Zibby chats with writer, sailor, and scientist Hannah Stowe about her exquisite, luminous memoir, MOVE LIKE WATER: MY STORY OF THE SEA. Hannah describes her unique upbringing in Pembrokeshire, Wales, surrounded by the sea and abundant marine life, which sparked her passion for marine biology and sailing. She recounts her experiences working on research boats and studying marine life. She also discusses a significant spinal injury sustained while surfing, highlighting the dismissive attitudes of healthcare professionals and her struggle with the physical and mental aspects of healing. Zibby and Hannah also touch on Hannah’s family background, her future plans, including a book about the history of women in seafaring, and her approach to life and creativity.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hannah. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Move Like Water: My Story of the Sea, a memoir.

Hannah Stowe: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m so honored to have you on. First of all, beautiful story in so many different ways. Can you tell listeners a little bit about, why the memoir? Tell them a little bit more about your whole aquatic existence, so to speak.

Hannah: I grew up in Pembrokeshire in West Wales, which is a peninsula, so it’s surrounded by the sea on three sides. The weather there is quite a big factor of living there. You get these really strong southwesterlies, which are the tropical maritime wind which blows northeast, so from up towards the UK. It’s this warm, wet wind that brings this whole salt slick with it. I grew up being quite immersed in the water, whether you wanted to be or not. It’s Britain’s only coastal national park. The marine life there is really abundant. Growing up there, I kind of took it for granted because you just think that’s normal. That’s what everyone experiences. I’d walk on the coast path. There’d be seals in the water and breeding on the beaches. I’d watch them have their pups every year, early summer. There’ll still be some late pups being born now even though the autumn storms are starting to sweep in. Growing up there, marine life was all around you. That was coupled with my upbringing. From sixteen onwards, I do remember feeling this huge itch to travel and adventure and explore. I just got obsessed with the idea of seeing what was over the horizon.

I started working on a tourist boat when I was eighteen, which did trips around Ramsey Island, which is an RSPB reserve, which is a charity for birds in the UK. I started working there but really soon afterwards, started sailing. My first big breakthrough was on a boat off the coast of Canada, which was a sailing boat. We were doing research for someone’s PhD on northern bottlenose whales. I was there to sail the boat, but doing the research was really amazing. It was really a life-changing trip. Afterwards, I started studying marine biology. Then I combined the two things, so working as a sailor and studying marine biology. I ended up doing , whale, dolphin, and porpoise research based on sailing boats. I was having all these experiences which were really wild to me. It was like living in Blue Planet or some nature documentary. Also, so removed from anything anyone in my family had done, so I was writing these letters home all the time. It sort of came from there. Then also, another scientist that I was working with — I used to keep these journals, which were research and just travel journals. I used to illustrate them. It was just for me. One day, I was going through one of them. He saw it. He was like, “What are you doing with this? You should publish this.” That’s kind of how it started.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Tell me what the rest of your family — when you were writing the letters, tell me about that. Nobody else was interested in what lurked beyond the horizon?

Hannah: I think they were very interested. If I go from my mother’s family, my grandmother was from the most working-class family. I think blue collar is the equivalent in the US. She left school at fourteen to work because she had to. Then she doesn’t have a passport. She’s never left the UK. She sort of lived within her horizons. Then my mom’s an artist and illustrator and writer also. She went a bit further. Then I feel like she has expanded this sphere a little bit. In how she brought me up, she really just gave me the confidence, or delusion, to do whatever I felt like I wanted to do. My mom has lived on the coast. She lives where I grew up, but she’s never been to sea in the same way. She’s never been out of the sight of land. It’s something that she’d really love to do. She hasn’t been hugely well in the last few years. She’s just had a surgery and recovery. One part of that is going to be her coming on my boat with me. We’re going to take her on an adventure.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I loved what you write about all of your work and all of that. What really hit home for me and that I couldn’t stop thinking about was your own personal physical journey, your injury, your recovery, your relationship to pain, and the way you wrote through that, which I found incredibly gripping. I felt so badly for you and was like, oh, my gosh, get another opinion. I wanted to leap through the book and get you to the right hospital and all that. Can you talk a little about what happened and where things went wrong, what you would do differently? Not that you could have done anything differently. It was the system, of course. Just so frustrating that this happened to you. How you feel about the whole thing.

Hannah: It’s quite wild. I had a spinal injury in 2017, I think, around six or seven years ago. I was surfing. Basically, my back got squished by a wave. I knew I’d hurt myself, but I didn’t really know how much. I always thought a spinal injury would be super traumatic and you wouldn’t be able to walk, which in some cases is the case but in other cases is not. I knew something was wrong with me. I kept going to doctors. I kept being really dismissed. One doctor, she didn’t even do any physical examination of me at all. She just said, “You look really healthy.” I’m like, yeah, because the problem’s in my spine, not in my face. I think this is a global problem. I only really know about the UK health-care system. It is not set up for women to be believed with conditions they have. It’s almost like you have to prove how bad things are for you to just get basic care. This doesn’t really seem to be getting any better.

Basically, I had fractured a vertebrae. I had a herniated, dehydrated disc. I had one surgery. When they eventually took it seriously, I basically went from being told, “You’re fine. Go away,” to “Oh, you actually need surgery straight away.” I think part of me knew that, but it was also quite a shocking experience. I was twenty-three or twenty-two, very early twenties. It’s just not something that you expect to experience. The funny thing is I was never — when I started writing the book, I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how much I was going to talk about it just because it still felt like quite a raw experience for me and quite a lot to unpick and unpack. While I was writing the book, I’d only written one chapter, and I actually reinjured my back again, which was only because it was never actually fixed properly the first time. Even after I had these very invalidating experiences, I started going back to the surgeon who did my surgery and just saying I didn’t feel right. He said, “Well, I can’t see what the problem is,” which should’ve been, “I can’t see what the problem is, so I’m going to investigate and find out.” It made me feel like, oh, maybe I’m the problem.

I reinjured my back. All I did to reinjure it was, I was just turning over in bed. I was really lucky because I’d just finished a really long sailing trip. It would’ve been so catastrophically bad if it had happened a week before. While I was writing the book, I actually ended up — my previous experience was definitely the worst experience of my life. I didn’t expect it to happen again. Then when I realized that is what was happening again, that was quite a jarring moment. I think it was good for the book because it sort of let me reexplore the first time. Then while I was writing the book, I ended up getting a second surgery. That has been a really positive experience. It’s completely fixed now. I have a great neurosurgeon who actually was the first person to apologize to me. He was the first person to take into account female hormones and how they affect your back and flexibility and things like that. It just seemed crazy to me that this is the first person who’s even considered this is a — if you have a monthly cycle, which women have for a really long time — he’s the first person who actually considered how that will affect mobility and things like that.

Zibby: How does it affect mobility?

Hannah: If you’re menstruating, around that time, you will be more flexible. I was always way more prone to hurting myself in those periods. I’m hypermobile anyway. Then it was causing more problems without really knowing to take that .

Zibby: Wow. Does that mean during those times, now you’re a lot more careful?

Hannah: I’m actually having a baby next month.

Zibby: Oh, that’s amazing.

Hannah: I was worried about my joints through this process. I’ve just known to be really careful. I’ve been completely fine. It’s great.

Zibby: Congratulations. That’s really exciting.

Hannah: Thank you.

Zibby: Can I read a passage or two about when you got hurt and your relationship to pain and healing and all that? When you hurt yourself, I just wanted to read when this happened. “For a minute, I was going carried along with the wave, and then without intending to, I pulled back. I didn’t feel in control of my body. It was too late, and the wave took me with it anyway, tumbling head over heels as the crest broke. Surfacing, gasping for air, eyes and nose streaming, I grabbed for my board and tried again. Again. Again. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get it together. I was never in the right place. Up was down, down was up as I was tumbled over and over. The water no longer held me. It threw me, a cat playing with a mouse. I did not know this water. I did not know this self. My pulse was racing, my breath fast, shallow, panicked. My chest felt like it was being pressed inwards. I knew I needed to get to the shore and started to paddle. A large wave caught me from behind. I hadn’t heard it coming, the noise inside my own head suddenly too loud for me to hear the water. I couldn’t even fathom trying to ride it as the water crashed. It jarred me down hard into my board and held me there. My eyes stung with tears. I was burning, lungs, back, ankle. I was rolled over and over until the water shallowed and I was unceremoniously dumped on the shore.” Wow, you’re in it with you reading that. Does it feel weird to just hear it? Do you immediately feel like you’re in it again?

Hannah: That chapter of the book, I’ve only read it to edit it. I’ve never read it as a whole. I wanted to write it the way that it was. I feel like if my writing is ever good, it’s very immersive, but that means I’m also there too. I trust my editor a lot. Both my UK and US editors are just absolutely great. I trusted them to tell me if anything was there that shouldn’t be there. When I was asked to read the audiobook, I did say no because I don’t think I’d be able to get through that chapter.

Zibby: Although, your voice is amazing. I could just listen to you speak all day. This is your response later to pain. Hold on, I’m going to read a second one. This is how you had to walk differently. “My walk was slow with a slight limp as a tried to keep up, my friend’s regular gait always half a step in front of mine. That half step seemed like a mile. It felt as if I was watching everyone else walk on with their lives while I fell behind. I tried to walk down to the water as much as I could. There were good days where I could make it and stare out over the winter sea, and I would remember my why, why I was still studying, why I got out of bed each day. There were bad days too when the walk was too far or too depressingly difficult. I felt like I was being given more and more to deal with, a tightrope set higher and higher, and yet all my methods of finding balance — running, swimming, yoga, walking — all of my safety nets were being pulled away. The one thing I did still have were pens for my hands, paint, brushes. Every night, I poured out all the things I could never find the world to say out loud, pages and pages written to myself, pep talks, the things I was grateful for. I couldn’t sail anymore. I could hardly stand on dry land, let alone on the swell of the sea. I couldn’t venture offshore into the world of the whale, so in my little room, I painted it, the seas, the stars, the skies, the spray.” Really beautiful. You’re a beautiful writer.

Hannah: When I started writing — I think most people write when they’re a kid. Then I’d stopped and then started again at that point.

Zibby: What about the actual painting? Are you still doing that? How much does that help with your narrative and creativity in general?

Hannah: I’m quite a visual person. Sometimes the images come first. The book first came out in the UK. For the UK edition, I ended up doing —

Zibby: — Wait, hold up the cover of the UK edition. Oh, beautiful. For people listening, the US cover is more illustrated, almost like a watercolor of a whale with drops and birds and a boat in the back. I can’t explain anything. The UK cover is much more visual, a white background, navy bottom with this giant whale bursting out of the water.

Hannah: This is a humpback that I painted. This one’s also illustrated. I think the images came first for the book. It’s just another way of communicating. Sometimes you have to be almost smarter than using words. I like having the words and the images together. Just because it’s nonfiction, it doesn’t mean that you have to separate these two things. With regards to actual painting, I was doing the cover for the book, the UK one, right before my second surgery, which I probably shouldn’t have done. It was really painful to do it. I’ve had a bit of a mental block around painting since, for over a year, which is kind of frustrating. I’m hoping I will get through it at some point.

Zibby: Is there a place where you have all the — I haven’t gone to your website, I must admit. Are they all up there, all the illustrations?

Hannah: I’ve actually just put them online. I have just finished redesigning my website. I just put them on yesterday.

Zibby: Yesterday? See, I should’ve looked this morning. I should’ve pretended. Oh, I looked last weekend. I didn’t see anything. One last paragraph. This is about healing. Let’s see. I don’t know where to start. It’s all so good. I’ll just read a little bit so I don’t read your entire book on the show. “I have since had a lot of time to reflect on healing. I now know that recovery is rarely like any of the triumphant comeback stories that are portrayed in the media. The reality is a visceral, gritty struggle of progress, uncomfortable lessons and setbacks, and it is unclear when the process ends. For me, there was the physical side of healing, the side that needed surgery, a side that, five years later, means I still need injections in my spine, and I will always need physiotherapy.” Now of course, we know you had a second surgery. “There is also the mental side, which is less often spoken about, as well as the part where physical and mental combine. For me, I think healing is like a garden. You have to choose the right location for the right plants, the place where they can grow. You must provide sunlight, water, and nutrients. You must prune with a gentle hand and rip out any weed that will inhibit and stifle. It is not a linear process. It comes in cycles, in seasons with dormant periods, and you need to give it time, which was the hardest thing for me to understand. The pace of my life had always been extreme. I had reached out for anything I ever wanted, worked for it until it was mine. I did not understand how to be slow, how to be still.” I totally relate to that, oh, my gosh. It’s so hard for anybody to just take their normal life and be like, oh, okay, so this happened, and now I have to change everything. I’m reliant on this for my mental health and my physical health, and now it’s all gone. It’s out of my control. Maybe I’m just projecting.

Hannah: From that point, I didn’t know that I was going to have the second surgery. I actually found out that I was definitely going to have it the week after I handed in the manuscript. It was quite strange timing. When you think about difficult things and if you would have the time to do it, you’re hardly ever given that chance. That’s one thing I am really pleased with my second recovery. I have just given myself so much time. I gave myself a year before I started sailing again. You just have to trust in that process. I’m actually about to finish work for maternity leave, which is really difficult because I know I’m going to have to turn down things in that time that I will want to do. It’s so hard to trust that they will come around again. I’m really trying to lean into that and just trusting that things will come up at the right time and taking the space because you can never get the time back.

Zibby: You may feel differently once you have the actual baby. I’m just going to throw that out there. Things might not seem quite as enticing as they seem now, or maybe more so. I don’t know. Everyone experiences it differently. This is going to sound ridiculous, but you’re so young. You have your whole life in front of you. There are going to be eight million other opportunities. You’re very, very talented, obviously, in many ways, so I have no doubt.

Hannah: This is why I think there is no rush in life. Sometimes you’re sort of made to feel like you have to do this and this and this by a certain age or whatever. That’s been my biggest change recently. There’s no rush.

Zibby: There is no rush. You already published a memoir. How old are you? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine? How old are you?

Hannah: Twenty-nine.

Zibby: Twenty-nine. You’re good. You’re ahead of the game.

Hannah: In the end of the book, I’m twenty-five. I was like, it’s kind of a weird thing to do, writing a memoir at twenty-five.

Zibby: I think memoir has changed a lot. It used to be, basically, autobiography, a memoir of my whole experience. Now it’s just a long personal essay, essentially. It’s sharing a piece of your life that’s really important. You don’t necessarily need to do it at any age. I will say it took me until I was forty-six to publish my own memoir. There you go.

Hannah: I had all of it in my head. Now it feels a lot better that it’s not in my head. It’s somewhere else.

Zibby: Yes, it’s very therapeutic. Are you writing any more in your — I know you’re not painting, but what creative outlets are you using at the moment?

Hannah: I’m actually contracted for my second book at the moment, which is going to be about the female history of seafaring. It’s nonfiction again. There’s two things. When I pitched the book, this wasn’t the plan, but I think it’s going to have an element of motherhood and how that’s going to be and that sort of transition in my personal narrative in the book along with looking at some of the pioneering women in the past who have gone to sea and changed that landscape whose stories we don’t necessarily get told. It’s going to be a lot of digging around in maritime museum archives and some travels and hopefully, some sailing for me as well. That’s the plan.

Zibby: Amazing. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Hannah: I would like to give this to myself. Don’t take things too personally. You don’t need everybody to like your work. You need one acceptance. You don’t need ten. Just find your own way. I always read things saying you should try and write five minutes every day, but my writing actually gets worse if I do too much. Just find what works for you. You have to be a bit thick-skinned.

Zibby: Is there a place in the world, a body of water, someplace you are longing to explore?

Hannah: Yes, South China Sea. That’s going to be, hopefully, the central ground of my next book. I’m planning trips, but I don’t know when it’s going to manifest itself right now because obviously, I’m about to have this huge change in life. We’ll get there somehow, someway, somehow.

Zibby: You will not be moving like water. You will be moving like a very slow glacier with a thousand penguins on your back. Something like that. Hannah, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” especially as a soon-to-be-mom yourself. Thank you for sharing your pain, your healing, your experience. I feel like you’re going to be one of these famous examples of the modern-day woman sailor. I feel like I’m going to see you on the cover of Time magazine in ten years and be like, I interviewed her!

Hannah: I’m up for it. I’m just at home a lot of the time hanging out with my cat. I never used to take any time off. Now I have more time. I’m working it out.

Zibby: There are different seasons of life. This is just one, as you well know from your book. Congratulations. Lovely chatting.

Hannah: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

MOVE LIKE WATER: My Story of the Sea by Hannah Stowe

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