Creative Writing (Research): first-hand experience for authors: sailing the seven seas

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Photography by Roy Riley 0781 6547063 roy@royriley.co.uk HSBC Tall Ships Youth Trust voyage 2005

Stavros S Niarchos, Photography by Roy Riley 0781 6547063 roy@royriley.co.uk HSBC Tall Ships Youth Trust voyage 2005

Have you, as an author, ever wondered what experiencing something first hand would be like? Perhaps you’ve thought “I’d like to try that one day” but never have? Or perhaps you’ve thought such a thing wasn’t possible. It’s a well-known fact that researching material is just as important as what you’re writing about. Sometimes it might actually be more important.

Not knowing what you’re talking about can cause you a great loss of clarity and integrity as a writer, so you must do your best to do adequate research, and this may sometimes be spliced with first-hand experience. You can’t always be expected to know everything, but arming yourself with as much information as possible significantly boosts your creative writing skills. The theme I am discussing here is entirely nautical, but the necessity for research applies to all writers.

To call me a fan of tall sailing ships would be a gross understatement; I’m more than that. I developed an interest in them some years ago when I invented a flamboyant young pirate captain, and that’s when my research truly began. I researched HMS Victory, and soon came to wonder whether or not it was possible to actually sail on a tall ship. And that’s when I discovered the Tall Ships Youth Trust on Google. It only took one voyage for me to become hooked, and I’ve been an avid supporter ever since.

Melissa A. Joy, (Stavros S Niarchos), Photo by DJC Photography 2013

Melissa A. Joy, (Stavros S Niarchos), Photo by DJC Photography 2013

You learn everything you need to know on board; no prior sailing experience is necessary. You step on board as a member of the crew, and you partake in every activity, from keeping watch and steering the helm, to bracing the yards and climbing the masts to set or stow sails.

I can’t even begin to express how valuable the experience as been for me. From a personal perspective, I loved sailing on board a tall ship from the very moment I stepped on board as a member of the crew and took part in my first voyage.

From an author’s perspective, the knowledge obtained has been invaluable, and it has served me extremely well. Having an understanding of how a real tall ship is run and handled flows into an author’s writing, and it shows.

I have read a few books in the last few years that have included the sailing on ships, and for the most part I have been disappointed. If only the authors had done more research! Trust me, it doesn’t matter what topic you’re writing for, if you don’t understand what you’re talking about, you’re going to lose clarity and integrity in your writing. For a nautical enthusiast like me, having enough knowledge (although I cannot claim to be an expert) was key.

Do you know how to tie a reef knot? A figure eight? How about a bowline or a sheet bend? Ever thought about what it’s like to climb up the masts of a tall ship, and what it’s like to stand on the yards as you untie the gaskets to release the sail ready for setting? Ever wondered how sails are stowed on the yards again when they’re not being used?

Photography by Roy Riley 0781 6547063 www.royriley.co.uk Students tower above the Thames aboard the tall ship Stavros S Niarchos on the final day of the tenth annual Tall Ships Youth Trust Voyage of Achievement funded by the HSBC Global Education Trust.

Photography by Roy Riley 0781 6547063 www.royriley.co.uk Students tower above the Thames aboard the tall ship Stavros S Niarchos on the final day of the tenth annual Tall Ships Youth Trust Voyage of Achievement funded by the HSBC Global Education Trust.

What is it like to keep watch on rotating shifts day and night? How does it make you feel to be on the sea gazing up at the moon and stars after midnight? Have you ever witnessed the rise of the sun from the deck of a tall ship on the ocean? What is the roll of the ship on the ocean like beneath your feet? Ever felt seasick? That’s perhaps the most evil sensation I have ever felt, though thankfully it’s an uncommon occurrence for me. Luckily there’s medication that can counter that.

All of these things are aspects of life on board a ship, but the experience is personal to each individual. Some authors go on writers’ retreat holidays, which is fine, but they cannot teach you how to write about specialised topics like this. Research is essential for writing of any sort, but for fiction, the reader wants to be immersed in the world they are reading about, they want to be involved with the story as if they are there with the characters.

I have been on watch at dawn as the sun rises. I have climbed the masts and stood on the yards setting or stowing sails while watching a school of dolphins following the ship as they leap under the bowsprit.

Pic from Roy Riley 0781 6547063 roy@royriley.co.uk www.royriley.co.uk

Pic from Roy Riley 0781 6547063 roy@royriley.co.uk www.royriley.co.uk

I’ve hauled on halliards to raise lifting yards into position to set the upper topsails, topgallants and royals. I’ve gazed up at the stars while on watch in the middle of the night. How can an author immerse a reader into these situations if they don’t have the knowledge or experience? I definitely see life in a different light when I’m sailing on board a tall ship, and I’m not the only one. I’ve seen this kind of experience change lives for the better, and my life is one of them.

This article has been about applying experience to writing, but you don’t need to be a writer to take advantage of it. I have the Tall Ships Youth Trust and their brig, Stavros S Niarchos, to thank for making a positive difference to my life both as an individual and as an author.

Book your voyage now – http://tallships.org

One Response to Creative Writing (Research): first-hand experience for authors: sailing the seven seas

  1. jesjaspers@yahoo.co.uk September 18, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Melissa, I can but agree that sailing on a tallship can change one’s life. I was lucky enough to be able to spend over 8 months aboard the brigatine Soren Larsen in the days when it did a wider circuit of the southern Pacific than it does nowadays, over 13,000 nautical miles to and from Auckland over to French Polyenesia and back, surviving storms force 12 in the roaring forties, and seeing some of the most remote islands in the world, up close and personal with blue whales, fin whales, dolphins etc, being showered on deck by flying fish and hailstones – not at the same time – swimming as far from land as you can be, beautiful sunrises and sunsets and friends for life. It was the best thing I have ever done. http://www.classic-sailing.co.uk/vessels/soren-larsen. Thoroughly endorse your recommendation for a great experience. Sheila

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