BOOK REVIEW (and Thailand travel throwback): A Sailing Story

Now that it’s ‘lockdown’ here in Vietnam (though they’re loathe to use that term, favouring ‘social-distancing curfew’), I’m remembering round-about this time last year, when I got to sail around Thailand’s dreamy islands and did an in-situ reading of a coming-of-age travel memoir about seafaring experiences few can imagine.

Phuket sunset Thailand

Sunset reading spot (Phuket).

I’d just finished four months of teaching in rural NorthEast Thailand − a rewarding but dusty, landlocked experience − when an old bookclub friend from home suggested I join her and her new hubby on one leg of their year-long honeymoon – sailing on a catamaran around Southern Thailand.

I met up with them on a beach on Koh Lanta. Getting picked up via dinghy, running as fast as I could across the hot sand with my heavy suitcase and laptop, was a surreal experience − something I’ll smile about for years to come 🙂

Koh Lanta SUP Thailand

The Koh Lanta beach where I was picked up.

As I was adjusting my footing (and core) to the sway of being on-board, I was thrilled to spot a copy of Martinique (Nicky) Stilwell’s sailing memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane.

I first read about Martinique’s story when I worked at O, the Oprah Magazine South Africa, and we printed a book excerpt. I’d always wanted to read the whole memoir. The universe conspired to have me do so in the most appropriate of settings.

I know little about sailing, apart from the odd term I picked up from copy-editing a sailing magazine. So reading the book while experiencing a bit of life at sea first hand, and for the first time (and with a bookclub buddy, to boot), made for a truly immersive reading experience.

Koh Yao Yai island sunset Thailand

Another dreamy day, another dreamy sunset. This time while anchored at Koh Yao Yai island.

sailing the James Bond island Koh Phang Nga

Approaching Koh Phang-Nga…

Like me, the author is one of twins who grew up on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing the place she grew up in, about a six-hour drive away from the sea, helped me appreciate just how unusual and eccentric her family’s mission was. (Neighbours must’ve thought them nuts!)

ABOUT THE BOOK:

In 1977, the author’s father, Frank Stilwell launched Vingila, “17 tons of welded-together 11-mm steel plates” into the Indian Ocean, to take his family (including their pet dog) circumnavigating the world.

His experience of sailing? Very little.

The author and her twin brother, Robert, were nine. They were taken out of school in order to learn about life on the open seas.

The Stilwell family became part of an odd-ball community of sailors, learning how to live as sea gypsys day by day, swell by swell, island after island.

The book reads like a journal and adventure story, albeit the adventure wasn’t one of the author’s own will. As a reader, I admired the family’s grit and guts, while balking at the dysfunctional aspects of their story. Their poor diet and lack of access to clothing and supplies was coupled with the Dad’s lack of sailing know-how, which put them in serious danger many times. There are some truly frightening scenes in the book, of approaching storms and Frank’s stubborn refusal to exercise caution. (As one Amazon reviewer said, “I wanted to pop the old man on the nose”.)

Monkey Beach Phi Phi island Thailand

View of Monkey Beach, Phi Phi island.

The twins often lack the company of kids their own age, and they become keen and adept sailors rather quickly. I loved how the author collected cowrie shells and managed to keep her own education up, as best she could.

At first, the family are outliers among the salty sailor types who scoff at their boat and naivety. But as they become more hardy, self-sufficient and eccentric, they start to fit in among the oddball assortment of sea gypsy characters that weave in and out of the narrative. There are amusing anecdotes featuring boozy escapades, nudity, and some very salty seafaring language!

buy prawns in Phang Nga Bay Thailand James bond

The highlight of my sailing experience: Buying prawns straight from a longtail in Phang Nga Bay, near where the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. We stayed the night and enjoyed a beautiful evening with no other boats in sight.

But for me, books are about the characters and their growth. Martinique’s transformation comes when she finally stands up to her father. The difference between them is captured in the title. Frank, the risk-taking adventurer father, regards his daughter as the rat that would abandon ship, dreaming up catastrophes (“thinking up a hurricane”) and erring too much on the side of caution.

childhood sailing memoir

The author, Nicky, as a child with her father on Vingila.

As a teenager craving normalcy, Nicky finally stands up to her father in order to leave life at sea and return home to finish her education. In what’s seen by her parents and brother as a betrayal, she goes to live with family and attend high school. That she managed to get an education, after years of being at sea and feeling like a fish out of water when back on land, is incredible.

After reading this book, you think: What became of the protagonist, Nicky?

While she doesn’t have too active an online presence, her social-media bios read: “Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor”. So she reached her goal in the end. And it seems she still has an adventurous, seafaring spirit. For instance, in her role as doctor, she’s worked on contract in the Arctic.

“It takes courage to pursue a dream, such as to sail around the world, become a doctor or write a book. Martinique Stilwell’s book Thinking up a Hurricane is, in essence, about the realisation of these dreams.” – Reviewer Adele McCann, for writerscollegeblog.com

If you’re craving an absorbing (and true) travel adventure that will take you far away from the confines of your own home, I highly recommend this book.

Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today

All grown up: Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today.

TITLE: Thinking Up a Hurricane
PUBLISHER:
Penguin Random House South Africa
BUY IT HERE.