Saturday, 5 January 2019

Publishing is hard work

Writing is fun, but publishing is hard work! My new book De Batavier is now approaching its final stage. Months ago, most of the correction work was done by my agent (HT-C Communicatie), who also found the publisher (Palmslag publishers) for me.

Before Christmas I got final printing corrections from the publisher on the manuscript. Inevitably this caused a lot of work. In part this was related to spelling changes in which seafaring slang had been altered to what is known as 'preferred Dutch spelling'. These changes had to be reversed as they were detrimental to the atmosphere of the book.

Apart from this and despite the extensive earlier editing, we still found some flaws and stylistic errors, which I always make during writing. Like all authors, I am blind to my own style errors. You can re-read your text a hundred times and they pass unnoticed. The book in print will number about 290 pages, rather more than I envisaged.

The nice idea shown above which I had for the cover design, of a two-master such as the Batavier against the Turkish coast, as expected was rejected by the publisher. The resolution of the design wasn’t enough for a cover. They came up with a different design - an aerial photograph of a sailboat in an immense expanse of water, which expresses the lonely voyage of the protagonist on his way to the Mediterranean Sea. Although the photo shows a small boat of maybe 8 meters with a second crew member on the front deck I found the idea so attractive that I accepted it almost immediately.

Meanwhile we are also looking for a location for the 'launching' of the book (it is like a moon rocket) in my home town of Leiden. This can either be in a bookshop or in a public library. The first contacts have already been made. In addition, I have developed various activities on the internet, such as this blog and films that I made five years ago in Turkey and Kastellorizo. You will find the link to my Youtube channel at the top right of this page.

Publishing and promoting a book, even for the author it seems, slowly turns into a full working day...

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Ode to a hummingbird

For 28 years I sailed marine ply boats, first an 18-footer, and later a 23-footer. These boats were delivered as a kit of parts, from the 1960s up to the 1980s. Of the 18-footer over 900 were made, and the 23-footer lagged badly behind with only 80 boats tasting the waters. They were marketed under the brand 'Kolibri', which translates as 'Hummingbird'. In the late 1980s and 1990s the yard produced several types of boat of a more modern design, but I never owned one of those.

My first boat was acquired soon after I had to quit my seafaring career for health reasons in 1979. I simply couldn't quit the sea and it must have been in '82 that I bought the 18-footer, a dainty little boat which I named 'Shipshape'. This was sailed in the estuaries and coastal waters of the south, and eventually my wife-to-be and I sailed her to England and back, coast-hopping along the Belgian and French coast and crossing to Dover and Ramsgate.

The little boat had no more than sitting headroom and cramped accommodation for two and was exchanged for a bigger one in 1995, as we wanted to take our kids sailing. This was a 23-footer, a true family boat with (as we thought at the time) lots of space, and the same excellent sailing qualities as the previous one. For obvious reasons, having three young mutineers on board, we named her 'Muiterij', which translates as 'Mutiny'.

The 23-footer was used for many long family holidays, mainly in Dutch waters, and on short coast hops. Her seagoing qualities were excellent as we never shipped any water - the marine ply hull simply was very lightweight and floated like a cork. The down side of this was her liveliness in rough conditions.

Even so, sailing and navigating this little boat was great fun, and I still remember her with joy and not a little emotion. We anchored in the lee of sandbanks, reefed down in a blow and she took us everywhere without complaining. With a little juggling, the cabin contained two adults and three growing boys, and later we had a cockpit tent made so we could chuck the luggage outside under the tent when we needed to sleep.

Each spring and autumn I sailed her between the winter storage and the summer berth in the north of the country - a two- or three-day solo trip in often inclement weather which I treated as a short break. On one such occasion in 2005 I made a video, which can be found here:

Finally, with much regret, in 2010 we exchanged her for a bigger 32-foot GRP boat which we still sail today.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Refugee drama

A central theme in my book The Batavian is the refugee drama that still takes place around the Greek islands.

For a long time there has been migration from the war-torn Middle East to Europe. At first this mainly concerned Afghans and Iraqis. From the beginning of the civil war in Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, people in Syria also fled the violence, first in their own country and to the surrounding countries, later also to Europe. The escape route originally ran via the Turkish mainland to the border in the north of Greece, until a fence was placed there in 2012 and the refugees had no choice but the dangerous sea route from Turkey to the Greek islands.

Photo above: it looks so peaceful, the stretch of sea a few kilometres wide between Kastellorizo and Kaş, but in strong winds it can get quite rough and in winter it is cold and inhospitable. At the time of my sailing holiday in the Turkish coastal area in 2013, there was still no sign of a refugee crisis here. In the following years, however, a real migration would arise. Especially in 2014 and 2015, large numbers of Syrians migrated to the west. This resulted in a peak in the refugee flow overseas from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands and many deaths during the dangerous crossing. In that period Western European rescue services established rescue stations on the islands, which until then had few rescue facilities. The Dutch KNRM, a similar organisation to the RNLI, was active on Chios.

The Batavian is largely set against the backdrop of the chaos surrounding the Syrian war and the refugee flow in the period 2013-2016: the bombing by Assad of civilian targets in Aleppo, the Turkish camps, the dramatic events in the Turkish coastal waters and the inhumane situation in the Greek refugee camps, which continues to this day. The story is fiction, but based on eyewitness reports, press releases and reports from humanitarian organizations.

The sea at night

At night the sea is a very different lady from the daytime. She is a hard mistress and even by day doesn't like to be taken lightly, let alone at night, when we humans lack most of our most important sense, vision. That is when we have to be extra careful.

Lying at anchor or sailing at night is a wonderful experience. I became addicted during my seafaring career. The most beautiful moment ever was in the Indian Ocean in 1976, with sultry tropical weather, the sea sparkling through a tiny organism called Noctiluca Scintillans, stars above me and dolphins that drew luminous traces alongside the ship. A dolphin can, for some time, keep up with  a cargo ship that runs at 16 knots, almost 30 kilometers an hour. They like nothing better than frolic with the bow wave and apparently it doesn't matter whether it is dark either. In addition to their eyes, they have a much better sense for underwater use: their hearing and a refined form of echolocation.

At sea, stars are usually a bit blurry, because the air above sea areas is often damp. But occasionally you are lucky and there is a beautiful clear starry sky, although never as beautiful as I once saw it in a small village in the interior of Ghana. That was a real 'African Sky', with stars that you could almost touch and the broad illuminated band of the Milky Way diagonally across the sky.

While sailing at night you develop a sixth sense for your position and use all your navigation aids. There is no magic involved: above all it is a continuous alertness to everything you see or feel. Illuminated buoys, lighthouses, light spots on the horizon, other ships, the water depth and also the behaviour of your boat.

Photo above: in August 2018 I came solo from the sea into the port of Harlingen, the final miles in the dark, which is not allowed because in this area, after dark you should use radar, a gadget that my boat does not have. Just before arriving in Harlingen a line squall came over, and a little later I came into harbour. For a moment I drifted around in the outer harbour, slightly disoriented, until the port service saw me and opened the outer bridge. I moored alongside a charter barge and was able to sleep quietly that night.

Anchoring at night on the Wadden Sea, inside the Frisian island chain, is always a gamble. When the tide comes up and the wind comes from the wrong angle for a while, you'll be tossed about the rest of the night without being able to close your eyes, with your ears set at the anchor alarm on your GPS. The photo above shows such a place just below Vlieland. Nice spot, you might think, but the previous night it blew a bit against the tide, making life uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to beat it at first light to a more sheltered spot. Nevertheless, I often let myself be seduced to such an adventure. It remains tricky, but also very nice ...

An author's doubts

When I start a new book, full of enthusiasm and energy, the first chapters almost write themselves. I have a theme in my head that cries out to be written, and the book is still completely open to me. These are the most carefree days of my authorship.

As soon as the first chapters have been written and I read back the text, doubt forms in my mind. Why not write this passage just that bit differently? Does this fit the theme or am I in a dead end? Will it still be fascinating to read? I may read my manuscripts hundreds of times to preserve the initial good feeling, or to regain it when uncertainty has struck.

My writing behaviour could best be described as 'organic' - there is a rough plan, but the second half of the book is usually still shrouded in mystery. That gives me freedom, but also doubts. Halfway comes what in cycling is called the 'man with the hammer'. Progress flags and sometimes the work lies dormant for weeks. Then I often find a trick to be able to continue.

After the first half of writing of The Batavian I felt that my theme was exhausted. I absolutely didn't know how to proceed and in the end the trick I used was to insert a three-year break in the storyline. The protagonist then looks back at what happened and gradually we end up in the present and how it goes with him. From there, the events develop automatically.

Currently I am working on a third book, where I also ran into trouble. So I am in the middle of doubts, try a chapter this way or that, and then put most of it aside again. Sometimes I get an idea and I can reuse a small part. But sooner or later the breakthrough must come and I know how to proceed.

I wonder if other authors are going through this. If you are reading this, you are cordially invited to answer it ...

Photo: an alley on Kastellorizo.

Research is everything

In a book such as The Batavian, the plot of which which largely takes place in a remote sea area, good research can make or break the story. Five years ago I sailed with my wife and friends in the Turkish coastal area between Fethiye and the bay of Kekova. We also visited the island of Kastellorizo ​​(Meis in Turkish, Megisti in Greek).

Kastellorizo ​​takes its name from Castello Rosso, from the time that Venice was in power here. The island has a turbulent history, even in 1939-1945, when it was a coveted military base because of its harbour. The village around the harbor was badly hit during those years. All residents were evacuated and only years later the island was inhabited again.

The Greek islands off the Turkish coast are still subject to conflict between the two countries. Although this originated in the centuries-long occupation of present-day Greece by the Ottoman Empire, a more recent cause is the aftermath of the First World War. The Turks had chosen the side of Germany and were made to pay heavily for it. Then in 1919 the Greeks invaded the weakened country until Kemal Pasha (later known as Atatürk) drove them out of the country and founded the modern Turkish republic.

During the Greco-Turkish war from 1919 to 1922 many cruelties were committed by both sides. In the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 a population exchange was agreed, the Greek population of the Turkish west coast being exchanged against Muslim residents of Greece. Nowadays we'd speak of ethnic cleansing. In addition, the islands were given as protectorate to ... Italy, which she had to relinquish in 1946 to ... Greece!

No wonder the Turks feel that the islands have been stolen from them and the Greeks living there still think it is their own territory. If you ask me it's an insoluble problem. It plays a central role in the book, although I have made up a lot that is absolute fiction.

Kastellorizo ​​is a small, rocky island with a few hundred inhabitants. It looks like a little paradise, although the Greek navy is constantly present because of concerns about Turkish military action. In early 2018, the Greeks fired at a Turkish helicopter that ventured too close...

New book to be published in Dutch

My first book De Batavier will be published in Dutch, in March 2019, by Palmslag publishers. The title translates as The Batavian. There is an English translation available for prospective publishers in English.

An impression of The Batavian:

Thirty-one-year-old sailor Mark Schouten loses his job as a Second Mate due to ill-health. As he is convalescing from an operation he receives an inheritance and buys an old wooden schooner named De Batavier, which he restores and sails to the Mediterranean. At the end of his journey near the Turkish coast he rescues a group of Syrian refugees from the sea, who have been drifting in a leaking inflatable.

The rescue and the ensuing events change his life once again. Back home following his voyage he rebuilds his life, but the memory of a Syrian woman in the group he rescued from the sea keeps haunting him. He goes on a quest to find her in the chaos of the refugee crisis in Greece.

cover design by Palmslag publishers