“I’m passionate about education after spending a decade trapped on a boat as a child”

At the age of seven, Suzanne Heywood was taken out of school and spent the next 10 years living on a small boat at sea with her family.

Deprived of formal education, friends and even safety, Suzanne returned to the United Kingdom at 17 and won a place at Oxford University. Today she is an author and a business person involved in running several companies.

Her latest book is Wavewalker: Breaking Free – an astonishing account of her upbringing. Suzanne said: “It’s about when I was living in a very different world, trapped for a decade on a boat as a child, unable to go to normal school or have normal friendships.”

All proceeds from the event to launch Wavewalker: Breaking Free were donated to Theirworld to support our work. In the latest of our Spotlight On… series, Suzanne talks about her own experience and the importance of education.

When you began travelling, what did you miss most about school?

At first what I missed most were all my friends. I went from seeing them every day to spending all my time just with my younger brother, on what were often several weeks-long voyages. But over time what I also came to miss was the opportunity to learn.

What was your schooling like onboard Wavewalker?

It was very minimal! My mother was a primary school teacher and took some maths and English worksheets with us. But she only gave us these when we were at sea and when it was not rough weather. And she did not have the patience to ask my (many) questions on them – I was a curious child. After the first year or two of our voyage, even this minimal schooling stopped.

What helped you understand why getting back into formal education and going to university was so important?

We had crew who would come on to the boat for short voyages – in fact the boat became a little like a floating hotel, as my father charged these crew to sail with us. From some of the crew I began to understand the possibility of going to university and using that to start a career. For me that became a way to escape from life on the boat.

How did returning to education help you grow and develop as a person?

Unfortunately, I was never able to return to normal school – I completed all of my schooling in the end by post. This meant that I had a lot to learn when I eventually went to university. In particular, I had to learn how to be around people my own age.

You’ve helped to raise awareness, funds and support for Theirworld. Why is it so important to you to help children access a quality education?

I am passionate about this because it was something that was denied to me as a child. I believe that all children have a right to an education. If they have that opportunity, and make good use of it, they can change their lives and the lives of those around them.

What keeps you motivated when challenges seem too large to overcome?

I have learned that if you take small steps forward, even if it seems that you are not making progress, you will do so over time. Sometimes it is better to concentrate on overcoming the small challenges rather than trying to see how a large challenge will eventually be overcome.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned outside the classroom?

Resilience. Every one of us will face challenges in our lives and setbacks. What differentiates people is often not “good luck” but resilience when your luck is bad – the ability to pick yourself up and keep going. It may sound extreme but when I face a problem, I often think back to being shipwrecked as a small girl on Wavewalker – and that puts everything else into proportion.

Theirworld Chair Sarah Brown calls Wavewalker: Breaking Free “a jaw-dropping and thrilling real-life adventure on the high seas”. Read other reviews and learn more about this remarkable book.


This is the story of my new book “Wavewalker”. Imagine being trapped at sea for a decade…! It is a true story

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