo owned and run by the Ocean Youth Club (or Ocean Youth Trust as it’s now known), a charity which aims to introduce sailing to young people. I’d grown up pottering around on the ocean’s edge but at 16 it was the first time I’d taken to the sea on something other than on a ferry, which hardly counts. Soon I found myself in thirty foot seas at the heart of a near-hurricane force storm. It was hard, physical work and pretty much everyone was sea-sick to a greater or lesser extent as we cowered in the cockpit, clipped onto the safety lines and clinging to each other to stop ourselves being thrown all over the place. At one point we ended up almost ship-wrecked when the engine gave out at a critical moment. Through all of this I discovered something: I loved every bit of it.
The only trouble with falling in love with sailing was that it wasn’t something I really had many opportunities to do. This meant it was a while before I got to do it again. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I went to do an internship in Newfoundland and within hours of stepping off the plane in St. John’s, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, on a yacht bound for Labrador in search of humpback whales. I spent a month dodging icebergs, fighting storms, photographing whales and drinking moonshine offered to us by the locals (after all it would have been rude to refuse their hospitality!). I also learned a huge amount about life at sea from the Captain, an ex-Maine fisherman turned professional yacht skipper (I’ll confess here that there’s more than a little of him in the character Bill in my book For Those In Peril On The Sea).
My next sailing experience was around Scotland on a beautiful gaff-rigged ketch, again looking for whales and dolphins (it was all part of my training as a marine biologist). I sailed on her a couple of times, enjoying the amazing scenery and the changeable weather. That was how I ended up visiting the remote and beguiling island of Mingulay. It’s now uninhabited and is somewhere you can only get to with your own boat but with it’s white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’m going to be drawing on these memories a lot as I continue my work on the sequel to For Those In Peril On The Sea as it’s set amongst the islands of western Scotland.
From there I moved onto the Bahamas. I didn’t get to do a huge amount of sailing there, but I spent a lot of time on the water and got to know almost every inch of the beaches, bays and islands around the Sea of Abaco. Again, I was there because of work yet I also had plenty of free time to just head off and explore. It was there that I bought the first and only sailboat I’ve ever owned, an old North Star 1500 called Gone-with-the-Wind. I loved that boat more than almost anything else in the world and spent ages doing her up (she wasn’t in good shape after she’d got damaged in Hurricane Floyd). She also holds a special place in my heart because it was while I was living on her that I met Sarah, the love of my life. I sold her a few years later, the boat that is not Sarah, and it broke my heart but that was how I learned that owning your own yacht can be an extremely expensive business!
Since then while I’ve spent time more time at sea, it’s been on motorboats and ships rather than sailboats and I have to say I miss it. I long to get back to it, to feel the deck heeling under me again as the sheets strain and the sails fill. I think this was one of the reasons I enjoyed writing For Those In Peril On The Sea so much. It gave me the chance to re-live my memories of times I’d spent under sail and places I’ve visited. While the infected aren’t real and nor are any of the characters, much of the sailing and all of the places are based on my own experiences. The same is true for the sequel I’m currently working on, although it’s focussed closer to home than the Bahamas, it will again be fun to revisit the memories of my younger days.
As I have grown older, my career has taken me away from the sea and more behind a computer (both in terms of my academic life and my more recent ventures into writing fiction – well rather the sharing my fiction with the rest of the world). I will, however, take to the water under sail again, of that I’m certain. It’s simply a matter of time and circumstance and, if I’m ever to own my own boat again, a not insubstantial lottery win! Until then, I’ll have to just settle for writing, whenever I can, about life on the ocean waves.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.