BREAKING FREE. Suzanne Heywood sailed around the world as a child with her family. Despite limited access to formal education, she won a place at Oxford University, became a civil servant, and is now a successful business leader and a bestselling author. Her recent book ‘Wavewalker’ has been described as ‘A jaw-dropping and thrilling real-life adventure on the high seas for a girl who just craved normality and finally found her way back to it.’
Youcan listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Suzanne Heywood, your book ‘Wavewalker’ is the story of your sailing adventure with your parents and brother on a boat called Wavewalker that started in 1976 with the intention of recreating Captain James Cook’s final voyage over three years. What was your aim in writing the book?
I always knew that I wanted to write this story because it is an amazing adventure. The question was when I would write it, because I knew that my parents would object to me sharing my experience. It is very difficult to grow up on a boat. You can’t go to school. You can’t have friendships. Sometimes it was very dangerous. Although there were wonderful parts of the voyage, it’s an extraordinarily challenging way to grow up.
Were your parents aware of the dangers that you would face on this voyage?
My parents were asked about this when they were interviewed by newspaper reporters who came to see us in various ports. My father knew he’d chosen a dangerous route by following Cook, because this meant we were sailing the wrong way around the world, from west to east across the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans, two of the most dangerous in the world. However, he didn’t seem to put much weight on the risk, or the lack of schooling and friendships for me and my brother.
“The mindset of a sailor is very different to the mindset of people who live on land.”
Suzanne Heywood, your father’s decisions led to you being seriously injured and in need of operations which had to be carried out on a remote island?
I grew up inside somebody else’s dream. My father’s wanted to be a hero and my mother was happy to go with him. They were very close, and as children we didn’t get a choice on whether to go with them. It was a perilous voyage. We were shipwrecked in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As a little girl of seven years old, I was flung against the ceiling of the cabin when we were hit by an enormous wave, fracturing my skull and breaking my nose. When we eventually found a tiny atoll called Île Amsterdam, a French doctor performed multiple operations on my head without anesthetic. After that I feared the ocean and storms, and as time went on, I increasingly realised that I was imprisoned on the boat.
How did this shape you to become the business leader you are today?
People who have managed to escape traumatic childhoods are often very resilient. For me this means that when I face challenges, I am able to put them into perspective. I can literally say to myself, “This is not as bad as being a little girl on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no control over my life.” This enables me to stay calm, and that’s been a huge asset in my career.
Why did you have a bad relationship with your mother?
When I started to grow up, at around age 11 or 12, my mother started to behave very poorly towards me. She would call me names, refused to speak to me for days or sometimes weeks on end, and mock me in front of other people on the boat. I’m not unique in having a difficult parent, but what made it worse was that I was trapped on a boat with her, unable to ask a teacher for advice or to talk to a friend. To make things even worse, my mother started trying to disrupt my studying, which I knew was my only way to escape from the boat.
It seems your younger brother was given precedence over you. Why?
My parents were very old fashioned in relation to gender. I was expected to work down below in the galley (kitchen) with my mother. In contrast my brother wasn’t expected to do very much, apart from sometimes assisting on deck. This gender divide was extreme – in fact we only had one set of child-sized safety equipment that enabled you to work on deck, and my father gave this to my brother.
How did this play out over time?
It worsened when my father started filling up the boat with paying crew to finance his never-ending voyage, and of course they needed to be cooked for and cleaned up after. I was trapped down in the galley with my mother for several hours each day doing this and my life became increasingly difficult. Conditions on the boat more generally also became worse since we only had one working bathroom and as a teenage girl I had no private space and our crew were often male.
“We had a clock, a compass and a sextant, so we could work out where we were when we could see the sun or the stars.”
Suzanne Heywood, even if your formal schooling was very limited, did you learn a lot in a different way?
There were some amazing things about growing up on a boat. We went to remote islands in Fiji and Tonga and islands like Tristan Da Cunha in the southern Atlantic Ocean. We saw whales and dolphins and phosphorescence in the sea. We sailed past an exploding volcano. So I did learn a lot from the ‘university of life’ but what I craved was academic knowledge – I wanted to be a scientist, and couldn’t answer the questions that I was asking myself age 12 without having access to text books or a teacher.
Your voyage was before the digital era.
Yes, we were well before the time of satellite telephones or navigation systems, or the internet. We had a clock, a compass and a sextant, so we could work out where we were when we could see the sun or the stars. We had a radio, so we could contact the shore when we were close to land, but not when we were out at sea – then we became isolated in a tiny bubble, just with the people on board.
What was it like growing up with no news or TV?
It was hard to get information, but every so often in a port you would hear some news. For example, we heard when the Rainbow Warrior protest ship was blown up in New Zealand and we heard about AIDS. When I eventually reached university, I found it hard to read the newspapers because they assume a lot of historic knowledge. In the end I bought a book that told me the background to each of the major stories of the day, and gradually I built the habit of reading daily about the news.
One of the people who came on board as crew was Mr. Ray, who somehow became a relief in your life?
Mr. Ray came on board in Fremantle, Western Australia, after we’d been shipwrecked. At that point I was still a little girl of seven or eight years old. He was in Australia on holiday and my father said that if he helped repair our boat he could sail with us. Mr. Ray was everything that my parents were not. He loved spending time with me and making me laugh. When I became a parent myself, I thought about how Mr. Ray made me feel, and I tried to imitate that. We are still close today.
Why did your parents seem not to care if there was practical danger like a coup happening on one of the islands you were sailing to?
The mindset of a sailor is very different to the mindset of people who live on land. Sailors often believe that their way of life is superior to those who live on land and that they are immune to what happens on land – after all they can always just sail away. This means they often do things that to other people seem incredibly dangerous.
At the same time normal parental humanity comes through in the book, they drink and smoke, and even want your help to stop smoking?
Yes indeed. There was this incredible contrast between the little human things that were happening on a day-to-day basis and the bigger drama that was unfolding over time as I grew older and started trying to find ways to escape. And all this was often taking place in locations that look like paradise, full of palm trees and sandy beaches.
Hawaii was meant to be the end of the trip, but your parents wanted to carry on sailing and later even left you and your brother Jon alone in New Zealand?
Our voyage was supposed to last for three years. However, because of the shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, it took us four years to get to Hawaii, the original end point of our trip. At that point we had a family vote. My brother and I voted to come home, and my father and my mother voted to keep sailing. My father then told us that he had a deciding vote and we would keep sailing. He didn’t understand that the price of the freedom he enjoyed on Wavewalker was effective imprisonment for us kids. After another six years of being trapped on the boat, my parents left me and my brother Jon in New Zealand while they kept sailing. I was supposed to look after Jon, but a 16-year-old girl can’t really look after a 15-year-old boy. I did my best, but psychologically it was the most difficult year of my life. I became incredibly lonely because I wasn’t going to school and did not know any adults close by in New Zealand. We also had little money and were living in very basic accommodation.
Did you reach out for help from the authorities or from other relatives?
I’d had no contact with my relatives since we’d set sail from England almost a decade before and I barely remembered them. All I knew was my immediate family – my mother, father and brother. That meant that if I’d gone to the police or to the embassy, I risked destroying the only world that I had. I had nowhere to go, and no-one to whom I could turn.
Suzanne Heywood’s family, setting sail in their finest clothes after a Bon Voyage lunch
Suzanne Heywood with her brother Jon and Kelly the parrot
While food was often limited on long voyages, there was almost always tea
Suzanne Heywood attempting to study
One of the photographs Suzanne Heywood took with her to Oxford
Suzanne Heywood, free at last in Oxford
“For somebody who sails, a boat is like a person.”
Suzanne Heywood, when you got back to the UK were you able to re-establish links with your wider family, and with your parents when they returned?
To some extent. When I came back to England I went to see my relatives and now know many of them, but we are not that close as we spent no time together while I was growing up. When my parents later returned to England, I felt an obligation to have a relationship with them, but they made it very clear that I could never criticize anything that had happened on the boat.
Were your parents displaced people when they returned to the UK?
They were. When they came back they had almost nothing as the boat had become very old and was eventually damaged in a cyclone. My father found a job working for English Heritage, and gradually they put their life back together.
You, on the other hand, through great determination, were accepted at Oxford University?
I was incredibly lucky that Dr Dawkins, my tutor at Oxford, saw something in me even though I didn’t meet most of the formal criteria to get a place. I owe her, Somerville College and Oxford University a huge debt for that. I thought that at university I would be able to make friends because at last I would be with people my own age. However, I had little in common with the other students, and when I told them I’d come from the “Wavewalker School of the Sea”, most didn’t know what to say. It took me a while to build my social skills and start to make friends.
Later, after you were married with children, why did you go back and try and find out what happened to Wavewalker?
For somebody who sails, a boat is like a person. We used to say things like “Wavewalker is having a bad day” or “Wavewalker is looking tired.” Even though I was shipwrecked on Wavewalker and almost died several times on our voyage, I always felt that wasn’t Wavewalker’s fault. In my mind Wavewalker was maternal and protective. Years later, when I started writing the book, I needed to go back because I’d never properly said goodbye to Wavewalker. I flew to Fiji to track her down. I didn’t find her, but did find her compass. This now sits in my house, providing a physical connection to my past.
How have your parents reacted to you writing this book?
About a year after I started writing it my mother unexpectedly died. Sadly she left behind an angry letter to me, which she had been working on before she died. In this she threatened to try to destroy my husband’s career if I finished writing my book. Receiving this letter was terrible, but also liberating, because it made me realise that the lack of love that my mother showed to me as a child was not my fault. A few years later, in 2019, my father also came to see me and tried to stop me writing my book. When I refused, he walked out on me and my children. I have not seen him since, although I have written to him a couple of times.
How about your brother Jon?
I think that if children are treated differently by their parents, this pushes them apart. That is certainly true for my brother and me, since my mother treated my brother like a little prince, while I could do nothing right. This means that as children we were not close, and that has continued into adulthood.
Are you pleased to have written this book?
I am very happy to have written this story. At last I have been able to share my experience and people seem to love the book. I have also had many people reach out to me who experienced similar childhoods (though usually not at sea!). And I have also completed the promise I made to my late husband to get this story told.
Will you go on to write other books?
Probably. This is not my first book; for example I wrote a biography of my late husband called What Does Jeremy Think? Writing is a tough art form, but it is incredibly fulfilling.
Is writing very different from business?
It is – but I find it very compatible with business. When I am writing I stop worrying about other things, at least for a while, and that keeps me calm.
Suzanne Heywood, thank you very much for this interview.
Portrait of Suzanne Heywood by Murray Sanders.
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