The Long-Term Sailing Life + Romance Novels: An Interview with Author Liz Alden
It’s always fun when I stumble across something that ticks a lot of my boxes, and that’s exactly what happened when I met author and long-term sailor Liz Alden.
This type of post is a little outside of my normal content, and at first I waffled a bit on it. I haven’t published an interview since college (when I was actually getting paid to use my journalism degree), and this is less “how to plan a trip” than a lot of the content here.
But I’m definitely on the record as loving sailing-based travel (see here and here), as well as romance novels (here are some of my faves for airplanes and poolside), so it did feel like a strangely strong fit for the site.
So we’re going to give this a try…below I’ll share some highlights from my fun conversation with full-time sailor, digital nomad, travel blogger, and romance author Liz Alden (her pen name). I’ve kept it mostly in her own words, with only a bit of my narration interspersed. I want to state at the outset that this post isn’t sponsored or promoted in any way, and everything is my own opinion.
And it’s got a little something for everyone. If you’re interested in sailing, this is for you. If you love romance novels and want a behind-the-scenes look at becoming an author, this is for you. If you’re considering long-term sailing, this has some tips for you. And if you love hearing how people make their “someday” dreams a reality, this definitely is for you!
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Romance & rigging: a conversation with Liz Alden
At the outset I’ll say that I really enjoyed all three of Liz’s novels. They are charming, grown-up, and full of fun characters and dialogue. They show me behind-the-scenes glimpses of other places, and aren’t filled with angsty ridiculous drama for no reason. For contemporary romance, all of those reasons make the “Love and Wanderlust” series a winner for me.
This post is fairly long since our conversation covered several topics, so there’s a table of contents (of sorts) below in case you want to jump to what’s most interesting. The photos in this post are a combination of Liz’s and mine (hers have caption credits).
General structure of this post (if you want to jump to specific topics):
- Sailing…how she got into sailing, realized she wanted to do it long-term, & decided to take the leap
- How to make the transition to long-term sailing…choosing the right boat, what steps they took
- Writing romance novels…why she did it, about her books
- The self-publishing process, hardest parts (& favorites), developing characters, her favorite romance novels
- Why & how she included the Panama Canal and Pacific crossings in her first book
- Advice for people considering long-term sailing as a lifestyle
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How did you get into sailing in the first place?
“My dad…he was fortunate enough to be in a position that as he was getting older, he could be the person you call, drop everything, and he could go on a vacation with you. And that allowed him the opportunity to do a lot of cool things. And one of the things he did was he bought a sailboat.”
“It was this tiny 16-foot Hobie catamaran, and he took it and went like…camping out around the Houston area, which is crazy. And then he decided to upgrade to a bigger boat, a 30-foot catamaran, which is still pretty dang barebones, and sailed all the way to the Bahamas and back. So he just had this huge adventurousness about him, and he really influenced a lot of my travel experiences and expectations.”
“For part of his trip from Texas to the Bahamas, I was with him, actually did my first overnight sail with him crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas, and actually sailed the Okeechobee Waterway with him on the way back.”
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What brought you to the realization that you wanted to sail long-term?
When Liz lost her father suddenly in her mid-20s, she quit her job and spent the next five years running her father’s commercial boat business.
“Having that happen, you think about how short life is, what are the things you really want to accomplish together. And my husband and I always had in the back of our minds that this was something really important to us, to get out [and sail long-term]…my husband had never been sailing until he met me. I come from a family of boaters, and my dad took him out for his first sail.
David went to the internet and started looking around at sailing things, and then he saw a vlog called The Honeymooners (now The Sailing Family) and BumFuzzles, who were kind of the original people who were doing this. He came to me and said, ‘People move onboard their boats and do this full-time, we could do this’.
So that was only 6 or 7 months before my dad passed, and then when Dad passed we weren’t thinking it was something serious we would do…it was more of a “someday” thing.”
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How did you decide you were ready to take the leap?
“[After about 5 years] I started to think that I probably wanted to sell the business, so I listed it, found a buyer. And thankfully sold it about 6 weeks before our boat was ready. Then we got onto our boat in France and started sailing. It will be 7 years in October that we’ve had the boat. [In terms of preparation…] a lot of it is, you just kind of have to run with it.”
How did you choose the right boat for long-term sailing:
“We bought our boat new from the factory in France. We had placed the order almost a year prior to picking it up…which now actually isn’t that long. The same factory and size boat now has a much longer waiting list (demand has increased with all the pandemic changes).
We had looked at a couple different catamarans, different sizes and models, and done some charters, so we could kind of get a feel for the size range to see how we could handle the boat just the two of us. But then we went to the Annapolis Boat Show, and looking at what was available at the time and actually stepping foot on the boat and seeing how they felt, we were pretty easily able to narrow it down to this one.
It’s a lot like stepping into a home…you get a feeling from the boat just like from a house, the layout, your confidence in it, how it’s built.”
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What steps did you take to prepare for the transition to long-term sailing?
First they went and got their captain’s licenses, and because her business involved commercial boats they both became USCG 100-ton Master Mariners, which is “bit above and beyond” but it enabled them to drive the boats she owned (which wasn’t previously possible).
Appropriate licenses & other paperwork: “[After getting their captain’s licenses,] we both started driving the boats, getting more practice in. We did charters in the Caribbean.” [Editor’s note, there isn’t a universal requirement for licensing or certification, so make sure to research your options and what destinations require.]
Beginning to downsize, figure out the finances: “Eventually my husband left his job in finance and came to work for me as a part-time captain, and that enabled us to sell a car and we started boat shopping (and we put the company on the market). It all kind of crams in at the end, all the things you have to do in downsizing, what we can get rid of and what we needed to store.”
Determining what gear you’ll need: “Thinking about the things we needed to buy to outfit a brand-new boat…it’s a LOT! Because if you buy a used boat [which will come with a lot of items]…the grass is always greener. “At the time we kind of thought ‘if we’d known how insane this was going to be, maybe we wouldn’t have done it’. And maybe that’s a good thing [that we didn’t know]. We do talk about occasionally, someday, buying a used boat and seeing what that’s like. But the process to outfit the new boat was really challenging.”
Figuring out how to make a living: “My husband does a lot of investing, and that is all done online (though it’s tricky when we don’t have internet service). I do things like run our blog, I also write and have written for several magazines and now my own novels. I write a regular column for a magazine called Sister Ship, and then the most recent magazine of Cruising World had my first feature-length article.”
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I’m fascinated by people who can create something from scratch. What made you decide to write a novel?
“I wanted to write a longer-form…a lot of people hear our story and they’re like, “you should write a book”. And I’m like…you know, we haven’t really had that much drama to make it into a good story.
But I do enjoy writing, I LOVE reading, and for me to write a novel I was able to fictionalize a lot of the adventures I’ve been on, and turn them into something different, which was a lot of fun to put out there.
There’s that saying “write what you know”, and so I thought, look, I’ve had this adventure, I really should put something to paper. So I started really thinking about the kind of people I meet, and the kind of stories that I hear. And everybody that I meet on this trip has such interesting stories.
And throughout the world there are plenty of Lilas and plenty of Eivinds [from ‘Hitchhiker in Panama’], and plenty of people that are meeting and taking grand adventures. When COVID happened, we were in Antigua and going into lockdown. And I thought, okay, I’m going to be here for the foreseeable future…we just finished a world circumnavigation, I’m sacked out for a while. So I picked up my laptop and started writing the story.
Which brings us to Liz’s first book, “Hitchhiker in Panama”…
Liz now has a short story prequel that’s free for her newsletter subscribers, as well as three full-length novels. They’re all in the same universe, interconnected standalones in a series she’s calling “Love and Wanderlust”, so you can read them individually or you can read the whole series in order, and you’ll see the same characters woven throughout.
I’ve read all three novels so far and love all of them for different reasons. It’s tough to choose a favorite among the three, but I do have a soft spot for the first one, “Hitchhiker in Panama“. Lila and Eivind’s story was super sweet (I mean, where can I find ME an Eivind???), and I was fascinated by the sailing experiences that form the backbone of the book (more on that below).
Tell me about your process of publishing your own book…
“I always knew that I was going to self-publish…it’s a whole different beast to try to tackle an agent and a publishing house. So I joined a lot of Facebook groups and found people who were trying to do the same thing, and started listening and watching, and kind of figured out what the process would be like.
I joined a program called NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month, and that’s how I knocked out the first draft. I set a goal for 50,000 words in 30 days, and I hit it. And I learned a lot. During that process in my “camp cabin” (part of NaNoWriMo), I met some people who were also writing romance, and so we started talking on Discord. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant, there’s so much to learn.
The steps and people involved in the process: Some of those people [on Discord] ended up being the first people who read my story, and they gave me feedback. I knew that there were a lot of steps in the process that as a self-publisher were technically optional, but I wanted to put out a good product.
- So I hired a developmental editor, and that person I found through a website called Readsy, and it connects freelancers with writers. And my editor gave me three passes for my novel. It’s a long process, she read the novel and gave me a red-line version with an editorial letter that’s about fixing all the things with plot and characters. So we did that 3 rounds, which was a lot, and I learned a ton.
- From there I went to a copy editor, who I found through a friend of a friend.
- And then a proofreader. And then it was time to get my book out there, which was amazing.
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What’s the hardest part about writing fiction? And the best part?
“The hardest part is creating drama. You have to have it to hit good story structure, and through each revision of my book, I always have to add more drama. The end product is still a very fluffy low-angst HEA (happy ever after) book, which means that the first draft of the book was REALLY REALLY fluff! It’s something you have to develop and work at.
“The part I love about the writing is creating these heroes, the male main characters, who are utterly charming and all in different ways. Eivind (from “Hitchhiker in Panama”) is very much the flirt, an easygoing guy, happy to lucky, totally loyal to his brother.
And Jonas (“Yonas”), his brother, is the main male character in the second book, and what’s great about him…he’s this incredibly patient guy who is doing this thing he’s always wanted to do, and he’s so supportive of Mia. I tell my husband, he’s in every male main character I write, there’s little bits of him and he’s amazing.”
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How do you develop your characters?
“A lot of romance is very American-centric, but I knew that based on my setting alone I could not just write American characters. So I thought about what kind of people I want my characters to be, especially my female characters since it’s a first-person viewpoint. And what kind of people do I want them to meet.
Mia, the female main character in the second book, is American, but it’s kind of the rarity [in the sailing community]. Lila’s Australian, Eivind and Jonas are Norwegian, and then Marcella is Italian and her love interest is Seb, who’s a Cuban-American.
I wanted to represent a lot, and I know that especially in books and romance there’s a lack of representation…I definitely don’t want my characters to all be Americans because it would be unrealistic. The sailing community is very global. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the sailing community is that we get to meet people who have vastly different backgrounds from us.”
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What made you decide to have the Panama Canal and Pacific crossings a focus in the first book?
“Both the Panama Canal and crossing the Pacific, they are both such milestones in the cruising community, and they both happen back-to-back basically.
I said there’s part of my husband in every hero…and there’s part of me in every heroine. Part of me that’s in Lila is that she’s an engineer, and I actually have a degree in engineering. There’s a certain attraction in going through the Panama Canal for an engineer because it’s such an amazing accomplishment for mankind, and so that’s something that was really fascinating to write about…Lila’s excitement over doing this trip.
But then you contrast it with, she’s just been invited to cross the Pacific, and she knows nothing about sailing, so she’s really taking this huge leap with Eivind and the crew of Eik (“eek”), and trying to step out of her comfort zone…which was the whole point of her trip…to become a bigger, better, more worldly person than she is.
So the sailing aspects and trip that the Eik took, I pulled a lot of those experiences from some of my other trips. So for example there’s a scene where the spinnaker falls into the water, and the crew is trying to rescue it, and that’s one of the big “high-adventure” dramas that’s happening. That did happen to my husband and I as we were sailing the South Atlantic, and there were only two of us so it was even a little more dramatic.
But it’s a way to highlight how independent you have to be out there, and how in a situation where you have a bunch of crew it shakes people up, and it adds some environmental drama…and it changes the way you see the boat on this adventure.”
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What are some of your favorite romance novels?
“That’s a tough question…one of the first romance books that I read that I absolutely died over was ‘The Hating Game‘. A lot of fun, such a great read. One of my most recent favorite reads was called ‘Beginners Luck‘ by Kate Clayborn. I enjoy reading romance and I do read a wide variety, but primarily light contemporary romances.
I love the diversity in the romance genre, and you get people who come to you and are like, ‘You read romance, and I want to try romance, where do you suggest I start?’ And I always ask what kind of books they read now. If you read fantasy you should pick up a fantasy romance, if you read thriller you should read a thriller romance, and if you read literary, there are literary romance novels out there. There’s always a gateway drug for someone to get into romance.”
What advice would you give someone who’s considering full-time sailing?
“A lot of the best advice with anything (and I’ve found this with the writing too) is to just completely immerse yourself into it. So for sailing, read magazines, read books, listen to podcasts, watch YT videos, read blogs.
There are—it’s different from when we started—now you have these big sailing blogs like Vagabond or Delos who have been sailing a very long time and have been documenting it a really long time. A lot of people are putting a lot of content out there, and you can really learn from it.
I’ve ended up filming some how-to videos that I couldn’t find myself (like fixing a transducer) and putting them on YouTube. There are a lot of people putting content out there that cover content on everything. We have a video that’s like an hour long on how we set up our sailboat…why we decided to install what we did, what worked, what didn’t, what was most important to us. So there’s just HEAPS of information out there.”
If you’d like to learn more about Liz (real name Amy) and her writing OR sailing, her website has photos from her own trips Like visuals on what the Panama Canal crossing looks like), resources she used to write her stories, and you can get the prequel short story for free if you sign up for her newsletter. She and her husband, David, run the sailing blog Out Chasing Stars as well.
And you can check out any of her novels!
BRB, I’ve gotta go find me an Eivind…
Other book picks you’ll love:
- The 10 Best Books I Read In 2020
- Book Recommendation: The Vineyard at the End of the World
- My Fave Airplane Reads: The Best Romance & Urban Fantasy Series
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