The anchor offered little resistance that night as I gathered in the line and hoisted it topside. Around us there was a hush found only at a sleepy anchorage after midnight. My husband had already snapped on the running lights, turned the ignition key and started the ship's two-cylinder Volvo engine long before the last ring of chain rattled into the anchor well. We were off at 2 a.m., and all was in order aboard ship.
We departed West Palm Beach alert and eager to cross the Gulf Stream to West End, Grand Bahama Island. At 1800 rpm, the diesel engine handily powered our 32-foot Pearson sailboat, Fiddler's Green, east on a heading of 125 degrees, away from the protected shores of the United States and from the comforting lights that shown brightly off the ship's stern. We anticipated the 2.5-knot Gulf Stream and had plotted our course to correct the powerful northerly drift.
Beneath a velvet sky dotted with stars, the yellow glow from the condo lights of West Palm Beach softened until it simply disappeared.
The seas were calm, 2 to 3 feet, and we felt only apparent wind. In spite of the warm night air, I remember hugging myself and shivering; but only once.
We were a two-person crew and agreed that I would stand the first watch. Because I am a night person, it seemed the logical choice. There were rules, of course. Neither were permitted to leave the cockpit while the other slumbered below, oblivious to what mischief might occur topside.
My husband was asleep, or should have been, an hour later when I spotted the first lights from another vessel. I remembered that if the ship appears to get closer but doesn't change bearing, one is on a collision course. It was difficult to hold on to the logic, but I did, and the rule prevailed. I steered aft of the vessel to make sure the boat in the distance would pass ahead of me. I watched and blinked until the ship's lights were too dim to see.
In the gray dawn, before the sun's colors tinted the horizon, the skipper awakened and prepared a pot of cowboy coffee, that is, a double handful of grounds dumped directly into the pot of hard boiling water with no filter. I gladly accepted a cup. My eyes were dry and the alertness required while standing watch had made me weary.
Thirteen hours later, West End loomed well off the starboard bow. We saw the radio and water towers and the distinctive, shimmering Bahaman Bank. We had wanted to arrive while the sun was high overhead for best visibility. We didn't have a Loran or GPS that first trip, but navigated using dead reckoning and a small radio direction finder. Our knotmeter hadn't lied. I had my doubts about the depth finder, though, until the skipper told me that it was only supposed to register to 199 feet.
After raising our yellow quarantine flag, we made our way behind the breakwater and through the narrow channel of the Jack Tar Marina, where we were instructed by radio to tie up at a vacant slip. We had arrived, safely, as planned, and were ready to explore amazing new places. Cays such as Great Sale, Allan's Pensacola, Double Breasted, Moraine, Manjack and Man-O-War beckoned.
The trip to West Palm Beach had been long and tedious; the springtime weather fickle and unpredictable. Our journey had taken us from Pensacola, Florida, to Carrabelle, Florida, where we headed across the Gulf of Mexico, 150 nautical miles to Clearwater. From there, it was Clearwater to Longboat Key to Boca Grand Pass to Cabbage Key. We continued to LaBelle on the Caloosahatchee River, the beginning of the Okeechobee Waterway, and headed east through a series of locks. From Stuart, we made our way to our crossing site, West Palm Beach.
What brought us to the Bahamas from the Florida Panhandle? My husband and I made this voyage for one main purpose, to heal him after captivity in Vietnam. I had no idea that the trip would change my life, as well.
I was introduced to sailing in 1980 by my husband, Commander Allen Stafford, who was a Navy A-4 pilot during the Vietnam war. His jet was shot down in 1967, slammed by a heatseeking missile that struck his plane amidships, just behind the cockpit. The explosion triggered automatic ejection, dislodged him from his seat, and caused his parachute to open. He fell into a chicken coup and the waiting arms of the North Vietnamese. He remained an unwilling guest at the Hanoi Hilton for the next six years.
Upon his release from prison, he had to rebuild the man who once was a cocky, skilled and determined fighter pilot into someone who could simply cope with the stresses of civilian life. What did we do to hasten his recovery? What else? We went voyaging. Although Al came to heal, I had no idea that this new world, this cruising life, would awaken the writer in me.
Time To Be Creative
A boat, water, fresh air and solitude are perfect ingredients for writing. Away from phones, pagers, radios (except VHF, of course), television and the distractions of our day-to-day lives, a calm settles upon us, our senses awaken and we begin to observe the world around us.
Cruising also presents something else we crave-delicious time. On land, there never seems to be enough minutes, let alone days, weeks or months to write a novel or article. On a boat, one is free to think and imagine. Imagination has time to develop into a story or article. One has time to turn a plot or idea inside the head, try it out, envision something else, or run with it.
Al and I preferred solitude and uninhabited cays. In 1986, on that first voyage of seven such trips to the Abacos and the Berry Islands, the cruise ships and influx of tourists had not yet changed the Bahamas. Secluded anchorages and unblemished beaches were plentiful. I never felt more alive, in touch, or in tune with my mate or the universe. I was never afraid, but I was aware at times of our isolation and vulnerability. Recognition of this new situation gave rise to these questions: What would a man like my husband do if he were suddenly thrust into another life-and-death situation? Could he deal with it, and if so, at what personal price? And what about someone like me, a capable but sheltered woman? How would she respond to death and violence, to the loss of the one person in the world who mattered?
These tantalizing questions were the beginning of my nautical thriller, A DeadlyExchange. I began with this premise: The lead character is middle-aged, tired, a reluctant hero. His wife Alex, is 35, naÃ¯ve, an unlikely heroine. They aren't looking for trouble, but then again, they don't have to. They're carrying it with them aboard a newly acquired yacht.
From this initial idea a story took shape and unfolded. The characters responded to the action and often surprised me by what they said and did.
Experiences Inspire A Thriller
Whether cruising or at anchor, each day presented new images, events, faces and scenery to draw upon. Marsh Harbor introduced me to Wally's, which I dubbed Willie's in my novel.
From A Deadly Exchange, Chapter Three:
"At Willie's it was always entertaining for the locals to watch the tourists and try to identify who was who. The serious boaters were easy to recognize with their sturdy brown bodies, Land's End shorts and scuffed Sperry Topsider deck shoes. They loved to talk, mostly about the weather, anchors and where they could wash a load of clothes. The hotel people, usually on vacation for a week or two, were always a lively bunch preoccupied with food, drink and finding their next bed partner. They were the first ones to belly up to the bar and order doubles. Boat talk in general bored them, and they didn't mingle well with serious sailors until they had finished their second drinks and had started on their third. Their pink bodies were usually clad in Neiman Marcus outfits, and more often than not, they wore new deck shoes from L.L.Bean."
In A Deadly Exchange, Marsh Harbor became Mission Harbor. Green Turtle, White Sound, I renamed New Union Settlement, Charter Cay Powell Cay, once a favored and pristine island, became Pine Cay. Whale Cay Passage is mentioned as White Cay Passage. Much of the story's action takes place at Big Carters Cay, which I called Robert's Cay. These all are places we visited or saw enabling me to describe them completely and accurately in my novel.
Big Carters Cay lies 35 miles north of Marsh Harbor and has a defunct, military tracking station. Two kind and lonely souls who "stood by" at the complex invited us for a tour and a drink the first day we latched on to one of the available mooring lines. We gladly accepted their offer.
This chance meeting with these entertaining fellows gave rise to two charming characters and some horrifying scenes in the novel. The action, dialogue and descriptions of that first meeting are presented there with no embellishment. The murder and mayhem which occurs later were added by the author.
>From A Deadly Exchange, Chapter 28:
"The lights went out. The compound, ablaze like Dodger Stadium only moments before, was now an ominous black void. Matt crouched and listened. The radios were off. He heard the surf thundering on the shore; his body felt hot and cold in rapid succession. He stood still, paralyzed in the corridor, debating whether he should flee or continue down the dark hall before him."
Early drafts of the book were written aboard Fiddler's Green while under way and at anchor. I used a pen and legal pads, lots of them, to jot down ideas and descriptions.
Making It Real
Although I write novels, it is important to me as an author to include as much fact with my fiction as possible. By exploring the Bahamas aboard Fiddler's Green, I was introduced to bone fishing, unusual anchoring conditions, reef snorkeling, sea life, island flora and fauna, and island recipes. At Big Carters and Grand Cays, I observed living conditions that I never imagined existed so close to the United States in modern times. I was able to incorporate what I saw into the story, giving the plot more credibility. I wanted the reader to believe that Matt and Alex's nightmare could be his own.
From A Deadly Exchange, Chapter 19:
"Then she heard it. The sound was muffled, but she heard something over the wind and waves. Footsteps. Topside. The fiberglass cabin creaked with each footfall. She cringed and held onto the gun butt with both hands. She thought she heard a voice carried on the wind. It sounded almost like a sigh. Her teeth began to chatter. Holding the gun rigidly in front of her, she stared into the darkness." Three months later, at our journey's end, I had completed the first draft of the novel and reached some measure of peace and contentment. Aboard ship, I had learned that to describe a person, place or thing, one has to view the world more intently. This new awareness accompanied me when I moved from the boat to the dock.
Our voyaging aboard Fiddler's Green changed me profoundly. Before I became a writer, I thought that I could not be a salesperson under any circumstances; and yet, my belief in A Deadly Exchange transformed me into a walking, talking advertisement for the book. Usually private and prone to solitude, I learned that marketing one's work requires assertiveness, ingenuity and an unwavering belief in one's self. New writers rarely have the financial backing of a major publishing house and have to use their own wits and resources to tell the world that their book exists.
What would I do differently? I would have started writing sooner. But that being said, I'm glad I completed my first novel in my middle years. That way, I have a few decades ahead to improve.
Fortunately for me, my husband is a dramatic figure, and it wasn't a stretch to make him the lead character in a novel. For most writers, though, having a ready-made cast of characters known personally to them is the exception rather than the rule. I learned that although your surroundings may be unremarkable and people in your life may be lacking in distinction, it simply doesn't matter. All the romance, suspense, excitement and wonder required to create complex characters and unique situations exists inside your head. Whether lounging on the dock or taking your turn at the helm, your writer's mind is never tied or anchored while cruising.
If you are lucky enough to enjoy the cruising life for one day, one week or one month, remember that what seems ordinary to you is quite extraordinary to someone who lives in Iowa or Kansas or Broken Rabbit Ear, Wyoming. Your nautical world of wind, water, sea birds, marine life, sudden storms, adventures and the pulse of the engine are things they dream about. Mariners and landlubbers met along the way make magnificent characters. Seemingly banal events can be embellished and made larger-than-life. That first-hand acquaintance with all you experience and describe will be evident in your work.
There are numerous ways to publish these days. With new technology, voices that might not otherwise be heard are finding their way to the world.
The Internet enables one to be in touch with publishers, agents, media and even fans. It also abounds with more information about writing than one can possibly read and absorb in a lifetime. Online publishers and virtual warehouses are redefining publishing in the 21st century.
My second novel, also a thriller, titled Death Divided by Two, is completed and awaits yet another edit. My hope is that A Deadly Exchange has established me as a credible writer, and a good agent and a solid publishing house will see promise in DD2. Readers and reviewers have said A Deadly Exchange begs to be made into a movie. Screenplay Writing 101 may be in my future.
Let It Out
If you want to be an author, begin today, not tomorrow or next week. Writer's write. They don't talk about writing. All of your life experiences come into play when pen meets paper. No one has seen the world exactly as you have. Your unique vision will be manifest in all you compose. If your imagination is in a box, it is because you put it there. Let it out.
Writing involves risk and requires an enormous amount of time. Create first. Edit later. To borrow a phrase, consider writing a journey rather than a destination. If you arrive at the station, celebrate.
As a newly published writer, my greatest reward has come from readers who are captured by my tale about an ordinary American couple cruising aboard their own boat. For an author, there is no higher compliment than finding that the make-believe world you created quickens the heart, stirs the soul and electrifies the reader.
Lately, Al and I roam the docks and enjoy discussing the characteristics and possibilities of boats we see. After decades of sailing, we have developed a deep admiration for powerboats. Our conclusions: Without depending on the wind, one can certainly move from Point A to Point B faster, easier and more efficiently in a powerboat. Sailing can be physically rigorous and sometimes quite dangerous. The creature comforts most of us crave are often lacking in sailboats under 35 feet because there isn't enough space or power for generators, refrigerators, heaters and air conditioners. For us, it is not if, but when, we buy our first motorboat.
Who knows if I would have become a writer had I not experienced a part of the world from the deck of Fiddler's Green. How the words physically found their way to the page isn't important. Writing requires heightened awareness, openness, commitment, curiosity and passion. I possessed these characteristics while on land, but often they were muted and lacking intensity.
The rhythm and wonder of cruising sharpened my senses, opened my mind and stirred my soul. My writing career began, one might say, when I cast off those dock lines and set my imagination free.
Sheryl and her husband, Al, have since purchased a new boat for their cruising adventures, named Restless.