Boat Girl: A memoir of youth, love & fiberglass, written by Melanie Neale, is a first-hand account of growing up aboard a cruising sailboat. You may be familiar with Melanie’s father, Tom Neale, who wrote the popular cruising book All in the Same Boat and has been a sailing journalist for decades. His daughter takes an unexpected approach in this tell-all. Melanie starts at ground zero, when she was a baby—imagined years she doesn’t actually remember. After documenting her childhood move to a boat, she proceeds to share seemingly every crush, every kiss and romantic exploit from her pre-teen to adult life.
Boat Girl chronicles Melanie’s parents quitting their life on land and introducing their two daughters to a life of cruising between the East Coast and the Bahamas during their formative years, and enrolling them in a home-schooling program through high school. With her knack for visual description, Melanie gives us a vivid sense of what that life was like: the closeness to nature, the education one gets about boats and marine life, the proximity to family but distance from other kids. Living aboard was normal to Melanie and her sister, and she wasn’t one of those kids who longed for what she didn’t have. She embraced the cruising life, and bought her own boat as soon as she was old enough.
What’s shocking is the light in which Melanie reveals her father, a well known sailing personality. They clearly had a complicated relationship, and in this memoir, she cathartically gives voice to his words, spoken in the privacy of their cabin. In these passages and others, she doesn’t hold back. In fact, the book as a whole could be edited further, as it reads at times like a diary without the level of perspective one expects from a memoir.
When Melanie was twelve, she had her first kiss with a boy in George Town, Bahamas. When her father found out, she recalls him saying “[People will] call you a slut and it’ll make our whole family look bad. That’s not the way we’re raising you.” Later on, she describes a teen pregnancy scare, that again, her father found out about. This time, he was the one calling her a slut. She remembers him saying, “You’re a goddamned slut and you’ve just ruined your life.” I have to wonder what the ramifications of writing this novel-length diary were for Melanie.
As a kid, she was poster child for family sailing. Melanie and her sister would sign copies of their dad’s book while he gave talks at sailboat shows. But as she started to grow up, she describes the natural desire she felt for independence that butted up against her parents’ desire to keep their family unit intact. It was undoubtedly a struggle to stay on one boat for as long as they did, and a relief for Melanie to finally go to college and then grad school, where she lived on her own boat. There’s an intense push and pull that she experiences between her love for the boat of her childhood and her need to separate herself from its confines. Ultimately, she marries one of her teenage sailing sweethearts and settles down at a desk job and a house on dry land.
I don’t think Melanie Neale’s story is over. The book reads with a great deal of emotion—the unresolved kind. It will be interesting to see what comes next.