I have to admit that boats were never a passion of mine, but that all changed on my honeymoon. My husband, Jeremy, took me on a voyage in our first catamaran, Aries, from Salcombe to Cyprus. It was a two-month journey that would lead to a wonderful life at sea – until a devastating explosion changed everything.
Back in 1980, at the age of 28, I remember feeling apprehensive. Was it any wonder? We left England at midnight in torrential rain and a howling gale. The thought of the next four days crossing the Bay of Biscay, and then the 3,000 miles to Cyprus, made me question what on earth I had let myself in for. I was working as a fashion model at the time; in fact we planned the trip so that we’d arrive in Cyprus in time for me to direct and model in a Louis Féraud fashion show on the island. Despite my initial misgivings, by the time we arrived in Cyprus six weeks later I’d officially caught the sailing bug.
Life on the water offers you the freedom to go wherever you want; our route took us to harbours across the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar to Crete, and many islands in between. It gives you independence and privacy, and offers seclusion from other tourists. It’s so blissful – swimming before dawn, sunsets with a glass of wine, nights full of stars with just the sound of the sea and the wind in the sails.
Jeremy and I lived aboard Aries for two glorious years in Cyprus before returning to the UK in 1982, when I was seven months pregnant with our son, Rory. I didn’t want to give birth in a military hospital in Cyprus (an option for all UK nationals) – I could imagine a fierce Army Matron telling me I didn’t need pain relief. No way.
Back in the UK we moved into our home on the Kingsbridge Estuary in Devon. However, on Bonfire Night 1983 – while Rory was with my parents and Jeremy and I were at a party – someone set fire to the house. By the time we got the call from the police it was reduced to ashes. Underinsured, Jeremy spent two years building a fine new home for us on the same site, much of it with his bare hands and from information found in library books.
Four years later, in September 1987, we welcomed our daughter Miranda into the world. Missing life in the sun, we bought a 200 year-old finca surrounded by orange and almond groves near Javea, Spain, when Miranda was three months old. However, after seven burglaries within the first two months we decided to move to the safety of the motor cruiser we had bought for trips to the Balearic Islands.
We purposely waited until our children were 10 and 16 before we bought Sarava, a 50 ft ocean-going catamaran, by which time Miranda was a confident swimmer and old enough to appreciate travel. They took to life afloat like ducks to water. We based Sarava in Corfu and enjoyed living aboard and exploring the Ionian Islands for eight fabulous years.
Sarava was a large cruising catamaran, with four double ensuite cabins and acres of flat deck space for sunbathing. Sarava’s saloon was resplendent with cream-coloured padded faux leather, fitted carpets, mahogany tables, mirrors made in Corfu Town, pale-blue upholstery… She was our cherished floating family home. Friends loved to visit and we usually had an endless procession of guests onboard during summer.
The more time the children spent on Sarava, the less they wanted to return to life on dry land – a sentiment shared by Jeremy and me. Eventually, in 2001, we started building a house in Corfu. By that time, both children were at boarding school, and Jeremy and I were free to spend even longer on Sarava and oversee the building project.
Sadly our time on Sarava was cut short. On September 24 2005, she tragically sank without trace a mile off Corfu. A soldering iron, which had accidentally been left on in the onboard workshop, started a fire, engulfing the boat in smoke and flames. Jeremy and Miranda – the only people onboard – narrowly escaped, jumping overboard just before Sarava exploded. They were rescued by a Greek seafarer about 20 minutes later. The incident, which changed our lives forever, was reported in the British and Greek national press.
Mentally we still continue to cope with the tragedy of losing yet another home. We lost a huge amount of euros in cash (destined for our builders), all our clothes, shoes, passports, phones, credit cards, my inherited jewellery and Miranda’s 18th birthday presents – just six days old. But in the end these were just possessions – it was nothing compared to the loss of a way of life we had all enjoyed for so many years.
The snowball effect after the accident was devastating – financially and emotionally. We felt totally lost. Suddenly we were homeless. Jeremy and Miranda only had the swimwear they were wearing when they were forced to jump overboard. Thankfully, our Corfiot and English friends were wonderfully supportive, providing us with clothes, food, emergency money and somewhere to stay. We also relied on the generosity of friends at home in Devon until we could find a house to rent in Corfu.
We felt like strangers on a foreign shore. Our lives had been geared to the seasons, to the winds and the waves in the Ionian for so long. Jeremy and I had never spent a night ashore in Corfu and everything felt the wrong way around – suddenly viewing the sea from the land. Ultimately, we had to sell the Corfiot home we were building. The months and years ashore dragged on, living in rented houses in Corfu and later in England.
However, as the Mother Abbess says in The Sound of Music: “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window”. We needed to start earning money, and just when I felt we were hitting rock-bottom I remembered the children’s stories I had written whilst living in our manor house in Devon. For 20 years I had the preliminary ideas and sketches for a series of books for children stored in a suitcase in England. Ever the optimist, I resurrected my paints and brushes and started work on the illustrations for the children’s stories. With a huge amount of determination, hard work, persistence and self discipline over the last nine years, this project took over my life and led to the publication of 16 books. The Manor House Stories were born in 2013 – now a series of 12 books – and in the past two years I released the first two books in the Corfu Trilogy.
Writing the books was extremely cathartic. None of my family could talk about the accident for a long time and I was dreading the consequences of writing about it all. I thought it would upset me too much to relive the wonderful years on Sarava, not to mention still feeling desperately homesick for Corfu, and the friends we had been forced to leave behind. I didn’t even know if I could remember all the details of those years.
However, as soon as I retrieved my old notebooks and started writing, every single incident, description of place or person, scent and flavour popped into my mind as if watching a film. I was instantly transported to the sunshine and atmosphere of Corfu, Kefalonia, Paxos and other islands we visited on Sarava. I was uplifted, my spirits soared once again, bursting out of me and straight onto the keyboard as the memories came flooding back.
At the end of each writing session I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders and the sadness I had tried to bury deep inside me had found an escape route at last.
I have learnt that as much as we’d like to be able to see into the future, it’s a good job we can’t. We can’t look ahead with any certainty. Whatever I have lost, I must be thankful for what I have, and what I have had.
We never could find another yacht to hold a candle to Sarava; instead we bought a succession of much smaller runabouts, but never sailed again. Jeremy and I now live in a tiny cottage in North Cornwall, with the moors directly behind us and the sea, with its great memories, in the distance.
As told to Alexandria Gouveia