Wavewalker: Breaking Free

Breaking Free
By Suzanne Heywood
William Collins-399 pages-List $28.99

Suzanne Heywood tells an engrossing tale, yet only in part about the sea and seafaring. Wavewalker is a narrative of family dysfunction. As a seven-year-old, the author, her younger brother, her adventurous father and chronically seasick mother, along with two crew, put to sea on a passage ostensibly intended to replicate Captain Cook’s epic third voyage, of 1776-79. 

Though no relation, Heywood’s father — a British amateur sailor called Gordon Cook — was an ardent student of his namesake’s maritime legacy. Thus he decided to purchase a 70-foot wooden schooner, and, with family and crew, set sail in 1976 from the great explorer’s own departure point, Plymouth, England, on what Gordon Cook had planned as a three-year circumnavigation. It turned out to be something entirely different.

The author’s remarkable book tells the story of a decade of wandering, much of it in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and Australian waters. In the end — though trapped, as she puts it, “in someone else’s dream” — she managed to “break free” and take up the “more normal life” of a 16-year old ashore back in England. 

In drafting her memoir Heywood was acutely aware that the finished product “would mean confronting some of the most difficult parts of my childhood and thereby jeopardizing my relationship with my parents.” She insists, however, that she had no choice. “I needed…to address topics that had long been taboo and, by doing so, to understand my past.”

All well and good, of course, but in writing about blue-water sailing the author was also forced to recognize a larger reality: that her book was more than a recital of family angst. For the sea inevitably intrudes. The sea, the young Suzanne would soon learn, is a force beyond reckoning. And some five months out of Plymouth, the sea attacked Wavewalker.

“On the first day of the new year [1977],” she recalls, “I opened my eyes to a world I wanted to leave.” In the Indian Ocean midway between South Africa and Australia vast icy waves bore down on the schooner. The vessel’s motion became violent. At a sudden lurch Heywood was flung bodily against a bulkhead. “The air was filled with screams, some of them mine.” She suffered head wounds that would take weeks to heal.

Today, controversy surrounds her book. A British newspaper recently quoted Heywood’s  brother, Jon, as saying his sister’s account of events in Wavewalker is a “self-pitying…view of a childhood that was, for the most part, rich with… adventure and fun.” 

But recollections can vary. And the book under consideration is not by Jon Cook. Author Suzanne Heywood — Oxford graduate, business executive and widow of a British government official — will have the last word:

“I emerged from all this with emotional scars as well as physical ones,” she tells us. And she adds, in a moving epilogue, that her contentious childhood has only served to confirm a need “to be with people…who will allow me to shape my own destiny.” 

Alan Littell