Writing the story after all these years

Isn’t my memory a little hazy?

Nicholas Grainger reflects on the process of writing the story, The Voyage of The Aegre.

After 50 years, the Aegre voyage isn’t something I think about very much. But the memory is always there, and many small things can jog it to the forefront. Such as being out on the water at dusk and seeing car headlights threading their way along a coast road, or going outside on a clear black night and unconsciously looking up at the sky for Sirius, my old friend. The Aegre voyage was such an intense experience, it’s as if seared into my brain.

Sirius Declination 17 South

Planning and setting out on the voyage, it was not the intention of Julie and I to seek fame. We had no grand plan. We sought no publicity or sponsorship. This was no gimmick voyage. It was just a sailing adventure. Could we sail the Atlantic in our own boat? Unsupported in today’s terms, but of course in 1973 the concept of a supported voyage, ie with email and supporters just over the horizon, was unheard of. We wanted to be free, to come and go as we liked, ruled only by the weather and tide. It sounds naive today, but we were in just our early twenties and it was, after all, the early 1970s. Despite our efforts to just slip away out and off, the local newspaper did get wind of our plans and a few stories started to appear. Suddenly it was all public and we were expected to leave to a schedule.

Newspaper story July 1973
The Press Journal July 1973

When I finally decided to write the story, I first spent about a year gathering all the surviving materials together, filing, indexing and reading them. A surprising amount had survived. Principally a treasure trove of long letters that Julie and I had written to our parents and friends during the long passages at sea, and then mailed at the next port. In lieu of diaries.

writing the story - a letter home from the Eastern Pacific 1
Page 1 5 April 1974 22 days out from Balboa Central America

My parents had kept them safely and I’d recovered them from them long ago. Now I went asking old friends, and they had mainly kept their letters from us too. Some written documents had survived on The Aegre as well, rather remarkably, including a much water-stained and carefully dried-out partial diary of Julie’s. I also drew on notes that Julie and I had put together in the years shortly after the voyage, thinking we might write a book. That came to nothing, but I turned some of the notes into magazine articles, and now they added to my base material for the book.

Claasic Boat article 1998
The Aegre story in Classic Boat magazine September 1998

Regarding photographs, we’d lost and had badly water-stained photos that were on the boat at the time of the roll-over, but up to the West Indies, we had sent the exposed films home to my parents in the UK to be developed, printed and kept safe. This is why we ended up with our own photos really only as far as the West Indies. But we’d kept in touch with other voyagers over the years and now they willingly sent me copies of pictures they had of The Aegre and ourselves.

Photo prints aboard The Aegre suffered water damage

Reading the old letters, and looking back at the pictures, I became immersed in the memories. As if I could feel the boat moving beneath me, sense the wind on my skin, hear the ssshh of the bow wave. I was back at sea, sitting low on the floor of the cockpit, my eye at deck level, as we rolled on ever westward, Barbados still 1000 miles ahead.

As the memories came flooding back I started to pour them out, hammering them into the keyboard. My wife complained about the noise. I wrote and wrote, and soon began to realise I had far too much. Too much detail, too many stories of other voyagers and their boats, and too much that I wanted to say about just sailing off into the Atlantic at 23.

Diary written after the capsize in Nautical Almanac
Diary written after the capsize in the Nautical Almanac

I thought it would be easy to write the story, because it was as if I were there, all over again. But quickly important questions arose about what to include, and what to skip over. What were the essential themes of the story? Who was I really writing for? Where to start and end the story? What sort of voice should I try to write in? My mind was filled with questions.

I think best when talking. But who could I talk to about it? I wanted someone who knew about sailing small boats, knew something of the ocean, could themselves write, knew the ocean cruising literature, could stand back and critically review my writing and be unafraid of giving critical feedback without becoming bogged down in details, had the time and interest to read my writing and respond quickly, and would stick with it to the end.

Who could possibly meet all those criteria?

What about Julie, my sailing partner aboard The Aegre? Well yes, she met many of the criteria, but no. It was forty years since we’d split up, both long now in other relationships. Consulting on the content as the book progressed yes, but more than that seemed like a course likely to lead to heavy weather. So no.

In my mind was another person who seemed to meet all the criteria, but with an added complexity, he lived in the USA. You’ll have to read the book to find out who it was, and why he was so peculiarly well suited to listen to me, critique my writing, ask insightful questions, and stick with it, teleconferencing weekly for nearly three years. I am indebted to him.

Like any good story, it evolved through a number of versions. Like this one, v4:

Cover v4
Cover v4 Not Your Normal Passage to Pago

But the one we settled on came with V11. Then we started looking for a publisher. But that’s another chapter.

See the long letter written by Nick during the 65-day, 4,200-mile passage from Panama to the Marquesas Islands here.

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