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Susan Smillie and the journey of the Half Bird

  • Submitted: 24th March 2024

Susan Smillie and the journey of the Half Bird

Sometimes books take you on journeys in more ways than one. The Half Bird is a biography of one woman who sailed from London on her beloved sailboat, Isean. And who went on a journey she never expected.

Little did she know this spontaneous departure would lead to a three-year journey spanning several countries across the continent.

Map of locations in The Half Bird

The Half Bird Susan Smillie

Map of locations in The Half Bird

‘We have no idea how much resilience there is inside us until we have to draw on it. We learn that we grow through adversity only as we go through it. That we crave happiness like plants leaning toward the light’

This is not just a book by a woman who has been on a journey. This is an account of a journey that she takes you on with her. Even from the opening lines, the language is evocative of the journey ahead:

“Isean is soaring. Wing on wing, snowy white against Jurassic skies. Cliffs packed with relics, traces and tracks, fossils and footprints. Tiny dinosaurs glide on gale=force winds. A sky full of birds. They angle just so, feathers flattened to the gusts. Ascending updraughts, riding currents. Brilliant and bright, the time of their lives. A raucous gathering in a storm. I’m flying too, eyes wide, heart lifting, breathing it all in.”

Susan on her boat (c) Susan Smillie

Susan on her boat (c) Susan Smillie

Map of locations in The Half Bird

Susan explains in the book that she just wanted to get away, to see where life took her. At the time of reading this book, she’s still in Italy.  Funny how she didn’t even know where she was going when she set off. Would she even get across the channel? The original idea was to quit London and sail around the UK.

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

Map of locations in The Half Bird

You can tell she loves sailing and seeing the coastline from the boat. She lives and breathes it. Whether it’s scenes of collecting mussels to eat or just enjoying the gentle lapping of the water, this is her home now. There are moments where she spends time with seals and other sea life – poignant moments in her book that are well documented. What really comes across is the sense of community with other sailors as if she and they are in some kind of secret club that now, we the readers, are getting to see.

She had enjoyed life and work in London but felt, for many reasons, that something was missing. So, she took to her boat and left. In short time, she had made it to Land’s End. Was it here, with the prospect of sailing in the cold British winter that prompted a new route south?

Susan Smillie

Map of locations in The Half Bird

There are moments along the way that were really fun to learn about – In France, they can’t believe a woman on her own would want to sail at all. Someone else asks her where the man is – in the cabin? She takes it all in her stride but it’s funny to hear what each country makes of her.

There are of course a few hairy moments but it surprised me to learn that these were not at sea but in harbours – where drunken men would voice their opinion on a female skipper. Her dad was in the Navy so is this where she gets her sea legs from?

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

Map of locations in The Half Bird

Not surprisingly, the weather proves to be the biggest obstacle to a good journey. Fog would be my biggest nightmare if I ever got anywhere near a similar boat. Memories of the film The Fog did rear their ugly head as I read this. I did worry when she got to Costa da Morte (Coast of Death). After that,  the boat continues to Finisterre (End of the Earth)  and all is well.

As Susan sails, I felt I was with her, chatting, eating and watching the gorgeous skylines. (Even in my imagination I left the sailing to her). There’s one bit when she is in Portugal and she learns enough Portuguese to speak to the locals. Now that’s something I could get on board with! (Pun intended!)

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

Map of locations in The Half Bird

The journey outside the boat is one thing but the journey of getting to grips with the inside of the boat is another part of the story I enjoyed. Would I manage with the basic sink, toilet and cooking facilities? Probably yes. No room for books though 😉 I cheered at the fact she had a woodburner on board.

The sailing around Spain and across Portugal is perhaps my favourite part of the journey. However there’s a frightening incident around Algeria. You would think the sailing here would be calm and the weather warm, but that is not always the case. Susan has to get used to storms and when I experience the one in Sardinia with her, well let’s just say I would never get used to storms!

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

(c) Susan Smillie Instagram

Map of locations in The Half Bird

This really is a book that takes you on a journey in more ways than one. Susan explains how she changed physically since her hair turned blonde, but her personal transformation was the one she least expected. She can cope with a lot more than she thought she could – that inner strength her best asset. One she found on a boat in the middle of the ocean.

The journey (c) The BookTrail

The journey (c) The BookTrail

Map of locations in The Half Bird

The bit I would find hard is having to monitor supplies and not being able to ‘ pop to the shops’ if things run out. I would like trying to find alternatives as she does with making food and sourcing water. She is one baddass woman! She’d be an excellent travelling companion that’s for sure!

What I would like is the sense of freedom, the sense of being at one with the world. When she sees whales, swordfish and all other manner of sealife, oh my heart ached to see them too. To live with the elements, in the elements and at the mercy of the elements must be quite something.

And those lingering sunsets would be sublime.

 

BookTrail Boarding Pass: The Half-Bird

Twitter: @SusanSmillie  Insta: @smillieonsea

 

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