Former Coconut Grove resident and novelist Ann Lee Miller has incorporated her eye-rolling adolescent years living aboard a sailboat at Dinner Key Marina into her second novel, The Art of My Life, which launched Sept. 25.
As an 11-year-old, Miller’s moving aboard the Annie Lee warranted little more than a yawn.
“My dad, a dead ringer for Willie Nelson, had already packed the family into a VW van for a year to pan for gold out West and in Mexico, pitched us a tent on a St. John beach in the Virgin Islands, and built a dinghy in our 27th Avenue and 11th Street rental house he had to dismantle to get out the door,” Miller said.
Her father, Dick Fetterman’s, second boat — a 36-foot yawl — he built in the yard out of plywood and fiberglass. Miller watched the boat take shape from skeleton to upside down ark to floatable RV during her elementary years at the old Shenandoah Elementary School. Familiarity made hauling the yawl by crane to the Miami River and moving aboard seem like no big deal. Miller slept in the aft cabin beside a pile of lumber, terrorized by a spider the size of her hand and a spare palmetto bug or two. Every morning she tore down the dock on her bike, “rattling the teeth out of my head,” to Saint Hugh’s Catholic School. It was 1969- 71, and passed-out hippies littered Bayfront Park’s benches. Hair played in the Coconut Grove Playhouse where the actors performed naked. The cool, quiet lower level of the Coconut Grove Library, shrouded in swaying greenery, became Miller’s sanctuary, the place she escaped into fiction.
In the afternoons she shimmied into her bathing suit, cannon-balled off the end of Pier 1, looked both ways, and dodged boat traffic to the nearby island.
“I thought my life was unremarkable because every other kid at the marina lived it, too,” Miller said.
She calls the 36-foot sailboat an aquaculture for mold and dysfunction that launched her — in lieu of therapy — into writing. But more telling is the fact that sailboats appear in all four of her completed novels — two more books will debut within the next six months. Perhaps, just maybe, her family drama wasn’t the boat’s fault. But, according to Miller, the boat did become the crucible that broke her parents’ marriage.
Still, she recalls positives from the ages 11, 12 and 13 at the marina. Her family rescued an injured turtle the size of a car tire and nursed it back to health in the cockpit of the Annie Lee. Her father taught her and all the other “dock rats” life skills like how to open a coconut with a hammer and screw driver without spilling the milk, filet a fish by sticking your fingers into the eye sockets for a good grip, and rub a blow fish’s stomach till it puffed up, then throw it back into the bay to deflate and swim away.
On weekends Miller’s family putted into Biscayne Bay with a 10-horse Johnson outboard, then raised sail on mismatched masts, one aluminum, one wood.
Of sailing, Miller said, “I was bored silly and snacked on powdered eggs and grilled peanut butter sandwiches while Mom and I read Gone With The Wind aloud — she skipping the racy parts; I ferreting them out later.”
Buoys made her folks crazy. Miller’s father knew “red right returning,” but he was colorblind. Her mother recognized colors, but not what they meant. So, Miller got handy with the depth sounder — a long mop handle with notches carved at foot intervals. Once, the pole stuck in seaweed and mud with Miller attached. She screamed bloody murder as the Annie Lee sailed off.
Since her father had captained the University of Miami’s swim team in college, “I darn sure knew how to swim. But boy howdy was he PO-ed when he had to fetch me from the shallows.” Miller’s younger brother, Richard James “R.J.” Fetterman Jr., a surfer who settled on Maui, hadn’t completed his swimming indoctrination when the family moved aboard and still ran around the dock with a Styrofoam football on a belt circling his waist. Every month or so, their father hacked off another slice of the thing till her brother could swim on his own.
R.J., who still says these were the best years of his life, rode his tricycle full-tilt off the end of the dock. A fully clothed stranger jumped in to fish him out. Their dad had to dive for the trike. The next time R.J. cycled off the end of the pier, their father went after him, and the tricycle stayed at the bottom of the bay.
Even at her snottiest, Miller said, she couldn’t help being grateful for pram sailing lessons she took adjacent to Bayfront Park where she picked up the much appreciated life skill of capsizing — one she has indulged many times. The actual going over didn’t thrill her. What she loved was standing on the dagger board, flipping the mast upright, and watching water sluice off the sail. Her sailing companions have failed to share her fascination.
Staying up late, armed with nets and spotlights when the shrimp were running, did have its appeal. But the 11-, 12-, and 13- year-old Miller whined about picking fish bones out of her spaghetti, wearing zinc oxide as a second skin, and never-ending boat chores.
“If I’d known I was living the swan song of my parents’ marriage, making lifelong friends, packing memories like a thousand sea sponges into a dock box — maybe I would have rolled my eyes less and said ‘thank you’ more,” Miller concluded.
Today she’s saying thank you by penning novels that capture life aboard ship. Miller’s new book, The Art of My Life, chronicles a guy trying to get his charter sailing business off the ground. The novel is available in e-formats at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and Smashwords.com. Paperback versions can be purchased at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.
About the novel: Cal walked out of jail and into a second chance at winning Aly with his grandma’s beater sailboat and a reclaimed dream of sailing charters.
Aly has the business smarts, strings to a startup loan, and heart he never should have broken. He has got squat. Unless you count enough original art to stock a monster rummage sale and an affection for weed.
But he had only ever loved Aly. That had to count for something. Aly needed a guy who owned yard tools, tires worth rotating, and a voter’s registration card. He’d be that guy or die trying.
For anyone who has ever struggled to measure up — and failed.
About the author: Ann Lee Miller earned a BA in creative writing from Ashland (OH) University and writes full-time in Phoenix, but left her heart in New Smyrna Beach, where she grew up. She loves speaking to young adults and guest lectures on writing at several Arizona colleges. When she isn’t writing or muddling through some crisis — real or imagined — you’ll find her hiking in the Superstition Mountains with her husband or meddling in her kids’ lives.
For more information visit online at www.AnnLeeMiller.com.