Sailing the Sea Witch by Helen Hollick

Have you ever wondered how to sail a tall ship? Today’s post by Helen Hollick describes how she tackled that challenge.

I first met Helen while attending the Historical Novel Society conference in London in 2014. Helen writes superb stories and is a fierce supporter of indie authors.


Back in  2005/6 I wanted to read an adult book that was something like the entertaining adventure of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. There were plenty of straight nautical novels, mostly written by men for men, and quite a few tales for young adults, but nothing quite like the outright fun and romance of P.O.C. #1. So I decided to write my own. The Sea Witch Voyages were the result, with Voyage six, Gallows Wake recently released.

Apart from the fact that I wanted to write the adventure, I honestly don’t know why I thought a nautical tale, with tall ships and sailing detail heavily involved in the plot, would be a good idea. The nearest I’ve been to a tall ship is the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory, and the largest thing I’ve sailed in was a small Mirror Dinghy (which I suppose would be about the size of a narrow single bed with a ‘pointy’ bit at one end.) And even then, I was only allowed to hold the tiller. I knew absolutely nothing else about sailing.

But then, when I started writing Sea Witch all those years back, I had already written a few historical novels – and equally I had  known nothing about living in post-Roman Britain or the eleventh century, nor what it was like to fight in an actual battle. Research had filled in those gaps, so I figured that research could do the same for how to sail a ship.

I was right in a way, but I was also extremely fortunate in getting to know two very distinguished, extremely helpful and friendly ‘sailor types’ who new all there was to know about these lovely old ships.

Author James L. Nelson (who writes nautical and Viking adventures) is my ‘sailing editor’. He wrote his first nautical adventure aboard the replica of  HMS Rose, better known, now, as HMS Surprise of the movie Master & Commander fame. My second contact is John F. Millar who owns and runs a wonderful B & B, Newport House, just outside of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. If you want to know what life was like in C.W. in the late 1700s go and visit him for a few nights! He was the man responsible for originally designing the replica of  Rose/Surprise. I love that ship, so much so that she is the template for my own Sea Witch.

I was also very lucky to find a magnificent book in a thrift shop I was browsing, saw the book on the shelf and pounced on it. Seamanship in the Age of Sail: An Account of the Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-of-war, 1600-1860 by John H. Harland. I notice that Amazon only has second-hand copies for £85. I paid £5 for mine. A bargain!

When writing any novel, it is essential to ensure believability, whether the book is contemporary, a romance, thriller, historical or whatever. What happens in the narrative and how the characters behave and talk must have that air of reality for your readers to immerse themselves in. One slip and you’ve lost them. Romans eating potatoes, a Georgian lady in England admiring a hummingbird in her garden, a tall ship sailing up a shallow river when there is no wind… Yes you can take a few ‘author licence’ liberties but they must still sound and feel realistic. Get the details right and everything else will fall into place, you’ll hook your readers in and, with any luck, they’ll love your characters as much as you do and clamour for the net book in the series.

Here’s an excerpt from Ripples In The Sand, the fourth Sea Witch Voyage. My (now ex-pirate) Captain Jesamiah Acorne needs to take Sea Witch up the Torridge river to Bideford in North Devon … the detail is from Harland’s book. 

Free of the restraining kedge, Sea Witch was drifting broadside with the tide, her mains’l aback to avoid gathering too fast a speed. A few yards only, then losing the strength of the tide, Jesamiah, at the helm, spun the wheel in reverse. With her bow facing almost directly towards the broad sweep of the bend ahead, and turning alarmingly fast to windward – the direction from which the wind was coming – Jesamiah allowed her to fly up, head into the wind, until her stem was almost touching the point of losing control. Quickly, he shouted for the head yards to be braced aback, and again he spun the helm. For a moment Sea Witch drifted backwards, but with skill he brought her to the wind, and the sails filled. The only way to turn a ship when there was not sufficient room to manoeuvre, but a method that, if it failed, could result in disaster and earn the everlasting contempt of the pilot. That momentary pause, when the vessel was hanging in stays, showed the ability of the helmsman and crew. To miss stays – to miss making the turn – was poor seamanship. In a narrow channel it could be the difference between remaining afloat and running aground.

Her sails filling again, Sea Witch glided across the width of the river. Almost it seemed they would hurtle into the opposite bank, but listening intently to the calls from the leadsman, Skylark, the sound of the water, the wind, and his own instinct, Jesamiah shouted the order to tack an instant before the pilot, standing beside him, was about to give a warning.

His sudden alarm subsiding, the man grunted, a gesture of reluctant admiration; mumbled that Captain Acorne was to carry on. Tactfully, Jesamiah refrained from grinning. It would not pay to be cock-sure too soon; they had a couple more miles to go yet. Even with the tide in their favour and a willing crew, she was a large craft to manoeuvre within the confines of the two hundred or so yards that were the width of the river Torridge.

Ignoring the pilot’s idle prattling, by backing, filling and shivering the mainsail while again in stays, that danger time when all control could be lost, Sea Witch sailed neatly, and safely, around the next headland point. Jesamiah ordered the foresail to remain aback. Once clear of the bend he let the tide take her and the wind to fill the sails. Sea Witch proceeded sedately diagonally across the river to the far bank, where at exactly the right moment he put the helm a-lee. The mainsail swung around and she was swinging to face straight upriver again. There, a way ahead, was Bideford with its impressive multi-arched stone bridge spanning the river.

I know I say so myself, but not bad for a landlubber who’s never sailed in anything larger than a pleasure dinghy!

Not bad indeed, Helen! I’m totally impressed and wish you great success with Gallows Wake. Having read some of the Sea Witch voyages, I can heartily recommend them!

GALLOWS WAKE: The Sixth Voyage of Captain Jesamiah Acorne by Helen Hollick

Where the Past haunts the Future… 

Damage to her mast means Sea Witch has to be repaired, but the nearest shipyard is at Gibraltar. Unfortunately for Captain Jesamiah Acorne, several men he does not want to meet are also there, among them, Captain Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy, who would rather see Jesamiah hang.

Then there is the spy, Richie Tearle, and manipulative Ascham Doone who has dubious plans of his own. Plans that involve Jesamiah, who, beyond unravelling the puzzle of a dead person who may not be dead, has a priority concern regarding the wellbeing of his pregnant wife, the white witch, Tiola.

Forced to sail to England without Jesamiah, Tiola must keep herself and others close to her safe, but memories of the past, and the shadow of the gallows haunt her. Dreams disturb her, like a discordant lament at a wake. 

But is this the past calling, or the future?

“Hollick’s writing is crisp and clear, and her ear for dialogue and ability to reveal character in a few brief sentences is enviable. While several of the characters in Gallows Wake have returned from previous books, I felt no need to have read those books to understand them. The paranormal side of the story—Tiola is a white witch, with powers of precognition and more, and one of the characters is not quite human—blends with the story beautifully, handled so matter-of-factly. This is simply Jesamiah’s reality, and he accepts it, as does the reader.”  ~ Author Marian L. Thorpe.

THE VOYAGES – check them out at Helen’s Amazon author page

The Time : The Golden Age of Piracy – 1716. The Place : The Pirate Round – from the South African Coast to the Caribbean

Escaping the bullying of his elder half-brother, from the age of fifteen Jesamiah Acorne has been a pirate with only two loves – his ship and his freedom. But his life is to change when he and his crewmates unsuccessfully attack a merchant ship off the coast of South Africa. He is to meet Tiola Oldstagh an insignificant girl, or so he assumes – until she rescues him from a vicious attack, and almost certain death, by pirate hunters. And then he discovers what she really is; a healer, a midwife – and a white witch…

“A superb story of pillaging pirates, with ragamuffins galore, ruthless villains, and skulduggery a-plenty. This is no light-hearted romp, though; the voyage is an emotional rollercoaster with real depth of feeling – love, betrayal, hatred, childhood trauma and revenge, to name but a few. The main character, Jesamiah Acorne, is an accomplished pirate, a man of integrity among a crew of ruffians. What I love about this author is her facility with the craft of storytelling. Stern to bowsprit, bilges to crow’s nest, this is a story told with a sure, steady hand.” Amazon review

SEA WITCH   Voyage one

PIRATE CODE  Voyage two

BRING IT CLOSE  Voyage three


ON THE ACCOUNT  Voyage five

WHEN THE MERMAID SINGS  A prequel to the series

ABOUT HELEN HOLLICK ~~ First accepted for traditional publication in 1993, Helen became a USA Today Bestseller with her historical novel, The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) with the sequel, Harold the King (US: I Am The Chosen King) being novels that explore the events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is a fifth-century version of the Arthurian legend, and she writes a nautical adventure/fantasy series, The Sea Witch Voyages. She is now also branching out into the quick read novella, ‘Cosy Mystery’ genre with her Jan Christopher Murder Mysteries, set in the 1970s, with the first in the series, A Mirror Murder incorporating her, often hilarious, memories of working as a library assistant.

Her non-fiction books are Pirates: Truth and Tales and Life of A Smuggler. She lives with her family in an eighteenth-century farmhouse in North Devon and occasionally gets time to write…


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Twitter: @HelenHollick


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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