Tales true and otherwise about life under sail

Photo by Ron Druett

MYSTIC 1989-2005 She was a nice cat (even if she was a bit bossy), and a great conversationalist. Ron was her Friend, and I had her great respect as High Priestess of the Fridge. We will miss her.

Selected Works

Castaway drama
A gripping tale of two starkly contrasting castaway experiences
The story of the extraordinary -- but unacknowledged -- Polynesian who ensured the success of Cook's first discovery voyage
Controversial castaways of Campbell Island
The ordeal of the castaways, and the political fall-out that followed their rescue
Wiki Coffin Mystery #1
Murder most foul in Portsmouth, Virginia, is solved in the middle of the Atlantic.
Wiki Coffin Mystery #2
Pirate-hunting on the coast of Brazil
Wiki Coffin Mystery #3
Wiki Coffin must clear his father's name of murder in this third seafaring mystery set aboard the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
Wiki Coffin Mystery #4
Contracted to track down the man who stole a sealing schooner, instead Wiki Coffin finds a skull at the foot of a sacred Gualichu tree in the stark hinterland of the Rio Negro, and joins the Patagonian gauchos to solve a grotesque murder
Wiki Coffin Mystery #5
A murderous encounter in the icy seas south of Cape Horn
Revenge at Sea
Murder and rebellion on the whaleship Sharon.
Women Under Sail
Captains' wives at sea.

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It is no secret that I did not produce my first full length book until the age of forty. Mind you, I had published rather a lot before then, starting from my late teens, when I wrote science fiction for American magazines, and short stories for the Maori magazine "Te Ao Hou" under the pen name "Jo Friday," and then travel stories for New Zealand magazines, under my own name. However, I was mostly involved in teaching biology and English literature, and raising our two sons, Lindsay and Alastair.

Then I was approached by a publisher with the idea of writing a book about the introduction of plants and animals to New Zealand -- how they were carried here in the sailing ship era, and how they failed or thrived. The result was "Exotic Intruders." Not only had I enjoyed writing the stories of the eccentric sailing ship captains and passengers who had carried such items as birds, fish eggs, racehorses, and deer through the tropics and southern ocean storms, but the book won a couple of prizes -- the Hubert Church Award and the PEN Award for Best First Book of Prose. All very encouraging.

Then, on one of my quests for a travel story, I fell into a hole on the tropical island of Rarotonga, found the longlost grave of a whaling wife at the bottom, and a passion for researching the lives of captains' wives under sail was born. A Fulbright Award sent me to New England and Hawaii, and so "Abigail," "She Was a Sister Sailor," and "Petticoat Whalers" were written, the second of these winning the prestigious John Lyman Award for Best Book of American Maritime History in 1992.

It also led to a novel about a young girl who was born on board ship and raised at sea, but was abruptly jerked out of her pleasant sea-going, Bay of Islands-based existence, to be sent to live with puritanical relatives in New Bedford. She did her best to conform, but got involved first, in the Women's Rights movement, then in a sensational murder trial, leading to her desperate escape from this increasingly hostile environment to Panama at the height of the Californian goldrush, and from there to South America, as part of a tortuous voyage back to New Zealand.

Her name was Abigail. So, with great imagination, the novel was called ABIGAIL. A German translation followed, then a paperback with a hilariously lurid jacket. It has since been republished in digital form, as A Love of Adventure.

The next exciting development was the offer of a residency in New York, at the Oysterponds Historical Society at Orient, Long Island, and the job of Project Historian for a museum exhibit, "The Sailing Circle," which was largely funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and co-sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, East Setauket, and the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum.

Opening first at the Whaling Museum in 1995, this exhibit moved on to other venues, including Mystic Seaport, and won for the Three Village Historical Society the Albert B. Corey Award, which is occasionally (not regularly) granted by the American Association for State and Local History for projects "that best display the qualities of vigor, scholarship, and imagination."

I returned to New Zealand in 1996, to write a fourth book about the brave seafaring wives, "Hen Frigates," which in 1998 won a place in the New York Public Library list of the twenty-five Best Books to Remember. The following year this was followed by the L. Byrne Waterman Award for outstanding contributions to history and woman's history, awarded by the Kendall Whaling Museum.

In the year 2000 my native country recognized me again -- a Creative New Zealand development grant was followed by a year-long John David Stout Research Fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington.

This signal honor resulted in the writing of a true-life maritime mystery, "In the Wake of Madness," and research into wrecks in the subantarctic islands of New Zealand, which has led to another maritime nonfiction account, "Island of the Lost: Death and Survival at the Edge of the World," which was published by Algonquin in July 2007, went into several other editions, including one by Allen & Unwin (Australia), and continues to sell very well indeed, hundreds of readers finding it an inspirational story.

As well as this, in 2005 I was appointed a consultant for an ongoing NEH-funded project with the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, "Children on Whaleships."

Meantime, I had fascinated with the stories of the adventurous Polynesians who shipped on board sailing ships--American whaling ships, in particular. I so I came to the story of Tupaia, the astonishing Tahitian who sailed with Captain James Cook and the naturalist, Joseph Banks ... and to my fictional half-Maori sleuth, the inimitable Wiki Coffin, hero of five books, A Watery Grave, Shark Island, Run Afoul, Deadly Shoals, The Beckoning Ice..

In 2008, I was fortunate enough to win a substantial Creative New Zealand grant to research a biography of Tupaia, the unacknowledged Tahitian who was so essential to the success of Captain Cook's first discovery voyage, and in 2009 very generous travel funding from the Stout Trust allowed me to journey to Tahiti, Raiatea, Connecticut (Yale), New York, London, Bonn (Germany), and Australia, to further my studies into this remarkable man. Published by Praeger and Random House, TUPAIA went on to win a prestigious award, to be featured in the 2015 Taipei International Book Fair, and to be translated into French as well as Chinese.

In 2011, I was awarded a CLL/​NZSA Stout Centre Research Grant to further my studies into the strange stories of American seafarers in New Zealand, through the correspondence and reports of the United States consuls. This resulted in a book about the castaways of Campbell Island -- six men from the Connecticut schooner Sarah W Hunt , whose rescue from near death led to international controversy, and a huge problem for the US Consul in New Zealand, the colorful Gilderoy W. Griffin. Because it was one of those legendary adventures, common in the era of the goldrush, which led to dire disappointment at the time, but great stories afterward, where men boasted that they had "seen the elephant," I called it The Elephant Voyage.

And, as for the future ...


How Abigail's story became A Love of Adventure

Intrigued by the huge surge in digital book sales that has been greatly facilitated by the electronic reading revolution, I became fascinated by ePublishing. After blogging about many authors who have ventured into publishing on Kindle, Kobo, and other platforms, I decided to stage my own experiment, and try publishing an eBook myself.

I made myself two conditions before I started --- that it should cost nothing at all, and that I would share what I learned with the world, via my blog. The result was an experiment in turning my novel Abigail-- renamed A Love of Adventure -- into a Kindle book, which I described, step by step, in seven "tutorials."

This description of turning a print book into a Kindle book proved so popular that I created a dedicated blog, "Kindle Publishing Hints," and transferred the seven tutorials, in proper descending order, onto this. This has proved very popular, with many people using the method to create their own eBooks.

What does the future of publishing hold? While digital publishing might have outlived its excitement, it will all end up in something very exciting, I'm sure.