My lost childhood left me all at sea
When she set off with her family on an epic ocean voyage, Suzanne Heywood hoped for an adventure. Instead it turned into a decade-long nightmare that she was lucky to survive
Cowering below deck with her mother and brother, clinging to a teddy bear, seven-year-old Suzanne Heywood thought she would die.
It was 1977, and the family were on a voyage across the Indian Ocean in a 69ft schooner that was caught in a devastating storm.
“The waves were building. I was down below with my six-year-old brother Jon and mother Mary, clinging on,” says Suzanne, now 53.
“Up on deck, my dad Gordon saw what looked like a cloud. But it was a wave – 90ft high – towering over him. It smashed straight through the deck.”
The wave wrecked the boat and the force of it threw Suzanne against the ceiling.
“My skull was fractured, I had a blood clot on the brain and a deep cut on my arm. I came to and remember screaming, then blacked out,” she says.
Suzanne needed urgent medical help. The family’s only hope was to drift to a nearby island, but in the days before satellite navigation, that was easier said than done.
“There was a tiny island called Isle Amsterdam. That was our one chance as it had a small military base. If we didn’t find it, I would die.”
Amazingly, three days later they made it. But what happened next was horrifying.
“The doctor operated on my head six times, but didn’t have anaesthetic. It was excruciating. My mother didn’t come in with me. I had nightmares until I was 15,” says Suzanne.
Indeed, what started as an exciting adventure – sailing around the world with her family – soon turned into a decade-long nightmare.
Hobby sailor Gordon, inspired by Captain Cook, raised sponsorship to recreate one of the legendary explorer’s voyages.
“We lived in Warwick, my dad ran Warwick Castle and my mum was a primary school teacher,” says Suzanne, who works in finance and lives in Clapham, South London, with partner James, 53.
“My dad was a serial schemer. He did like sailing but had never crossed an ocean. He decided he wanted to sail around the world – and we were coming with him.”
Setting off from Portsmouth in July 1976 on their boat the Wavewalker, were Gordon, Mary, Suzanne, Jon and two crew members.
There were some breathtaking moments.
“It was a privilege to travel the world, seeing beautiful scenery and paradise beaches,” says Suzanne, who has three children, Jonathan, 21, and 19-year-old twins Elizabeth and Peter.
To fund their expedition, paying crew were invited aboard to help sail the boat. This meant it was a cramped experience.
“The boat was 12ft wide. All you had was a bunk, and you couln’t sit up in it. We shared cabins. In terms of personal space I had one drawer,” recalls Suzanne.
From South Africa, they made for Australia, before being shipwrecked.
“We were stuck on Isle Amsterdam for about eight weeks. My father wanted to load us back on the boat, but it was ruled that it wasn’t seaworthy. So he sailed the roughly repaired boat to Australia, and we were rescued by a passing tanker,” says Suzanne, who spent the following year at school in Australia, while repairs were completed.
“I made friends – something I hadn’t had since we left England. I’d been so lonely,” says Suzanne. “But then I had to say goodbye.”
Now eight, Suzanne was scared to get back on the boat.
“Looking back I probably had PTSD. I’d lie awake worrying about running out of air,” she says.
The Wavewalker sailed to New Zealand, then across the Pacific to Hawaii. The family ran out of money so stayed for two years while Gordon and Mary worked to raise funds.
“When we got really poor, we wouldn’t eat a lot. Corned beef and cabbage was a go-to when things got tough,” says Suzanne.
Four years into their trip, the family held a vote.
“Me and my brother begged to come home, but my parents voted to keep sailing. So we carried on. I was effectively trapped. Nobody ever intervened,” says Suzanne.
“When you take kids on these extreme adventures, you are outside of society. There is nobody watching out for them. It’s abuse.
“You read about children stuck in basements, locked up, and that’s effectively what it was like.”
Desperate to escape, Suzanne began to educate herself.
“I enrolled with the Queensland Correspondence School, and set about doing my GCSEs by post. It was hard – to do postal lessons you need an address, and on a boat you don’t have one,” she says.
“When we got to a port, I would post off lessons, and ask my father where we were going next. But he often changed course, or we’d leave before the post arrived. Despite this I got my grades.”
When she was 16, Suzanne’s parents finally decided to call it quits and stop in New Zealand. But at the last minute, they changed their mind, boarding the boat without their children, and leaving them behind in a small hut in rural Rotorua on the North Island. “They didn’t come back for nine months. We were an hour away from the nearest town. There were no adults, it was just me and Jon,” says Suzanne.
“When they finally came back, I’d earned enough money to pay for a ticket to get back to England to do my interview to get into university.” Suzanne won a place to study zoology at Oxford, but her relationship with her parents remained tense.
“I never got an apology or an explanation,” says Suzanne, who has written a book, Wavewalker: Breaking Free, about her experiences. “Mum passed away in 2016, and I found a letter from her demanding I stop writing. In 2019 my dad told me to stop too. That was the last time I saw him.”
She hopes her story will inspire others.
“I grabbed hold of my life and turned it around by the power of education. There are strengths inside me that clearly come from my experience, and I’m incredibly resilient. I’m living proof that you can get yourself up and keep going.”
■Wavewalker: Breaking Free by Suzanne Heywood (William Collins, £20) is out now
‘‘ They sailed away and left us all alone in New Zealand for nine months