UNHAPPY BOAT KIDS: The Books I Read & A Happy Family Holiday Mini-Cruise

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Jan. 11/2024:  Here’s one of the more interesting things that has happened to me since the publication of The Boy Who Fell to Shore, my biography of Thomas Tangvald, October before last. This past November a woman named Suzanne Heywood reached out to me, wanting to talk about children raised on cruising boats. She had just published a memoir, Wavewalker: A Memoir of Breaking Free, about her own decidedly negative experience growing up on a schooner named (you guessed it)… Wavewalker.

I was already aware of her book, having read an excerpt in The Guardian. On first learning of it, I immediately recalled, and regretted in part, something I had written in the last conclusory chapter of my own book, about how most kids growing up on cruising boats have positive experiences. The two exceptions I know of personally, so I wrote, were Thomas, who was literally born at sea and lived all his childhood afloat and was most likely badly traumatized by various tragedies he endured (I urge you to read the book for a lot more detail on that), and two brothers I did not name, who were raised on a boat together, one of whom was later convicted of rape and the other suspected of murder.

I questioned my summary conclusion a bit more after speaking with Suzanne. Since she published her book, billed as the “thrilling real-life adventure on the high seas for a girl who just craved normality and finally found her way back to it,” it seems dozens of other former boat kids have reached out to her, eager to share stories of their own miserable childhoods afloat. This led her to study the subject more generally, which is how she discovered The Boy Who Fell to Shore, which relates, she admitted, one of the darkest imaginable boat-kid stories.

Suzanne’s own story is certainly dark enough. She was 6-years-old when her father, Gordon Cook, conceived a dream to honor the 200th anniversary of the third and final voyage of the famous explorer Capt. James Cook (no relation) by recreating it on a boat of his own. The vessel he chose for this, a 70-foot plank-on-frame wooden schooner—narrow and quite tall, with a hard-chined slab-sided hull offering little form stability, complete with faux gun-ports, no less—reflected more a romantic delusion than any practical purpose.

Wavewalker and her Cook family crew—parents Gordon and Mary, with Suzanne and her younger brother Jon—prior to their departure from England in 1976

 

 

The route Gordon chose to follow around the world to the Pacific, through the Roaring Forties in the southern Indian Ocean, rather than via Panama and the much more benign “Coconut Milk Run,” was also mindlessly ambitious. Predictably enough, Wavewalker suffered a vicious knockdown when assaulted by a massive wave in the Southern Ocean. This saw part of her hull and deck ripped away and also left Suzanne grievously injured with a broken nose, a fractured skull, and a large blood-filled contusion on the side of her head. The family barely made it alive to the remote island of Île Amsterdam, where Suzanne suffered through seven painful anesthetic-free procedures to relieve the bleeding in her head.

Suzanne with her parents in Wavewalker’s galley

 

Not surprisingly, though she never states as much in her book, Suzanne was effectively traumatized by this experience and was haunted for years afterwards by nightmares and memories of what she simply terms “the Wave.” As she grew older, her life aboard Wavewalker eventually devolved into that of a galley slave, as her father took on paying crew, passengers really, to finance the family’s continuing life afloat long after the pretense of following Capt. Cook’s voyage was abandoned. Though Suzanne’s brother Jon eventually played a role in actively managing the boat, Suzanne was relegated mostly to preparing and serving food, assisting her mother, who openly despised and denigrated her. Determined to educate herself at any cost, picking up the homeschooling her mother had soon let lapse, she finally left the boat at age 16 to attend school in Britain.

Soon after I finished reading all of Suzanne’s book, inspired by my conversation with her, I launched myself into another memoir of a less than ideal childhood spent afloat. This was Martinique Stilwell’s Thinking Up a Hurricane, published in South Africa in 2012.

 

Martinique’s experience was in some respects similar to Suzanne’s, but with important differences. Like Gordon Cook, Martinique’s dad, Frank Stilwell, dragooned his family into pursuing his own personal dream of bluewater sailing. Though he had almost zero sailing experience (as opposed to Gordon, who at least had some experience before setting out), Frank did choose a more appropriate vessel, a rugged 48-foot steel ketch named Vingila. He also followed a much more appropriate route, a classic westabout Milk Run circumnavigation that began and ended eight years later in South Africa. Because of this, Martinique had a more typical experience and, for example, had recurring encounters with kids and families on other boats following the same route. Suzanne’s life aboard, by comparison, was much more isolated.

Vingila in the Panama Canal, a more family-friendly way to reach the Pacific Ocean

 

Both girls’ families sailed very much on a hand-to-mouth basis in sometimes straitened circumstances. Where Gordon Cook ended up taking paying guests to stay afloat, Frank Stilwell at times resorted to smuggling and his family’s diet was often quite limited. Frank was also a very angry man. While Suzanne had to navigate her mother’s mental cruelty, Martinique (and her twin brother Robert) were often physically beaten by their dad, wielding a dreaded switch known as “the Whistler.” And though Martinique never saw anything like the weather that left Suzanne so badly injured, she was often nervous about the weather (hence her book’s title) and in one instance was badly frightened when Vingila dragged anchor and was driven ashore in a blow in Tahiti. Her father forever after berated her cruelly, calling her “a bladdy rat,” for looking after her own safety and leaving the boat when it was aground.

Martinique gaffs a mahi aboard Vingila. The family often depended on catching fish for food and hung out the flesh to dry in “biltong” strips in order to preserve it

 

Martinique was also exposed to a lot of badly behaving adults. Her dad, ever focused on his ideal of personal freedom, usually insisted on sailing in the nude, and adults on other boats she knew were also often semi-naked. In one instance, she and her brother were left with other kids alone on a boat filled with nothing but foul pornography to entertain them while all relevant adults were partying aboard Vingila. In another perfectly bizarre situation, Martinique and her brother were loaned out for the night to a total stranger their mother met in a yacht club bar in Brazil. The stranger, obviously drunk, had insisted he needed playmates for his son. Ultimately, however, the two children were left alone for the night in a strange house in an unfurnished bedroom, where they were eaten alive by bugs.

And both Martinique and Suzanne, it seems, had hard-drinking parents to deal with. Ever anxious about her father’s insistence on taking chances with the weather, Martinique ended up drinking a good bit herself, sneaking doses of vodka from Vingila’s liquor locker on a regular basis.

Martinique (left) and her dad (right, wearing clothes for a change)

 

Ultimately, however, Suzanne and Martinique did escape back to more normal lives, earned professional degrees, and have had successful careers. Though Suzanne does not hesitate to describe herself as having been a very unhappy boat kid, Martinique is more ambivalent and clearly has some fond memories of her aquatic childhood. Interestingly, she points in her book to another cruising family as exemplars of dysfunction afloat.

This was the Swiss family Klaar—parents Ernest and Ilona and their three children, Hans, Inge, and Alex—who lived aboard a Chinese junk, Maria Jose, and intersected with the Stilwells in South African ports at both the beginning and end of their circumnavigation. Father Ernest, Martinique tells us, fed his family on nothing but beans and rice and insisted his children needed no schooling. Twice she relates how this negatively affected Hans, who couldn’t pursue his dream of becoming a marine biologist due to his lack of education.

“Instead of becoming a marine biologist,” she wrote sympathetically, “[Hans] would be relegated to a life of yacht deliveries, vanilla trading, orchid smuggling and intermittent stints working as a postman in his native Switzerland.”

As adults, all three Klaar children ended up on boats of their own. (The daughter Inge in fact purchased Vingila from Frank Stilwell.) But what Martinique fails to mention in her book is that Hans was eventually convicted of rape in South Africa. Alex, meanwhile, was arrested on suspicion of having murdered a man in Madagascar, a rival trader, who was found decapitated on his boat with his head in his lap. (Hans and Alex are, in fact, the two unnamed men I referenced in my own book.)

Martinique did mention all this in a newspaper article she wrote in January 2011, when Hans was finally extradited from New Zealand to South Africa to serve his prison sentence for rape. She noted also that she herself was sexually assaulted by Hans in the summer of 1985, after Vingila returned home to South Africa. Ironically, it was the publication of this article that led to her finding a publisher for her book.

Hans Klaar on a beach in Gambia, building himself a catamaran

 

Alex Klaar aboard his boat

 

Thinking about it now, I’m not that surprised that so many other unhappy boat kids have reached out to Suzanne since she published her book. I do like to believe, nevertheless, that most boat kids, as I said, have positive experiences, but really there’s no way of knowing what the happy/unhappy ratio is without conducting a full survey, which would be inherently difficult, if not impossible.

Suzanne’s complainants, she told me, are mostly female, which makes perfect sense. Both her brother and Martinique’s brother had more positive experiences while cruising than they did. (You can check out this Sailing Anarchy thread discussing the book Wavewalker, where both Suzanne and her brother put in brief contradictory appearances.) Though some women do embrace bluewater cruising wholeheartedly, it is the males, both fathers and sons, who usually enjoy it more. Females, all too frequently, come to it only reluctantly, at the behest of the men in their lives.

Ultimately, as Suzanne and I agreed during our conversation, it does come down to the parents. Suzanne’s mother and Martinique’s father, for example, would no doubt have also been poor parents in houses on shore. But a self-obsessed negligent parent on a boat wields much more power than one on land, and a child on a boat is much more isolated, with much less societal protection and few opportunities to forge outside relationships and safe places.

Both Suzanne and Martinique at least had some exposure to a “normal” existence on shore prior to sailing off with their families. This grounded them and was a point of reference, something they could aspire to return to. All of which in time, I would assume, helped them achieve an objective, more critical view of their parents. Thomas Tangvald presents a much more extreme case. Having been born and raised on a boat from the very beginning of his life, he for some time believed that most people lived on boats and that his life was perfectly normal. It was only after he was orphaned in a shipwreck at age 15 that he was fully immersed in our shore-side society. He never really succeeded in assimilating to it and was never able to form any sort of objective view of his very self-obsessed and negligent father.

Thomas as a toddler with his parents. His mother was murdered by boarding pirates in the Philippines not long after this photo was taken, the first in a series of tragedies that scarred his childhood

 

As it happened, I finished reading Martinique’s book while on a week-long post-Christmas cruise aboard Lunacy with my own family in Antigua. As a bluewater sailor, I must confess, a part of me can’t help admiring how men like Gordon Cook, Frank Stilwell, and Peter Tangvald so ruthlessly bent their family lives around their avocation at any cost. But personally I’ve never been able to muster the raw ego and selfishness required for this. A much larger part of me feels parenting is more important than sailing.

I did expose my kids to sailing at an early age (see daughters Una and Lucy doing their grumpy act in the photo up top), hoping it would capture them the way it captured me. But it very soon became clear they enjoyed living on a boat only in small doses and would never really enjoy any passage lasting longer than an hour or two. So I have bent my sailing career around my parenting career, rather than the other way around.

The infant Lucy on her first cruise aboard my old boat Sophie

 

And so it was during our week in Antigua. Though I initially harbored some hope that we might visit Barbuda, next island north, I soon realized I would be the only one aboard who’d actually enjoy the semi-rigorous six-hour sail reaching across a 20-knot tradewind to get there. So we stuck to Antigua, hopping from one harbor to the next, and everyone had an excellent time.

Lunacy (center) at anchor in English Harbour

 

One of our neighbors in the anchorage, a very well-maintained wooden schooner named Adventurer. I was very surprised when they sailed in and instead of dropping an anchor overboard had a crewmember jump overboard instead. He swam down with a line and tied off the boat to a giant antique anchor chain lying on the bottom. A very neat trick!

 

New Year’s Eve in Nelson’s Dockyard

 

The daughter formerly known as Lucy now goes by Jay and claims they is (are?) not female. Here they are (is?) trying to squeeze through an undersized deck hatch in Carlisle Bay

 

Jay (foreground) and Una (background) checking out Fort Berkeley at the entrance to English Harbour

 

Maybe I’m just a wimp. Or maybe I’m a good dad. Whatever. It is who I am, for better or worse.

As for all you other sailing parents out there: I absolutely do believe it is possible to take kids on an extended bluewater cruise in a positive and beneficial manner. The trick while doing so is to focus on the kids rather than yourself. I recommend taking a look at Voyaging With Kids, by Behan Gifford, Sara Down Johnson, and Michael Robertson, for some hot tips on how to pull that off.

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2 Responses
  1. Mark G

    Despite trying to have it both ways in your final paragraph, I think you’ve missed the boat on this one, Charles. Bad parents are bad parents whether on land or on boats. The kids you describe would have had traumatic childhoods if they were raised on land by these parents. They could have been in some cabin in the Alaskan back woods and been even more isolated.

    We took our kids for a one-year trip from Los Angeles to Annapolis at the ages of 10 and 12. (start early – teenagers are harder!). The chance for them to be immersed in different cultures, languages and simply to have the opportunity to be together as a family (a caring family) away from the rat race of over-crowded schedules and pressures of modern land life was invaluable. They both returned to school, no worse for wear, and got straight A’s. And we like to think that, 20 years hence, we are a closer as a family as a result of those experiences – even though they live many miles away now and are leading their own lives.

    Would you rather have your kid snorkeling on a reef in the afternoon after “boat school” or face down on TikTok? Sure, our kids still played video games, but they were out and about much more often than they would have been at home. And they participated in the voyage. Up in the middle of the night helping with radar repairs on our approach to Panama. Helping with provisioning and exchange-rate math the open air markets of Zihuantanejo. Learning to navigate and fish.

    Not everyone is suited to take this kind of adventure, and you definitely need to be realistic about your family’s strengths and weakness, but we’ve met many who were able to escape the rat race and travel with their kids, either by boat, RV or airplane. Yes, you will have good days and bad, just like land life. But in the main, we’ve never met anyone who regretted taking an extended leave to spend time with their families.

    1. Charles Doane

      Hi Mark: I do agree with you, and I think I wrote that–it comes down to the parents! On land or at sea. I’m so glad you and your family had a positive experience. Hats off to you! And I do believe that’s how it goes for most bluewater families. But we do need to be aware that there are also some dysfunctional families afloat.

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