The date is indelible in my memory: February 20, 1995. I was a sophomore marine biology student, about to embark on SEAmester: a nine-week semester on board a schooner, traveling from the Caribbean up the Eastern Seaboard to Long Island, NY, learning about not only the flora and fauna we’d encounter along the way, but also the ancient art of navigation and seamanship. I remember that day so vividly, even after all these years: bidding my parents a teary farewell at JFK and flying to St. Maarten. I remember the conflicting emotions I experienced on that flight: excitement, anticipation, apprehension, and fear. I remember my first sight of the Harvey Gamage as we approached in the ship’s tender, her masts stretching into the sky, her hull gleaming white, her sails tightly furled.
We set sail the next day. I can still hear the chink-chink-chink of the anchor chain as it slowly coiled around the windlass, lifting the iron weight off the bottom; the rush of awe I felt watching the sails unfurl like the wings of a giant swan, slowly climbing the masts, billowing out as they caught the wind. I remember the taste of salt spray on my tongue, the caress of the wind on my face, the roll of the deck under my bare feet, the sharp fibers of the lines cutting into my palms as I helped raise the sails.
The next nine weeks were an experience that I will never forget: the explosive colors of the sunsets, the constellations sparkling in the black velvet sky, the bow-riding dolphins, the “all hands on deck” call in the wee hours of the night to strike sails during a squall, the smooth wood spokes of the helm in my hands as I steered the ship across a silent sea, the loneliness of bow watch in the dead of the night, singing to myself to stay awake. (And the cute deckhand, who distracted me from the letter I was writing to my friends as he bucketed water over himself.)
My semester at sea never left me. Every year on February 20th, it was almost like a poke on the shoulder: five years ago today, you left for SEAmester, ten years, twelve. It was like I was being haunted (in a non-terrifying way) by that experience. And I knew I had to write about it. I began to jot down story ideas. I had only two scenes that were clear in my mind, the main character’s first sight of the schooner as she approaches in the ship’s tender, and a scuba scene that comes much later in the story. And I had a list of things that I experienced that I wanted to fictionalize.
And I had a title. At one of our ports-of-call, we visited a maritime museum. A plaque on the wall read “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky. And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” These are the first lines of the poem “Sea-Fever,” by John Masefield. I remember the chill that ran through me as I read those beautiful lines, and thought about them often after I returned home and wanted nothing more than to go out to sea again (after I recovered from nine weeks of seasickness, that is). As I began plotting my story, I knew that the title could only be A Star to Steer Her By.
The book started to take shape, and eventually moved from being merely a fictionalization about my own journey (with romance!) to the story of a young woman who embarks on a semester at sea in the hopes of getting back in the water after a traumatic scuba experience (plus romance!). There’s less of my own experience in the story (though there’s still some in there), but I hope I was able to not only tell the story of two damaged people who help heal each other, but also convey the feeling of standing on the deck of a ship on the endless sea with the wind in your hair, the salt spray on your tongue, and a glittering black sky overhead.
In honor of World Oceans Day, I’d like to take this moment to reflect on my own time spent at sea, both on its surface as a sailor (and a whale-watcher) and beneath it, as a scuba diver. Here are some of my photos celebrating the beauty of our oceans (scuba photo credit: Melinda Riger)
Check out Beth’s newest release, A Star to Steer Her By!
My love for the sea began when I became a scuba diver at age 14. That led me to a college semester at sea. I returned with fond memories of being on a schooner under full sail, less fond memories of hurling over the leeward rail on a daily basis, and a sailing bug I couldn’t quite shake. I also have a fascination for all things Scottish (including, but not limited to, men in kilts), which I explored with my first novel, INTO THE SCOTTISH MIST, and carried into my new novel, A STAR TO STEER HER BY (Entangled Embrace, March 2017). I’m a native New Yorker, and am always looking ahead to my next voyage, whether a short one on a dive boat or whale watch, or, with luck, a longer one on a tall ship.
I’m scarred. Broken. I’ll never be the same.
But I will take this journey.
Ever since my last dive ended in bloodshed, I’ve been terrified to go back into the water. But the opportunity to spend a semester at sea is too good to pass up. I need to get my life back.
I never expected to love it this much. And I never expected Tristan MacDougall.
Rugged, strong, and with demons of his own, Tristan helps me find the courage I thought I had lost and heals me with every stolen moment we share. But the rules of the ship mean we can’t be together.
When a dive excursion goes terribly wrong, our only hope for survival is each other.