Sue Williams earned a degree in occupational therapy from Queen’s University, and practiced OT for over thirty years. In 2016, she left the health care field to focus on writing. Sue lives in Guelph, Ontario.
To my surprise, I discovered writing is a lot like crossing an ocean.
When writing my memoir, Ready to Come About, there were many moments of: ‘What the hell was I thinking’. ‘This is way more than I bargained for’. ‘I’m not equipped to do this; was I ever stupid to even think I was’. ‘Will I survive? If I do, I swear, never again!’
Then I stumbled onto Brian Henry’s creative writing courses, the very first of which was Writing Personal Stories. These courses were jam-packed with information that helped equip me with what I needed to get through to the other side.
However, writing a book differs from an ocean crossing in that it is a journey of years, and it is necessarily a solitary endeavor, most of the time. But you can’t do it entirely alone. It’s important to meet people who talk the same language, who consider writing a worthwhile endeavor, who too spend whole afternoons inserting and taking out commas, only to insert them again in the morning. Through these courses I was introduced to a wonderful writing community, the support of which was essential.
So it feels extra-special to be a guest speaker in Brian’s fabulous upcoming online course, “Writing Personal Stories” where, eleven years ago, my memoir-writing journey began. Check out the details here.
Carol Kane Neilson, known as C.K., was born October 1, 1884, in Far Rockaway, Queens County, New York. He was one of the five sons of Louis Neilson and Anne Perry Rodgers Neilson. And he was David’s grandfather.
The Neilsons were well connected, New York City high society types. J.P. Morgan was a close family friend, for whom C.K. worked as a bike courier in his teens. C.K.’s brother, Frederick, hob-knobbed with Charlie Chaplin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Douglas Fairbanks.
A career on Wall Street might have been expected for C.K., but, as with many an interesting life story, there were struggles. And there were turns.
C.K. had a severe stutter. This stood as a barrier in elite social circles.
A trip to Texas would further influence his life’s trajectory. While on a mission to buy polo ponies for the movers and shakers of Long Island, he became obsessed with all things western. He discovered he was a cowboy at heart.
In 1905, at age 21, C.K. received an inheritance with which he bought a ranch and apple orchard in Colorado, and left his New York City world behind.
Over time, C.K. got to know the couple who owned the neighbouring ranch. They were friends with a young woman, Elsie Deems, another well-to-do New Yorker who spent part of her youth on the Rockefeller estate. Elsie was a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, the first U.S. college for women. So her family had big expectations for her too.
This couple next door had a feeling C.K. and Elsie would hit it off. So they invited Elsie to Colorado for a visit. Although it was years before online dating, their objective was the same. And their hunch was right.
Elsie and C.K. married in 1917. Their first child, David’s mother, Nancy, was born in 1918 in Paonia, Colorado. And life was good… for a few years at least.
In 1922 a river overflowed, washing out their ranch and wiping out their investment. So, they packed up what little they had left and headed further west to the hot, dry central valley of California.
In 1923 C.K. landed a position with Cal Pack, a huge farming and food packing company associated with Del Monte. There they had their second daughter, David’s aunt, Caroline, in 1928. A year later C.K. was given full management of a 700-acre farm, Langdon Ranch, owned and operated by Cal Pack. And the little family moved into the ranch house on the property.
Years later Elsie would recount how the ranch house had been the meeting place for the county where big ideas were born. One of those big ideas was the development of the Merced County Park System. C.K.’s focus was Lake Yosemite, particularly the installation of a pleasure craft boat dock.
After the dock was built, and race night became a big thing in the area, C.K. figured he needed a boat to join in. So he bought a kit and built an eighteen-foot sloop in, of all places, the second floor of the ranch house. According to family, a wall was knocked out and a rope system rigged to extract and lower the finished boat which, they added, did not go smoothly!
In the early 1980s, just after David and I got married, David took me to California to meet his family. And we made a side trip to Langdon Ranch. There, in the heat, surrounded by dust and dirt, beneath towering Eucalyptus trees stood the old ranch house. This once grand estate with splendid parlours and gracious rooms, was now empty and boarded up, but I could feel its majesty, its history, the beehive it must have been in C.K.’s days.
In 1946, due to C.K.’s failing health, the family left Langdon Ranch and moved to a smaller 28-acre ranch near Atwater, California. And, in 1947, C.K. passed away.
So how does this relate to my memoir, Ready to Come About? Well, in short, if it weren’t for C.K., and that intrepid family gene, I’d have never crossed an ocean in a small sailboat. So, thank you, C.K.!
“Didn’t even know you sail,” I said as evenly as possible.“Oh yeah. I did. My aunt Caroline gave me a small sailboat my grandfather had built. I used to sail it on Lake Yosemite, an irrigation lake about seven miles from our house. My mom would drop me off there on her way to work. I’d sail back and forth all day long and imagine I was crossing an ocean, even though it was only a mile wide. Silly.”
Excerpt from “Ready to Come About” (Dundurn Press)
In my memoir, Ready to Come About(Dundurn Press), I recounted that, while sailing along the north shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway, heading toward the Atlantic Ocean, David and I navigated an unfamiliar channel to a marina in the dead of the night. It was against our better judgement, but we were exhausted and cold. Carrying on had its own risks. So, we chose to put in.
The entrance was dark, but beyond the stone breakwater a twinkling marina nestled among rock cliffs and tall pines unfolded and we were warmly greeted by locals on the lamp-lit docks.
In the morning light, we were awe-struck by the pristine beauty of this little-known harbour, Port de Refuge de Cap a L’Aigle.
Last week, I was contacted (through Vocamus Press) by an author, illustrator, and gardener-extraordinaire, Janice Wiseman. She had just finished reading Ready to Come About, and reached out to connect.
In our email conversation, Janice informed me that, within mere kilometers of Cap a L’Aigle, is another Canadian best-kept secret; Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents, the mostly private gardens of Francis H. Cabot, yes a direct descendant of that Cabot. Who knew!
Developed and enlarged by Francis H. Cabot, the Gardens of Quatre Vents are considered among the best private gardens of our times. They are a source of exquisite enchantment for those fortunate enough to visit them. Wandering through the sets of gardens, visitors can discover over 1000 different species of plants that are revealed in original, unexpected and audacious ways.
So here we are with the pandemic. We have been in this for a long time. We are tired, and want things to go back to normal. But, on this last day of 2020, the news we are hearing is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
After having a problem-filled first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, David and I became friends with a young Polish sailor, Nick, on the European side. He acted as our “weather router” on our second, longer crossing home.
When heavy weather was forecast, Nick’s email advice was:
“Grab the opportunity to fuel up, charge your batteries, eat up, sleep up; make sure all your way points are in the GPS and all your charts are on the table. For there’ll be some spray flying high.”
Eventually, through the dark storm clouds, a sliver of light emerged.
Wishing you and your loved ones a safe passage through the storm, and sunny days ahead in 2021!
After a short day-sail from Porto Santo we arrived on the island of Madeira. We called to book a slip in the historic port of Funchal, but, to our dismay, it was full. It had been for weeks, and would continue to be for weeks more.
Grudgingly, we put into Quinta Do Lorde, a new marina on the eastern tip of the island, built to handle the overflow.
This marina, nestled at the base of a mountain, was still under construction. So, its colourful facade was just that — a facade. Aside from washrooms, a few washers and dryers, and a café, there was nothing there.
While I sat in Inia’s cockpit whining, a dock neighbour strolled by and asked if we were planning to take in the festivities too. Realizing we didn’t know what he was talking about, he explained there was an annual event in Funchal to celebrate when their Christmas lights were turned on for the season, and that night happened to be the night. The instant he left, we packed our backpacks, locked up Inia, climbed the steep path, and caught the next bus to the city.
From the bus terminal, we hailed a cab and asked the driver if he could recommend an affordable, central place to stay. He assured us he knew the perfect place. After making a hair-raising U-Turn, he zigzagged through traffic to the downtown core, then turned onto a grimy side street. As he slowed down, I looked out at clusters of vagrants gathered in the doorways, worried he got us wrong. When he pulled up in front of a dilapidated hotel, the sign of which was missing half its letters, I was almost certain of it.
But it soon became evident he did understand. The hotel had been converted to a hostel. So, despite being blocks from the city centre, its rates fit a vagabond’s budget. We agreed we’d be fine for a night.
After registering at the front desk, David and I stepped into the antique elevator, pressed the ninth-floor button, watched both a metal gate and a solid door close, felt a lurch, heard a screech; then lifted off.
Our room was meagerly furnished with a three-drawer dresser, and two single iron beds made with white threadbare sheets, thin blue blankets, and lifeless pillows. Our large plate glass window looked out over a maze of brown and red clay rooftops. From it, we had a birds’ eye view of the street and its aimless occupants below.
I put our toiletry case on the shelf above the sink in the closet-sized bathroom and we took turns freshening up before heading out for the evening.
As we made our way down the hostel’s street, both of us looked straight ahead and walked with purpose, slowing down only after we rounded the corner and into the safety of the main drag.
Since it was still light out, we stopped at a local diner and, under its striped canvas awning, enjoyed a leisurely dinner of Espetada and wine while waiting for the sun to go down.
As darkness fell, Funchal lit up. Christmas lights dripped from every tree, lined every pathway, trimmed every building, and cascaded across every street. Some were of religious figures, while others were playful depictions of candy canes, teddy bears, bells and bows.
And, high above the ancient church steeple in the town square, a full moon and white and blue angels adorned the night sky.
Having grown up in northern Ontario, I used to believe Christmas couldn’t feel Christmassy without snow. But, witnessing the throngs of people; families, lovers young and old, Birkenstock-wearing boomers; body pierced skateboarders, tourists and locals alike; gather in a spirit of peace and goodwill, I had to admit I was wrong. The serene radiance of this Yuletide scene will stay with me forever.
On our return trek to the hostel, we passed the same men huddled by the building’s entrance. This time, though, I slowed down just a tad, made eye contact, and flashed a fleeting smile. Then in we went.
While on the North Atlantic, Portugal-bound from Canada, a rogue fishing net fouled our prop, yanking the diesel off its mounts and we began to take on water.
For nine more days we sailed on, engine-less, often in mountainous seas, bailing around the clock, during which our weather cloths started to tear, the flag halyard broke loose, the radar reflector too, a fitting at the top of our mast snapped off, and our kerosene stove died.
August 18th we made landfall on the south coast of Portugal, and arrived at the port of Lagos.
After tacking in the bay for two and a half hours, the Policia Marítima came to the rescue. With their monster of a Zodiac, powered by a pair of humongous outboard motors, they towed us in.
At launch, just three months before, Inia was radiant. But she’d been under constant siege by the elements ever since. With her salt-stained canvas, peeling woodwork, ripped weather cloths flapping in the wind, crusted metal, rust dripping from every conceivable seam, she was war ravaged — that’s what she was.
The channel was in the heart of Lagos, with a boardwalk of cobblestone and palm trees running alongside it. As we were unceremoniously dragged along this waterway, passing the hordes of onlookers and gleaming multimillion-dollar yachts, Inia wore her combat wounds as a badge of honour and moved on with dignity. David and I held our heads high, too.
This was our victory march.
It has been said, the rougher the passage, the more joyful the landfall.
What I can say is that our landfall in Lagos is one of the most joy-filled days of my life.
Paciência. Patience. Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows that patience is required, and a lot of it. But, truth be told, anyone who’s around someone trying to learn a new language could benefit by a strong dose of it too.
When the decision to sail across the North Atlantic was made, my husband, David, simultaneously embarked on a second, different, but equally daunting, journey; to learn to speak Portuguese.
Throughout our initial 23-day crossing to the Azores, David listened to “Speak Portuguese” tapes with headphones on and practised saying stuff to me, whether I liked it or not.
Ah bay say day eh ef … The alphabet? I asked. Sim. That’s good dear. Obrigado. Great. Muito obrigado. How’s our speed? Não entendo. Okay, stop it. Eu não falo inglês. That’s enough! Desculpa, não falo inglês.
When we arrived, David was bursting at the seams to converse with an actual Portuguese person. This was us clearing customs in Faial:
“Bom dia!” David said to the customs official.
“Port of origin?” the uniformed man said, his eyes and hands on his keyboard’s home row.
“Nós…uh…nós estamos… no wait, wait…somos—”
“Canada,” I said.
David continued. “Yes. Somos do Can—”
“Boat registration, please,” the official said.
“Certainly.” David unzipped the document case and handed the man the papers. “I mean, com certeza!” He smiled over his shoulder at Cameron and Leslie.
You get the idea…
And he never let up. Throughout our entire trip he practised with servers in restaurants, sailors on docks, passersby on streets, boatyard mechanics at Sopromar in Lagos — simply with everyone at every opportunity in every Portuguese-speaking place we visited.
What’s more, he became hell-bent on learning to read the language too. While visiting the island of São Miguel, he purchased what he referred to as ‘a new paperback’. Here it is:
“So what’s the plot?” I asked as a joke.
“Not sure, I think it’s about gardening. The suspense is killing me!” he replied, his eyes glued to the page.
When our trip ended, I expected this obsession would too. But no. David continued to practise a little bit every day. And he enrolled in online Portuguese lessons, hired a private tutor, and drove to the Portuguese district in Hamilton Ontario whenever he had an uncontrollable urge to annoy the hell out of the busy merchants.
To what end, I would often wonder. To learn Portuguese, he would often simply reply. But it’s just so hard, I’d say. So what! he’d say back.
A few weeks ago, he showed me a little video he had quietly filmed without my knowing.
Here is a hot-off-the-press Portuguese presentation (about our trip) by David, my husband, the Portuguese-wannabe, and the most patient man I know.
When I wrote Ready to Come About, I expected there’d be sailors who would appreciate my accounts of our improbable, often perilous, year on the high seas. And there are… many. For example, Katherine Stone, of Canadian Yachting, wrote, in part:
I can truly attest this is a great page turner and a MUST read for any woman who thinks that she couldn’t possibly go cruising, cross an ocean, or who needs to get out of her comfort zone to grow and have an adventure—possibly learning more about herself. This isn’t to say men won’t find the book interesting or enjoyable, as they certainly will.
Katherine Stone, Canadian Yachting
Rob Mazza, of Good Old Boat, described my memoir as well-written, pleasurable, and “both an inspiration and a cautionary tale”.
A thoroughly enjoyable seagoing adventure story written with style and precision. An ex-sailor myself, I can assure you that it is highly realistic and includes just the right amount of boating jargon and terminology to be easily understood by all.
Warren, Goodreads Review
Of course I am very pleased with the enthusiastic support by the sailing community. However, I did not set out to write the book as purely a sailing memoir.
I hoped there would be an occupational therapy audience, given that the concepts of autonomy, self-determination and the right to take risks, all values central to the profession, are explored in the book. And that turned out to be the case. In the most recent issue of The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists’ magazine, Occupational TherapyNow, Sue Baptiste remarked:
Ready to Come About is totally awesome—absolutely! It emerges as a powerful metaphor and a testament to believing in self, taking chances, relationships, choice… In short, it is a thesis on occupation and spirit.
Sue Baptiste, Professor Emerita, Rehabilitation Sciences, McMaster University
And I really hoped there would be moms and dads who could relate to our struggles to give our young-adult kids the freedom they needed to grow into themselves. Here’s what Sharon—one of many parents— expressed on that front:
Every thought and questioning she had about her children and their futures were the same thoughts and questions I have/had as a parent.
It is a fun read, a thoughtful read, and somewhat of a study on human spirit. I would totally recommend this book to anybody who wants to, at the end of the book, close it and go, “ahhh, that was soooooooo good.”
Sharon, Goodreads Review
What never crossed my mind, though, was that Ready to Come About would attract crafters. Yet it has. Most recently, I received an email from intrepid knitter and knitting instructor, Lucy, of Lucy Neatby Designs, who said she picked up my memoir at a used bookstore. In her newsletter she described it as a happy pre-pandemic find and stated she was completely hooked when she read the part in which, at a dinner party… having had a lot of wine… I concluded that a knitting project was more important than a life raft on an ocean crossing. Here is the excerpt:
Boredom!” I blurted before she had a chance. “Honest to God. Not storms, not sharks — it’s boredom!” I repeated louder, with more conviction. “Our friend Cameron said his dad told him a friend of a friend —”
“Good grief, Sue,” Colleen said, looking over at Roger.
“Surprising, I know. Ironically, having a knitting project will be more important than a life raft!”
Sue Williams, Excerpt from Ready to Come About
Check out Lucy’s newsletter to read the full review, and, while you are at it, why not browse her incredible website. She is one creative woman!
I am so happy my memoir is speaking to so many people in so many different ways.