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An interview with author and world cruiser Wendy Hinman on her latest book, Sea Trials

by David Schmidt 11 Dec 2017 10:00 PST December 11 2017
Garth Wilcox's family's boat Vela on the reef. This calamity eventually inspired his future wife's second book © Garth Wilcox Collection

When it comes to extended cruising, there tends to be two basic groups, those who spend years scrimping, saving, planning and building the perfect cruising yacht-planning and analyzing sometimes at the peril of their dreams-and those who simply find a way to go. While history is rife with examples of utterly unqualified daydreamers heading out to sea, it’s also filled with stories such as that of Wendy Hinman and her husband, Garth Wilcox, who successfully spent seven years and 34,000 bluewater miles exploring the Pacific Rim aboard a 31-footer cutter, whilst parting with as little of their cruising kitty en route as possible.

While the two sailors faced serious storms and electronics-related calamities, they successfully returned to their homeport of Seattle on their own keel, where Wendy sat down and penned her first book, Tightwads on the Loose, a book that has become something of a cult classic amongst the literary world of cruising sailors.

During this time ashore, Hinman and Wilcox relocated from Seattle to nearby Bainbridge Island, giving them the elbow room needed to start construction on a 38-foot cold-molded boat of Wilcox’s own design [N.B., Wilcox is a naval architect by trade], which the two sailors are building by hand in their barn.

Impressively, Hinman also used this same time to write her second book, Sea Trials-Around the World with Duct Tape and Bailing Wire, which chronicles Wilcox’s experiences getting shipwrecked with his cruising-obsessed family as a youngster.

I recently caught up with Hinman at a local Ballard coffee shop to hear more about her book-writing and boat-building efforts, and we conducted this interview via email the following day.

Tell us a little about Sea Trials, your newest book.

Sea Trials is the timeless story of a family and their struggle in the pursuit of a dream to sail around the world.

It’s a story of determination, in which the family overcomes daunting challenges–from shipwreck and wild weather to threats from pirates, gunboats, mines and thieves, a broken rig, scurvy and starvation. Glimpses of the fascinating cultures they encounter along the way enhance the suspense and keep readers of all ages hooked until the end of the voyage.

What was your impetus and muse for writing Sea Trials?

I would have to say my husband’s family, the Wilcox clan, provided the impetus, and my husband Garth was my muse. I had been hearing the stories about their epic voyage around the world for many years. Every holiday gathering produced even more tantalizing tidbits that I yearned to learn more about.

When I finished writing Tightwads on the Loose, my first book, I was eager for another big writing project. I got my hands on the letters the family wrote home. They contained an abundance of detail to flesh-out stories the family had been sharing around the dinner table for years. It was a writer’s dream to have so much primary information about such an incredible true-life story of survival.

I brought the story to life from studying the voyage logbook, photos, scrapbooks, newspaper articles and interview footage about the voyage and guidebooks of the places they visited. And, of course, conducting lots of interviews, which were great fun.

What were your biggest challenges in writing “Sea Trials”? Also, what were your biggest rewards?

The biggest challenges were to ensure that this account was as accurate as possible, even though it happened many years ago and everyone’s memory had faded. Everyone remembers the same events from a slightly different angle and I worried that these accounts wouldn’t agree.

It turned out that was less of an issue than I thought it would be. I drew upon the most vivid recollections and wrote from that perspective and used the letters and other resources to double-check the facts. In the shipwreck that opens the book, I had to ascertain where each person was, minute-by-minute, as the drama unfolded.

The biggest reward has been the positive reaction of the family. They were happy to share their incredible story and pleased with how well it came across. I’ve loved the process of talking with them about this book. My respect for them and what they went through multiplied tenfold as I unpacked the drama of rebuilding their boat after being shipwrecked and learned more about how they limped into port on their battered boat after 86 days without an engine and running out of food.

Also, the reviews from sailing magazines and readers have been very positive. What’s most exciting is that Sea Trials was selected a Best Book of 2017 by the premier reviewing agency Kirkus, [which is] truly an honor for any writer. It’s encouraging how well received my books have been. I have more books planned and am currently working on a historical fiction story.

Am I correct that you and Garth are now building another cruising boat to Garth’s design? If so, can you describe this project?

Yes, we are crazy enough to tackle such a huge endeavor. Garth is a naval architect who designs boats for a living. His lifelong dream has been to design and build a sailboat that could outperform the vessels he cruised aboard as a kid and with me. So he designed the “ideal” boat (which any sailor knows is always a package of compromises) that suited our needs and hopefully those of other ocean-going sailors.

The boat is a 38-footer with an unstayed rig and a lifting keel/rudder, so that it can sail to weather in the ocean and handle shallow areas as needed. We are building it ourselves by hand. It’s coming along nicely, but it’s not like putting an Ikea table together. Or writing checks and supervising someone else. We have a hull and an interior and are getting ready to put the deck on.

What are your future sailing plans? Any big cruises on the relatively near horizon?

Of course we need to test this boat to see what she can do. Plus I am eager to do more “research” for future writing projects. Hopefully without any shipwrecks, close encounters with ships or electronic meltdowns, though those do make for great stories.

We have dreams of sailing to South America and traversing through the canals of Europe, which are shallow. And also to explore more of the Salish Sea and the Inside Passage to Alaska.

Any advice to other budding sailing writers who are interested in publishing tales of their own adventures?

I will be on a panel at the Seattle Boat Show in January with fellow maritime authors Elsie Hulsizer, Reanne Hemingway Douglas and Christine Smith to discuss this very topic. I suggest reading lots of these kinds of stories to figure out what story you are trying to tell and how to tell it, and taking writing classes to learn the craft and about the business of writing, which is quite complex.

Approach writing as a professional would. Be an observer of people and events and make a point of noticing the tiny details that will make your story feel more vivid. And edit, edit, edit.

Anything else that you’d like to add?

I enjoy giving presentations about this book and this voyage, as well as the 34,000-mile voyage I sailed aboard a 31-footer with my husband, Garth, the teenaged hero of Sea Trials. It’s fun to share these stories. If readers know a yacht club, library, club or book club that would be interested in a presentation, feel free to contact me through my website, wendyhinman.com

Look for me at most major boat shows, where I often discuss voyage preparation and tips for cruising.

Readers interested in Tightwads on the Loose and Sea Trials can find them on Amazon and at most bookstores.

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