Local sailor turns yarn into novel about rites of passage

Published on Thu, May 21, 2009
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By Jack Kintner

“Porter and I had carried knives in our teeth as we made our descent. We swam forward along the ship’s side to cut the [small boats] loose. There was just enough breeze to carry them off and just enough moonlight to be able to see them go. We were halfway to shore when the ruckus erupted...I was suddenly distracted by a rough bump against my right leg. ‘Porter,” I said, my heart sinking, “I’ve just been nudged by a shark.’ ”
-Sons of the Waves, p.320

Former Blaine City Council member Dr. Ken Ely has written and published Sons of the Waves, a young adult novel that skillfully combines a contemporary coming-of-age story with a true sailor’s yarn that has everything from pirates and square-riggers to desperate struggles for survival and narrow escapes.

“I’ve had this story in my head for a long time,” Ely said, who began writing the 381-page young adult novel in 1988. After three years he put it on the shelf but recently got back to it.

The story is told from the first person by a 15-year-old child actor named Wil Wyndham, who is hired to make a movie aboard a 136-foot 36-gun square-rigged ship named the Imperieuse. It’s modeled after a similar ship in the British Navy used in their long campaign against the African slave trade that began in the early 19th century.
From the first sentence – “I first saw the man who was to become my father in 1988, from a pier in San Pedro where his ship was moored.” – Ely’s book is all about change and growth, and the eventual rewards that come with effort and teamwork.

Ely uses the setting to combine contemporary young adult issues with a good old-fashioned sea adventure. He’s included a glossary at the end that explains the many sailing terms that he uses to tell the tale, something that helps keep the story itself from becoming cluttered with explanations. It moves fast, like a teenager’s life.

Ely, the older of two sons of an Air Force officer, grew up in Hawaii where he learned to sail in 13-foot full keel Mercury class sloops. More recently he sailed his 30-foot sloop in local waters, the San Juans and Gulf Islands, as well as spending time on the Lady Washington.

“Wil, the main character, is based to an extent on personal experience. The twins in the story are more or less based on a couple of Blaine youth, Cory and Cody Burk. It’s not that they’re exactly like Leith (Cory) and Ford (Cody) but having them in our family proved to be a catalyst in finishing the story. They’re in there for leaven, to make for some action and enliven the narrative,” Ely said.

In the book, Wil and his adoptive family encounter modern-day pirates near the Philippines and continue a private war that began long before Wil came on the scene. In the tradition of other sea stories about boys becoming men, like Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, Wil finds himself measured and sometimes over-matched by circumstances but, in the end, rewarded far beyond his dreams for his efforts.

“I wanted to write a good adventure,” Ely said, “but also deal with the fact that our culture has lost a lot of the ways in which boys become men. Wil was an abused kid, a scar he has to live with, and figure out how to overcome it in becoming a man. It has to do with who you are being what you do.”

Ely’s story is about slavery on different levels, from the grand historical story of Britain’s long and lonely campaign against the slave trade and all the nations involved in it to the “slavery of childhood abuse,” as he called it.
His writing is complex and sophisticated, reflective of that used in old-time sea stories. But it’s also an easy and at times exciting read, moving quickly in ways that would make sense to his target age. He will have no trouble retaining the attention of young adult readers and older folks, too.

He designed and published the book himself. He uses the words from “Heart of Oak,” the official march of the British Navy, as a lead into the novel’s three main sections and, from the first verse, the title - “To honor we call you/ As free men not slaves/ For who are so free/ As the sons of the Waves?”

The book is available at Ely’s office at  365 H street, at Goff’s department store at 674 Peace Portal and at Village Books in Bellingham. It’s also available at www.amazon.com simply enter “Sons of the Waves,” Ely said, and it will come up.