Monday, October 3, 2011

Guest Blogger Mark Chisnell - Telling Stories

Telling Stories

One of the ways that we distinguish ourselves as sailors is by the stories we tell. It’s the lore, the mythology that connects us; down the centuries as much as across the oceans. We should never underestimate the enduring power or presence of myth in this, as in so many other places. Urban legends of the… I heard this story about the friend of a friend… variety are laced through our lives and address many of the fears and concerns of modern societies.

Myths also have a more deliberate, structured presence in the twenty first century. Christopher Vogler came up with a template for the Hollywood movie that presses all the right emotional buttons, programmed by generations of storytelling round camp fires. Vogler had read the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and realized that there are some stories that appear and reappear across cultures, that seem almost hard-wired into our DNA. He broke these down into some common structural elements for storytelling, and called it the Hero’s Journey.

The next time you watch a mainstream adventure movie ( see how the plot unfolds against this template. The hero will first appear in their everyday world, before being called to partake in some quest, challenge or adventure – a call which they will usually refuse, at least at first. When they (inevitably) change their mind, they will then meet an older, wiser person who will mentor them in the skills required to succeed. Suitably equipped, they will take their first step across a threshold, into a new world. Once there they will meet many tests, have to differentiate allies from enemies and defeat all challenges, before success is won and they can return home to a new, improved reality. Sound familiar? Myths are as much a part of our lives now that we’re hunting and gathering in supermarkets, as when we were trotting light-footed through forests carrying a stick with a sharpened stone strapped to the end.

The Hero’s Journey is also largely the archetype for sailing stories, especially in the environment that I’ve done most of my sailing; racing. The hero is on a voyage or quest ( - to win a race or break a record - meets a challenge and overcomes it. To do so, they may well have to make some tough decisions – it’s the hero’s choices, fallibility and mortality that give the story resonance.

There are other types of myth – foundation myths like Romulus and Remus, and the story of the establishment of Rome. Perhaps I’m going a little too far in claiming that sailing’s equivalent is the tale of the race around the Isle of Wight for the Hundred Guineas Cup; but the story has been told and retold so many times that it’s no longer clear what’s true and what’s not. We do know it gave rise to an event called the America’s Cup, bitterly fought over for 160 years, with neither the fighting nor the bitterness showing any sign of abating. But did Queen Victoria really ask who was second home, to be told - Ah, your majesty, there is no second?

The America’s Cup has the perfect foundation myth, but I worry that we’re losing this storytelling art in the Cup. I somehow doubt that anyone has heard any great yarns from the recent AC45 event in Cascais. So who are the modern heroes, and where are the grand myths? Ocean racing seems to supply most of them - the recent capsize of Rambler in the Fastnet Race ( has already thrown up some good stories, and doubtless more will filter their way into the sailing community through bars and taverns; and their modern counterparts, Facebook and forums.

Sport needs grand narratives like fish need water – without stories and characters the contest has no context, no meaning to anyone but those intimately involved. We need to keep alive the art of narrative if we’re to capture the imagination of landlubbers and convert them into passionate new sailors. We need heroes, and we need to tell epic stories about them. I write suspense thrillers (, but I also write sailing books and I’ve collected a few good tales in a little eBook called ‘Pressure Falling – Short Stories of Stormy Seas’ – and I’m always looking for more. So if you’ve got any good yarns, drop me a line…

Mark Chisnell’s books on

And on

Mark Chisnell is the author of the Kindle chart-topping thrillers The Defector and The Wrecking Crew, as well as award-winning works of non-fiction. He's a sometime professional racing sailor and also works as a broadcaster and journalist, writing for some of the world's leading magazines and newspapers, including Esquire and the Guardian.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011



Negative … who, me?

St. Maarten - Today was a day of confusion and it started with not one but two phone calls, calls that are connected yet seem worlds apart.
I have lived in the Caribbean a good part of my life. Living in paradise should be wonderful and in many ways it is. I love to sail, I edit a popular sailing magazine, and I host a radio show, so why am I becoming more and more disillusioned by what is happening around me. Take the first phone call of the day, which was from the CaribbeanTourism Organization inviting me to attend the inaugural State of the Industry Conference being held in French St. Martin this week. The conference has brought together some heavy hitters from around the region – politicians and industry bigwigs – who will pass opinions on Caribbean tourism and, according to the website, discuss issues, identify solutions and generally develop courses of action that will benefit the tourism industry in the Caribbean. All good stuff! Why, then, did they find it so difficult to get representatives from the Dutch side of the island to attend, after all isn’t it for their benefit, too. As a journalist, I suppose I should attend (yawn) but first they would have to convince me that it will be different to all the other Caribbean conferences I have attended in the past, where clever people spout big words and bigger ideas, spend time living it up in some nice hotel, and then fly away with a rosy glow. And what gets done … nothing, ever.
When I tried to tell this to the organizer, she said I was burned out and should get off the rock. In one respect she is right, but she is also dead wrong. What I really need to do is stop caring. 

St. Maarten - The second phone call beggars belief. In front of witnesses, two people, allegedly working for a well-known ‘eco’ tour company, on Tuesday speared a turtle in the Simpson Bay Lagoon and dragged it behind their boat in order to kill it. They were seen and stopped, although it’s thought the turtle did not survive.  This act of eco vandalism is now being investigated by the St. Maarten Nature Foundation and their colleagues at Environmental Protection in the Caribbean (EPIC). Both organizations say they will pursue this case and, if proven, will go after those involved and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. This latest attack on an endangered species comes after four Green Turtles were speared in the Simpson Bay area last month.

On a positive note: If anyone knows of a job on a mountain top in Outer Mongolia, please get in touch.


Monday, August 29, 2011

The boy who cried “Hurricane!”

Hurricane Irene did her worst and finally expired over Quebec. Like an ex girlfriend of mine with the same name, Irene liked to share it around a bit. Quebec, for goodness sake!

Here in the Caribbean we expect to be hit by hurricanes. Those who have lived here a while know what to expect, we are aware of what could happen and how destructive a storm can be. There was a time in the Caribbean when most people, especially those living on boats, were rather blasé about hurricanes because they were such a rare occurrence, in fact business owners who also owned yachts enjoyed the low season and went sailing. In St. Maarten that all changed on September 5 1995 with the arrival of Hurricane Luis. A category 5 monster storm that devastated the island and changed the way those who experienced it think about hurricanes. Once you have been through a destructive hurricane, you will never react in the same way again.

An island like St. Maarten is a pinprick in the ocean, and the chances that it will take a direct hit from a tropical storm or hurricane are low. Tropical storms vary in size and move at different speeds. Some storms are tiny in diameter and if they miss the island by 30 miles, we may get nothing more that a clap of thunder, a squall and a rain shower. Other storms are hundreds of miles across and can cause serious damage even if the eye wall never comes within 70 miles of land.

The problems begin when a storm doesn’t arrive as predicted, and that brings us to the boy who cried “hurricane!”

Ignorance is bliss.

Shortly after Irene swept north along the east coast of the USA, many said that it was a waste of time preparing for a storm that hardly affected them. Others were left crying amongst the remains of their possessions.

Forecasters do a wonderful job in predicting the paths of hurricanes but even with all their technology they don’t always get it right. It is not an exact science.

The next few times the forecasters get it wrong and you decide they are crying wolf, keep your weapons handy. The next wolf could be wearing sheep’s clothing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Diana Nyad ... more than just a swim

I write this having just received news that Diana Nyad has given up her attempt to swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West in Florida. Diana was 29 hours into the 103 mile swim and according to reports was forced to retire after she started to vomit.

Diana is 61-years old and no matter what the sport, her age alone makes this news worthy, and is one of the reasons why the story was picked up by press agencies around the world. CNN even had a producer on board one of the support boats who was using the micro blogging site Twitter to keep everyone updated with Diana’s progress.

What Diana set out to do is a stand-alone story in itself, but for me it isn’t so much the swim I find fascination but the way one woman, trying to fulfill a dream, made her way into the fabric of our consciousness.

Early this morning I swam 26 lengths of the pool in my apartment block and retired, gasping, for cups of tea and breakfast. For the last week, while taking my morning swim, I thought about Diana. On the two occasions I swam while Diana was in the Florida Straits, I became so focused, I believed I was swimming with her.

When Diane was in pain her followers were asked to help through Therapeutic Touch (TT). I’ve heard of this and have a friend who believes in it, so much so that when I told her, she immediately began sending gentle healing thoughts Diana’s way. The power of Diana was again touching people way beyond the swim.

That America still has an embargo against Cuba in 2011 is plain stupid. Against all odds, Diana actually influenced two ‘warring’ governments, at each other’s throats since the Cold War, and brought them closer together.

Having followed Diana’s exploits on Facebook, one woman wrote that at 41-years old, the swim had inspired her to take on the Iron Man Challenge. Stories like this are popping up all over the place.

Another woman, commenting on social media, said she was disappointed that Diana didn’t complete the swim.

She won’t be anywhere near as disappointed as Diana.

Not achieving a personal sporting goal, no matter how easy, or tough, is hard to come to terms with. I know because I’ve been there. However, my sporting accomplishments, or lack of them, never affected anyone but me.

That Diana didn’t make the swim is a personal defeat, although you never know, this woman might be back. Did she fail? Not in my eyes or in the eyes of the thousands of people who were moved by the power and love generated by this remarkable woman.

Every breath; every stroke, every mile, yard, inch, of that magnificent swim, made Diana Nyad a winner.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Emily, don't be a bitch ...

As I write, Mother Nature is giving birth to what could be the first hurricane of the season, hurricane Emily. No abortions, no way of stopping it, nothing anyone can do but watch and wait to see if Emily will pay them a visit and leave them homeless, destitute or dead.
Having spent a good part of my life in the tropics in what is know as the hurricane belt, I have been through my share of tropical storms and hurricanes both ashore and afloat. The worst was hurricane Luis, a category 5 monster that devastated the island of St. Maarten, sinking or throwing ashore almost 1200 boats in the process. The two photos were taken during and after hurricane Luis. I rode out the storm at anchor … well, actually, seven anchors and a massive mooring.

At the end of the storm, which lasted two days, our boat was about the only one left in the war zone of Simpson Bay Lagoon that wasn’t damaged, and to this day I don’t know why. I had boats sink under and around me. Astern, a dozen yachts, some upside down, littered the shore and many were beyond the beach and amongst the trees.
I spent a good part of the next couple of weeks diving in the toxic brew of the lagoon, blindly feeling my way through the wrecks, salvaging what I could for friends whose homes and dreams were lost, some without trace. That exercise left me with a serious respiratory infection that has bothered me on and off to this day.
I remember friends hugging and sobbing on the beach, some not only lost their boats and everything they owned but eventually saw their marriages and relationships end in ruin. Looting was rampant until the Dutch military arrived with their helicopter gunships. Armed soldiers enforced a curfew. There was no water or electricity. People found God, others kicked him into touch.

Throughout the worst 48-hours of the storm, when the wind reached 155pmh, I was monitoring the VHF radio and heard some remarkable things. I heard someone on a ship, aground and battered by giant waves, ask the police for assistance. A police woman replied: “We are all too frightened to leave the station. God be with you.” Then the radio went dead or she turned it off. There was incredible humor, too. One skipper spoke calmly as his boat was driven onto the concrete dock outside a local bar and receive this from another yacht: “Order us a packet of fags and a bottle of rum, we’re right behind you.”
One thing I will never forget is the power unleashed by the storm and thinking, even then, how wonderful, nay beautiful, it all was.
Before air and water mixed and made it impossible to breathe, I would crawl along the deck to the bow wearing my mask and snorkel, check the warps and then shuffle back to the cockpit again. Eventually, the return journey was made backwards because it was two dangerous to turn around. On my final jaunt, I was blown out like a flag and that put paid to that.
If you are reading this and you live in the hurricane belt, then stay safe. If you live elsewhere, please wait a few days before naming your daughter, Emily.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spray hoods … Oh, the shame!

Photo: 1932 classic Driac II showing spray hood with greenhouse removed.

There’s a lot to be said for an inside steering position on a cruising yacht and although I would never admit it there were times in the past when I would have given my last case of rum for some shelter. When I started sailing, British yachtsmen were expected to sit in an exposed cockpit and suck up whatever the weather threw at them. Yacht designers were complicit in this by failing to include any form of shelter in their plans. Real yachtsmen sat at the helm in all weathers, donned their leaky oilskins, and did the right thing by keeping a good watch at all times. Behave like a man they said and look into the wind and spray, and we did, be manly that is, even my wife.
Our first boat, on which we crossed oceans, was just 23 feet long, with a large open cockpit and no protection from the elements at all. Wind, sun, salt—we took it all on the nose and that is one of the reason’s I now have problems with ‘weird’ things on my skin. Back in our early days, we wouldn’t have been seen dead sporting a spray hood, no sir, they were for wimps. Our yacht would always remain sleek and uncluttered by unsightly canvas and stainless steel frames. The only exception was a French Plexiglas ‘bubble’. Wow, I wanted one of those real bad because they smacked of Bernard Moitessier, Cape Horn and voyages through the Southern Ocean. Whereas a canvas spray hood made you a wimp, a bubble made you a hero!
With maturity came common sense, well, at least some, and on our next boat we fitted a spray hood and in so doing all my morals went out the porthole. Why? Because we fit a spray hood to a classic yacht! There, I’ve confessed and feel better for it. Not only did we fit a spray hood, we also fit a frame at the back of the cockpit. This allowed us to attach a canvas top with a removable back and sides, in fact we turned the cockpit into a greenhouse and it was wonderful. I did the steel work and my wife sewed. I must say, when the whole thing was rigged, the boat looked like shit, but boy were we happy. At the first sign of bad weather, we would roll down the sides and sit in comfort.
On my final voyage with this boat, I left St. Maarten with her looking like a classic yacht but by the time I was north of Anguilla, I was watching the world go by from the comfort of the greenhouse. I took the thing down before docking in the Azores, so that people would know how tough I was and did the same before entering Falmouth in England.
The boat we have now was designed to the old British character building code of ‘real yachtsmen sit out and suck it up’ and I am currently seeking ways to protect us from the weather. It looks like another greenhouse is on the cards, my wife likes the idea so much she is reading up on Hydroponics.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sea Books and eBooks

One thing that the eBook revolution has done is open the world of publishing to writers of sea books. For instance, my friend Cap'n Fatty Goodlander now has ten books in his stable and is working on more. His latest Somali Pirates and Cruising Sailors is an in-depth look at how, when, where, who, and why Somali pirates and cruising sailors interact—and the social, economic, and personal cost of Somali piracy to all concerned. Fatty is the perfect man to write this book, having recently cruised through the same pirate infested waters with his wife Carolyn. Fatty chronicled the voyage in Red Sea Run, a fascinating story of how a cruising couple maneuvered through the dangerous sea lanes off Somalia only to fall foul of land-based pirates in Egypt, a country where officials have turned extorting money from yachtsmen transiting the Suez Canal into a fine art. Fatty has heartily embraced new publishing and his popular books are a joy to read.
Earlier this year I was sent the Kindle version of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast with eNotations by Chris Thomerson to review. Thomerson has done an extraordinary job. In this wonderful version of the famous sailing classic, you highlight a word or phrase that you don’t understand and up pops a thorough explanation. This has opened up the world of square rig sailing like never before and turned Two Years Before the Mast into a must read for anyone even slightly interested in maritime history. After reading this eBook you could just about sail a square rigger! I can’t recommend this book enough.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Frank Virgintino will soon publish a Kindle version of A Thinking Man's Guide to Voyaging South ~ Cruising the Caribbean. The ambition of many sailors living in North America is to sail south to the West Indies. The voyage can be tricky and a lot has been written about the best way to do it, however, the info is now rather dated. Mr Virgintino has come up with the most comprehensive guide to passages south that I have ever read and, believe me, not only have I read them all I’ve also made the voyage south several times.
Two fun reads available as eBooks are Julian Putley’s Sunfun Calypso and Sunfun Gospel. A BVI resident, sailor and writer, Julian’s books come with great reviews. The two ebooks, along with Julian’s famous paperback: A Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI, are all available from Amazon.
Island Ice and Wet Feet by B.D. Anderson are two more rollicking Caribbean yarns that are available at the touch of a button.
My own book, Caribbean High, an action adventure that takes the reader on a thrilling seagoing chase through the islands, is selling well on Amazon. I didn’t know what to expect when I published, but the book has received some cracking reviews and I am very grateful to my readers. Spurred on by the success of Caribbean High, a second novel is now in the works.
All the writers mentioned (and I am sure there are many more) are experienced sailors with a gift for telling a good story and for sharing their knowledge. They tell it like it is, good and bad, and that is what sets them apart from those who write about the sea yet have never sailed upon it. So, if you are looking for a good nautical read then point your spyglass towards the Amazon website where you will find some terrific eBooks about the sea.
Happy reading.

Caribbean High ... The Movie