Susan Oleksiw is an author, photographer, and publisher. Here she writes about her story “Variable Winds,” AHMM‘s October cover story. She also writes about sailing in Come About for Murder: A Mellingham Mystery (2016). Her most recent book is When Krishna Calls: An Anita Ray Mystery (Five Star/Gale, Cengage, 2016).
I’m used to strangers asking me where I get my ideas, and most of the time I have no clue where they come from. But not so for “Variable Winds,” in the October issue of AHMM.
A few years ago I came across a book about the Vendee Globe. Since I live on the ocean and grew up sailing with my family, I was curious about an event I’d never heard of. I had full sympathy for the person who came up with the title, Godforsaken Sea, and looked forward to an exciting read. Derek Lundy, the author, recreates the passage of the boats in the Vendee Globe, 1996-97, an international endurance sailing race.
I learned to sail in a Penguin, a class of boat less used in teaching kids today than the Turnabout, a more stable boat for learning to maneuver on the water. I found them both dangerously prone to threatening to keel over, but perhaps that was more my skill as a skipper than a design flaw. I met the original designer of the Turnabout, Mr. Turner, when he owned a summer resort hotel in our area, and he was determined to improve on everything that floated. I went on to sail in other small boats, and then mostly as crew in the family 210, a twenty-nine-foot boat meant mostly for racing. This class has also fallen out of favor on the East Coast, but I have fond memories of sailing along and seeing a whale surface to starboard or dropping anchor in a cove to enjoy a swim or eat lunch. But I also remember a tug pulling a garbage scow that seemed to think we were merely a bit of flotsam to be run over. I remember the challenges of sailing before instant weather reports, but all my experiences paled in comparison to those faced by the skippers in the Vendee Globe.
In this race, sailors set out from northwest France, sail to the South Atlantic Ocean, and circle the Antarctic in single-person sailboats. Yes, they are sailing solo. Sixteen vessels set out in the given year (not all returned), to sail through the worst oceans and weather on the planet. They are tracked, thanks to modern technology, but are truly on their own. The stories of seamanship and survival and personal courage are more than stunning; they are jaw-droppingly unbelievable at times.
As I read I recalled, now with some embarrassment, the times we went sailing and were caught in squalls and prayed lightning didn’t find us, got separated from other boats on a daylong sail, watched a wind burst tear a sail or split a mast. My moments of fleeting terror were less than nothing compared to the stories in Lindy’s book. But as I finished his tale I could see a young woman, an accomplished and confident sailor, setting out for a day on the water, only to discover two sorts of danger, one that nature throws at us, and another that comes from the treachery of human beings. Everything that happens to the Lady Mistral in my story happened to us in our 210, but, thankfully, not all at once.