An inexperienced sailor takes his family on a sailing trip to Bermuda, then Bad things start to happen in this adventure novel about the dangers of hubris.
"Ghosting" by David Poyer, St. Martin's Press, $24.99
Readers of David Poyer’s work know to expect adventure at sea when they dive into one of his stories. The Eastern Shore-based author is best known for an 11-book series of best sellers about the modern Navy featuring Dan Lenson, but his latest novel, Ghosting, moves away from his familiar locales and sails into unknown territory…literally. When the main character, Jack Scales, decides on a whim to take his family on a sailing trip from New York to Bermuda, he discounts the fact that he’s never sailed before. He is a self-assured neurosurgeon with the money to purchase a top-of-the-line vessel and, after a couple of short sailing trips with the salesman, figures he knows all he needs to know.
“Most of my books are about competent people meeting extreme challenges,” Poyer says. “In this book, I wanted an incompetent, arrogant person who didn’t think it was important enough to prepare to go to sea. As a result it’s sort of a classic tragedy: he has hubris and he defies the gods and so he is punished. Unfortunately, when you take your family along, they are punished, too.”
A dysfunctional family drama lies at the heart of this story. In Jack’s mind, this will be the vacation where he and his family can reconnect after years of indifference and ennui. But it will take more than a week at sea to mend all that’s wrong with this group: his unfaithful wife, Arlen, is considering divorce; his schizophrenic son, Ric, is one pill away from a violent outburst; and his daughter, Haley, is fuming at being forced to go along on the trip.
When things start to go wrong, everyone suspects everyone else of treachery. Jack wonders if Ric might attack them all while they sleep. Arlen wonders if her husband is capable of murder. And Ric strives to ignore the voices in his head, which tell him that everyone is out to get him and that he would be wise to get them first.
As this incapable crew sets out to sea, savvy readers know what to expect: that the overconfident doctor will get his comeuppance on the water and count himself lucky to escape with his and his family’s lives. And though Poyer does, indeed, deliver the watery violence we expect, he continues to increase the peril in a manner that leaves the reader drained.
The sea is not the only threat to the family. A group of drug smugglers seize control of the boat and abuse the family horrifically, leaving their survival uncertain. Not surprisingly, this trauma alters the family dynamic, turning a splintered group of fault-finding individuals into a loyal unit with an us-versus-them mentality. Tender moments are sprinkled through the story, such as Jack looking on proudly as his son steers the boat or admiring his wife’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save their daughter, but there is nothing rosy about this book. As boating adventures go, it is more Heart of Darkness than Pirates of the Caribbean.
“I wanted to do something that departed from the light, feel-good, happy-ending type stuff,” Poyer says. “I like not allowing the reader to predict what is going to happen. I want to keep you guessing. I think that’s what a book should do.”
Red herrings might lead readers astray, but the nautical lingo in this book will not lose even the greenest landlubber. You might not understand exactly which sail is being hoisted or which line tied down, but you’ll follow the gist of things as Poyer eloquently describes action at sea. He writes in one passage: “She was picking up speed rapidly, and with each roll a hissing band of foam curved out from her side, occasionally lifting to eye level as a dark sea arched its back. He pressed a button on the chartplotter. Pulsating numerals informed him they were making thirteen knots. … A gust, a deeper roll, and through the open companionway he heard things clatter below. Okay, enough. He should reef. Pull the mainsail partway down, so less sail was exposed to the rising wind. Supposedly he could do that without leaving the cockpit. Unfortunately, he hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention when the salesman was explaining the reefing system.”
With passages like that, Poyer’s love for the sea is apparent. It should come as no surprise that Poyer is a retired Navy captain or that he owns a sailboat, Frankly Scarlett, which he takes out every couple of weeks and once a summer for a long cruise. But it might be a shock to learn that some of the harrowing events that occurred in the novel came from his own experiences. “The whole lightning strike, the mast being blown off during the thunderstorm, those things actually happened,” he says. “I was sailing off the Outer Banks and there was a lightning strike. So that was all from actual cruises.”
With such life experience and knowledge, Poyer need not consult anyone else to achieve realism—yet he does. “I had a couple of experienced sailors read behind me,” he says. “I also had a couple of neurosurgeons helping me out on the medical details and I had one person who is a coach on a swimming team for Haley’s swimming stuff… I believe in trying to make things as authentic as possible.”
The result is a story so real, so visceral and so chilling that it may do for sailing enthusiasts what Jaws did to beachgoers: keep everyone as far away from the water as possible.