Research and inspiration behind the book
Draca, the novel, is now sailing towards its pre-orders target with publisher Unbound. The eponymous Draca is a classic sailing boat, central to the plot. Those who know me well have asked how a landlubber like me could write the maritime passages. After all, ten years ago the only thing I could remember about sailing was a bushy-bearded instructor bellowing at me. I think he was saying “when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”
Confession time. In a previous post I described how the idea for the book was born, anchored in a natural harbour on England’s South coast. The next time I sailed, with the same friend, the concepts for the book had formed to the point where we’d divert our course, on entering a harbour, to take a closer look at any classic sailing boats nearby. Old boats seem to have more personality, and I needed to find a type that was probably pre-war, and of a size that could just about be sailed single-handed if the skipper was fit and knew his stuff. Yet it was online research led me to Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters, the model for Draca.
Pilot Cutters – hard working, classic sailing boats
Pilot cutters were built to wait for ships to arrive off a port; pilots earned good money guiding vessels into harbour. With the pilot there’d be a mate, a seaman, and perhaps a boy. Cutters were robust enough to wait offshore in all weathers, perhaps for weeks. They had neither the belly of a fisherman nor the sleek lines of a racing yacht, but they needed speed. The first cutter to hail and offer their services would get the job. The cutter would follow the ship into harbour, recover their pilot, and go back to sea until the next ship. Sailing cutters fell out of use after telegraphy meant a ship could signal ahead. By then a steam powered launch could rendezvous faster, and against the wind.
A Yachtsman’s Log
Then I discovered ‘A Yachtsman’s Log’, written by Frank Carr for a readership with salt water in their veins. It’s a fascinating insight into sailing his cutter, the Cariad, in a technologically simpler time. No radar, no echo sounders, not even simple mechanical tools like winches to hoist sails. It was a time when fog at sea meant true blindness, navigating by dead reckoning among the tides and rocks, with the unseen bells of buoys to guide you if you were lucky. There are passages that are quaint by today’s standards; picture four men, after a sailing trip, taking the cutter’s dinghy up the Thames to work in the City, all shielding their starched collars from the wilting spray with their bowler hats.
But one of those men also wrote about life-threatening crises at sea with self-deprecating charm. Frank Carr was very much a certain type of Englishman from that age of sea power and Empire.
So if anyone questions how a pilot cutter handles in a storm, I have it, chapter and verse. And if anyone says it’s impossible for a boat to even survive a particular situation, then I beg to differ. A plucky chap called Frank Carr left me his log. And he’s certainly not one to boast.
Links and further reading
A Yachtsman’s Log by Frank G G Carr was published by Lovat Dickins and Thompson in 1935. You can see his boat the Cariad, now restored, at http://www.cariad.org
Draca is a novel about a war-damaged Royal Marine who rebuilds his life by restoring an old sailing boat. For a synopsis, click here and for an extract, click here . It will be published by Unbound when the level of pre-orders passes their threshold. We’re already over 70% there. After publication, half the royalties will go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress.
Please support Draca here. Pre-orders are £10 for an ebook and from £15 for a paperback, and all supporters’ names appear in every edition.
Thank you. You’ll be helping me to help those whose wounds are more than physical.
Like all writers, I’m often asked where I find the ideas for my books.
“Sainsbury’s,” I usually reply.
Others have a less flippant answer. I once heard an author quote Michelangelo; ‘I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free’. I snorted at his pretension, even though I had a sneaking admiration for anyone who can claim to see the finished work at the outset. I’d love to have an Epiphany where a complete novel bursts into my head. My stories have small beginnings. I pick at one idea, and in time may encounter another that multiplies the first; a kind of writerly serendipity. Sometimes I can’t even remember the sequence.
The birth of a book
But, unusually, I can remember the exact moment when Draca was born. A friend had asked me to crew for him in his sailing boat, and one evening we’d anchored in one of the great natural harbours that open into the English Channel.
It was a wild, ethereal place, filled with the sunset screaming of gulls, and we sat in his cockpit, sipping whisky and telling stories with the comfortable ease of long friendship. The only sign of life was the squat tower of a Saxon church, far away over the water. Around us the long summer evening faded from pink to peach to grey, and the ebbing tide exposed the bones of dead ships, poking through the mud. It was a twilight so atmospheric that it had to become the setting for a story, and the story would have to feature boats and people who lived at the sea’s edge.
A boat as a character?
I’ve learned that boats have characters. That may sound fanciful, but several more experienced sailors have told me that at first, a boat simply has characteristics, such as her best points of sailing, or the way she lifts and slews to a wave. In time, this basic understanding grows until you recognise her moods; the boat becomes a friend who talks to you, and her language is the feel of the tiller in your hand and the singing of the wind through her rigging. When the ship is sailing well, she feels happy, and when she’s shoulder-charging the waves into a storm, she can be belligerent. Treat her badly, and she can be as angry as a wronged lover. I sense that the older the boat, the more her idiosyncrasies, so why not have a boat as a character?
2 x 2 = 5. Multiplied ideas acquire a momentum. The next time we anchored, in an equally desolate place, I stared at the ribs of another rotted ship and wondered what human stories they could tell; heroism at Dunkirk or the Normandy beaches? Exotic trading voyages in the days of Empire? Those bones might lay on other bones, in ever deeper layers of history, back to a time even before that Saxon church was built. After all, Vikings raided this coast in the 9th Century, exploiting their sea power in their war against Alfred.
All those ‘what if’s’…
That took me off at a tangent. So much of plotting a novel is asking endless ‘what if’ questions. What if an artefact exposed by the mud could be evil? An object that has been central to atrocity, perhaps? People are rarely wholly good or wholly bad; most heroes are flawed, many villains have some redeeming aspect. Humanity implies imperfection. But an object? Europe’s equivalent of a blood-soaked Aztec god? I began to see my angel in the marble.
Except that it was a gargoyle. Or a dragon. Very ugly. With a story to tell.
Read the full story
Draca will be published by Unbound when their threshold of pre-orders has been reached. Today we’re at 65% and rising.
Half the royalties go to the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress. Click here for a synopsis and here for an extract. For the full story, you can order your copy at https://unbound.com/books/draca/
My E-book of short stories has now been published by Solaris, and is available for free download in both Kindle (.mobi) and iBook (.epub) formats.
MUSE: A powerful, emotionally charged story where old lady teaches a young pianist the true, evocative power of music. Winner of the ‘Get Writing’ Prize 2011.
THE OTHER WOMAN: In this light-hearted and amusing tale, a sailor becomes obsessed with restoring a vintage sailboat, which seems to have a character and a mind of its own.
SHORT BURSTS: The poignant story of an elderly veteran confronting his demons in an old people’s home.
Click the links to download. Enjoy!
I fear I’ve tested an old and good friendship.
It began when a friend I’ve known since university days asked me to crew for him when he sailed his yacht from Portsmouth to La Rochelle. But, I pointed out, I haven’t sailed since I was an eighteen-year-old Royal Naval cadet, and that was so long ago that Chief Petty Officers wore bushy beards and had fond memories of battleships and the rum ration. About the only advice I could still remember was when one such grizzled character said “always remember, lad, when you see the seagulls walking, it’s time to go about.”
No problem, said my chum, you’ll soon pick it up again. So at first light one morning, which at this time of the year is so early that even the seagulls asked us to keep the noise down, we left the Needles rocks astern and slipped down the English Channel, with the hilltops of Wight shrouded in cloud behind us.
No problem, I agreed, when Alderney lay abeam after just 11 hours of good sailing, and we decided to push on to Guernsey. With hindsight, we’d have been better off in Alderney, because even the best and most experienced sailors (and my host has spent half his life at sea) suffer the occasional ‘unforecast blow’.
“I think we’ll take in a reef,” he said as the boat put her shoulder down and charged the waves like a rugby player trying to break through the opposing pack. We were in, he explained, the Alderney Race. This, I gather, has nothing to do with an amiable local sporting competition, but is a body of water that surges North at anything up to six knots (seven mph to we landlubbers), then turns around and charges back South again at a similar speed. The trick is to make the flow work for you, and at all costs avoid battling ‘wind over tide’, when the sea conditions can become seriously nasty.
“Perhaps another reef.” A wind speed indicator made a brief appearance and registered thirty knots. Force six, gusting seven, which seems to inspire respect among yachties, especially when it hits you across the tide in the Alderney Race. Waves came at us straight out of a Japanese woodcut; big, growly bastards with their tops tumbling white above the boat’s cockpit. In the canyons of water between them, the boat would come more upright, sheltered from the wind, until they lifted us to their summits and slid beneath us, angry, all piss and vinegar. And on these summits the wind would hit us full on, blowing the boat on its side so that we stood on the edges of the cockpit benches with the deck at our backs. Division of labour was required. My friend handled the complicated stuff like navigating and working the sails. My job was simply to steer to a given course.
I was not a great success. “Steer for Herm,” he said, pointing at a low smudge of darker grey in the driving rain, marginally more solid than the cloud. “We’ll shelter in its lee.”
At which point we dropped into a trough between the waves that would have swallowed a London bus, soared up the valley wall, and were hit by another wave. It’s not the big bastards that irritate me, it’s the sneaky ones that jump up at the last minute to slap the side of the hull and send water spraying into your face. We dropped into the trough, spitting sea,all points of reference gone. At the top of the next wave, sure enough, there was the charcoal smudge of land, and I aimed at it.
“That’s Sark, not Herm!” My friend called in exasperation as he emerged from the chart table a few minutes later. A lesser man would have added ‘you idiot’. He didn’t. I did. “Can’t you feel the wind on your cheek?”
Wind on my cheek? Yes, I could feel the wind on my cheek. I gather it’s an aid to navigation. I could also feel more rain on my face than would be delivered by the average power shower, and I had half the English Channel inside my foul weather gear. But hey, ho! We altered course for Herm.
I can’t believe I did it again. But as we emerged from a trough, only one island was visible in the murk, and I steered for it. Alas, it was Sark again, not Herm. Long, uncomfortable tacks crawling our way sideways into the wind were wasted in a dash for the wrong rock. Unbelievably, he didn’t shout. He didn’t even reprimand. He just stared at Herm with water running down his face, and probably did a very slow count to ten.
His trial was not yet over. If you sail West at 5 knots, and there is a current to the North of 5 knots, your course over the ground will be North West. You can sail towards safety and go straight over rocks. By the time we were approaching our anchorage in the lee of Herm, both my glasses and the tiny ‘Course over Ground’ indicator were crusted with salt, and running with water. Clear instructions like “come to starboard to a course of 280” were wasted on a trainee helmsman who was effectively blind. Anchoring did not go well, even after we resorted to landlubber-friendly instructions such as “aim for the pair of rocks that look like a dog’s b****ks.”
Still, amazingly, there was no shouting. Just a sense of relief that was almost palpable when we were finally secure, although the mood in the cabin was initially subdued. Then a bottle of Scotland’s finest appeared, and we retold each other our own story. With the second glass, and the second retelling, the laughter began; great belly laughs as whisky and long friendship turned potential disaster into real humour.
I sense that the story of the man who couldn’t tell Herm from Sark will enliven his dinner table for years.