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.

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