It took me decades to prepare this story. Until I reached the safety of adulthood and started a family of my own, I was unable to confront my parents’ story about my past. As they say, I am “privileged.” After all, I grew up on a beautiful boat called Wavewalkersailing around the world.
Of course I know that their story is not true. Although I grew up in Wavewalker from the age of 7 for almost a decade, I was stuck there — unable to go to school or have friends. While my brother was allowed to help out on deck, I was expected to cook and clean below for several hours each day.
My normal life in England ended when I was 6 years old and my father announced that we were going to sail around the world. He wanted to redo Captain Cook’s third voyage, which would take three years. It will be a long time — but we will be back, he promised, before I turn 10. That means that even if I leave my best friend Sarah, my beloved water spaniel Rusty, and my dollhouse behind, they will all be waiting. me when we get back.
Except that’s not what happened. We sailed from England a year after that announcement, and it was a decade before I returned alone at the age of 17. Most of the time between my stay Wavewalker and can’t go to school. We often ran out of fresh food — and sometimes almost ran out of water — on longer flights. When that happened, we relied on canned and dried food, and my father allowed us each a glass of water a day for drinking and washing.
One of the challenges of my childhood, I realized, was telling stories to my parents LOOKS true — we seem to be living a privileged life by sailing to wonderful places like Vanuatu and Fiji in the South Pacific. But the reality is very different.
For starters, I learned early on in our trip how dangerous the ocean is. A few months after we left England, we were hit by a big wave when my father tried to cross the Southern Indian Ocean with only two new crew members, my mother (who didn’t like sailing) and her two small children. I fractured my skull and broke my nose in that accident and had to endure multiple head surgeries without anesthesia on a small atoll we eventually found in the middle of the ocean.
But my Wavewalker life is not just physically dangerous. Living on a boat for a decade meant I rarely had friendships, little or no access to medical care and I couldn’t go to school.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t have a private space. Instead I had to share a working toilet on board with my family and up to eight or nine crew members, and share a cabin with the adult crew.
As the years passed, it became clear that my parents had no intention of fulfilling their promise to return home. I had no means of leaving the boat — I had no passport or money. But beyond that, I had nowhere to go.
We went sailing when I was young, and after that I never saw any of my relatives. Other than my parents, I don’t have any other adults in my life other than the crew that comes and goes. The only people I saw in authority were the customs and immigration officials who boarded our ship as we arrived at each new country, and they showed no interest in the welfare of the two children they found there. .
while Wavewalker represented freedom for my parents – they could pull up anchor and set sail whenever they wanted – it was a prison for me.
I finally realized that the only way I could escape Wavewalker if I find a way to educate myself. I tried to convince my parents to send me to school, and six years after the voyage, they finally agreed to enroll me in an Australian correspondence school. I am 13 years old.
Although it was clear to me that my only possible escape was education, studying by correspondence on a ship was very difficult. At this time my father turned our boat into a kind of “floating hotel” to pay for our endless journey, and my parents wanted me to work instead of spending my days with my nose in my books.
There are also more practical issues. I had no mailing address and no place to study except for a small table in our main cabin. Sometimes I hide inside a sail in the front of the boat to study, knowing that no one will find me there. I had to fight my father for the paper, which was an expensive product in the South Pacific. When we reach a major port, I send the lessons I have completed and ask the school to send them back to the post office at our next port, but if my father decides to change the course, my lessons go astray.
I found the correspondence lessons very challenging, in part because I was missing out on a lot of education and because it was very difficult to learn at a distance without being able to talk to a teacher. I knew, however, that I had no choice – this was my only way out.
After three years of correspondence studies while at sea, when I was 16 and my brother was 15, my parents decided to send my brother to a school in New Zealand. (As my father once explained to me, my education is less important because I don’t have to support a family anymore.)
When my parents sailed, I was left to take care of my brother, shopping, cooking and cleaning while he went to school every day and I tried to continue studying by correspondence. For nine months, we lived alone in a small cabin by a lake in a country where I only knew one adult (who lived a few hours away). My father left a small amount of money in a bank account that I could only access by forging his signature.
I continue to work on my letter lessons, posting them every week. I also wrote to every university I heard of, asking them if they would let me apply to be a student. Most wrote back saying they would ignore me.
The local universities will not consider me because I am an English citizen, and the English will not consider me because they think my qualifications are too difficult to assess. But eventually Oxford University wrote back and – after I sent them two essays – offered to interview me if I could find a way to get back to England. So I used the money I got picking kiwis, along with a small contribution from my father, to buy a one-way plane ticket, betting everything on that meeting.
Amazingly, Oxford offered me a place, and I went to university the following year. But at that time, my relationship with my parents was weak. I really struggled that first year at university – not only because I had almost no money and survived mostly on tins of tomatoes and dried pasta, but also because I found it hard to fit in socially after years of isolation .
The good news is that after that difficult first year, I started making friends, and finally with access to libraries and laboratories, I improved academically. After finishing my degree, I went on to do a Ph.D. at Cambridge University and then joined the UK government, working in the Treasury. That’s where I met my wonderful husband, Jeremy. When I became a parent myself – Jeremy and I have three beautiful children – I was determined to treat my children very differently. I explain to them that my love is always unconditional, and that I will always be there for them when they need me.
When my parents eventually returned to the UK, I tried many times to talk to them about the past, but they always responded defensively, saying that it “all worked out in the end.”
I knew that I might lose the remaining relationship I had with them when I told the true story about my childhood. However, I never doubted that I would write about my time at Wavewalker. When my children reached the same age as me when I struggled with my loneliness and lack of access to education, I finally saw my childhood through the eyes of a mother. I know that I no longer have an obligation to perpetuate my parents’ narrative: I had a wonderful childhood, but it was certainly not privileged.
Author’s Note: This essay is an account of my childhood as I experienced it, and is based on several diaries and other documents from the period. Others present may have experienced it differently. But this is my story.
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