Telling the story of the girl who went to sea

Nancy Richards with her book, The Skipper’s Daughter.

Nancy Brooks was 16 when she joined her father on a cargo ship for a six-month sea voyage.

Despite her mother Ethel’s misgivings and warnings from a gypsy fortune teller of a waiting peril, Nancy signed on as a captain’s clerk, earning a shilling a week on her father Captain Thomas William Brooks’s ship, SS Nailsea Manor, which left Liverpool, England, in 1938, to circumnavigate the globe.

What happened on that voyage is told in a new book, The Skipper’s Daughter, by Nancy’s daughter, Nancy Richards, of Rosebank.

Ms Richards says the book has been 33 years in the making.

At the heart of the memoir is a tragedy, says Ms Richards, that she does not want to spoil for readers.

“On the long six-month journey, my mother kept a diary and logbook, which I used, which shared details of what the book is about, there were also many letters which my mum wrote,” she says.

Ms Richards, who has worked as a freelancer for Fairlady and as a programme presenter on SAfm, is the author of Beautiful Homes, which she worked on for Fairlady, and Woman Today: A Celebration: Fifty Years of South African Women compiled with SAfm’s Hilary Reynolds.

Her latest book though is far more personal. It tells a story that she first heard snippets of as a child. All she knew then was that something awful had happened.

“My mother never really talked about it, as it was a bit of a taboo subject. And 30-odd years ago, I was on a plane with my mother and asked her to tell me the story.”

When she heard the story from her mother, she knew it was something she wanted to write down, but she didn’t quite know how to go about it.

When lockdown happened, she resolved to use the isolation it brought to work on the book, and she found ready support from her publisher, Karina Szczurek. “She was my deputy captain,” says Ms Richards.

“There were so many things that I did not know. I found all the old photographs and press cuttings, and it felt like peeling all these layers of family; it felt like I was having them with me,” she says.

It was important for her to honour the memories of all the late family members who were part of the book. Her mother died in 2008 at the age of 86. After returning from her sea voyage, she would go on to marry, drive ambulances during the war and work her way up from being a secretary to a high-flying fashion consultant, travelling the world.

Ms Richards notes that it is a strange coincidence that, apart from being her mother’s namesake, she too is a skipper’s daughter, as her mother married Captain Ronald Saunders Richards.

“She was Nancy Richards senior and I was Nancy Richards junior.”

Ms Richards says a percentage of proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards the National Sea Rescue Institute.

The Skipper’s Daughter is available at major book retailers as well as The Book Lounge and can be bought online at Loot for R240.

Nancy Brooks with her father, Captain Thomas William Brooks, on the SS Nailsea Manor in 1938.