How the South Shore’s Salty Sailors Inspired My Crime Novel Salvage

How the South Shore’s Salty Sailors Inspired My Crime Novel Salvage

Posted on August 23 by Stephen Maher in Fiction, Recent Releases
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I bought my second sailboat, the first one big enough to sleep on, in 2003 when I was living in Halifax working as an editor at The Chronicle Herald.


It was a 1982 Tanzer 7.5, a beat-up 24-foot fibreglass boat, and when I bought it, it was sitting on the hard, as sailors say, in Chester, on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, an hour from Halifax.


To get it ready to go in the water, I had to go down to Chester to work on the boat in Heisler's Boat Yard, a picturesquely dilapidated collection full of old boats and parts of old boats on the edge of Chester's Back Bay. 


I loved the yard, loved the salty characters working on their boats, and was delighted to learn about the working class sailing culture of the South Shore.


The South Shore was once the home of a world-renowned wooden shipbuilding industry, which culminated in the Grand Banks schooner fleet, including the Bluenose, the fastest schooner of that era. It’s just as salty as all get out.


In Ontario, sailing can seem like a pastime for the upper class, a kind of conspicuous consumption similar to collecting luxury cars, an excuse for the wealthy to show off overpriced toys. On the South Shore, sailing feels like a normal part of life for people of all social classes, and the people who build wooden boats are custodians of a long tradition of craftsmanship, and the fishing people and sailors are heirs to a stoic seamanship.


I learned a bit about all that history while I spent time in Heisler's Boat Yard, getting attached to the place as I clumsily worked on my old boat.  


I remember stopping the car at the head of the bay one day, looking at the boatyard and thinking: I should write a mystery story set here.


When spring came, and the boat was ready, it was time to sail it to Halifax. My friend Ewen Wallace, who grew up sailing on the South Shore, came down to help me. We took the boat out past Tancook Island, into the steep swells of the open ocean, past Peggy’s Cove, through the Sambro Ledges and into Halifax Harbour to its new home in Purcell’s Cove.


That day stuck with me, and the Sambro Ledges became my “happy place,” a place I would think about from time to time. It’s a great to be on the water, rising and falling with the waves, watching the Atlantic combers smash against the granite shoals. 


I love the rough coastline of the South Shore, the clapboard houses, the wharves and fish sheds, the traditional wooden boats, and especially the people.  


In 2004, when I moved to Ottawa to cover politics on Parliament Hill for The Chronicle Herald, I missed Nova Scotia and would often think about the salt water, sailing, and the South Shore. I would sit at my desk on Parliament Hill, which had a nice view of the brown Ottawa River, which I thought of as a ditch.

Ditch or not, it’s where you sail in Ottawa. I bought a new old sailboat and started to slowly develop a grudging affection for the lazy sailing in the warm water of the Ottawa River. 


In the summer of 2008, I Ioaded my sailboat with groceries, my laptop, and a gasoline generator and headed down the Ottawa River to a quiet anchorage in a protected cove at Voyageur Provincial Park, not far from the border with Quebec.


I sailed down the river with the goal of staying on the boat until I finished the first draft of my first novel. I sat down and started typing. When the battery on my laptop got low, I would fire up the generator and keep typing, ignoring the dirty looks from other sailors who were looking forward to a quiet anchorage. When I ran into a plot problem, I would go for a swim, and hang off the anchor rope, with my ears below the water, and let the story unfold in my head until I was ready to climb up the ladder on the stern and resume typing.


Day after day, entirely alone, I kept typing. I spent 14 hours a day hunched over my laptop, writing the story of Phillip Scarnum, a sailor who finds himself in trouble after he salvages a foundering lobster boat on the Sambro Ledges.


By the time my vacation ended, I had the first draft of Salvage, a story about cocaine, sex, guns, and sailing. I think that I missed the South Shore so much that I had to create a parallel fictional South Shore in my laptop.

This week, after years of rewriting and tweaking, Dundurn published Salvage, and this summer it will be for sale in bookstores across Canada and the United States. 


I hope the people of the South Shore think I’ve got their part of the world right. I don’t mind if some of them don’t like the swearing or the sex or the violence. Some people have delicate sensibilities. 


But I hope they think I’ve got the place and its culture right. If they think it is false, I’ve failed. But if they think I’ve captured the spirit of the South Shore, then Salvage is a success and I don’t care too much how many copies it sells or what anybody else thinks about it.