‘Night Race to Kawau’ turns 40 – a chat with author Tessa Duder
Tessa Duder didn’t start as a writer or a sailor but her writing has become an integral part of new Zealand nautical storytelling with her original sailing novel – “Night Race to Kawau”.
“I didn’t know where the book came from – I had a getaway to Kawau with a sleepless night and it was like catching a story. I wanted to write an adventure story where a mother and daughter have to cope with problems and do it themselves – and started writing “Night Race” the next day!” says Tessa.
“All I knew would happen is that a mother and daughter would have to take charge after trouble in the Tiri Channel”.
Night Race to Kawau follows a mother and an 11 year old girl, Sam, surviving what could have been a nasty experience and realizing they know more than they do – so they are able to cope with the father being knocked unconscious and get themselves to safety using the sailing skills they had picked up through experience.
“The family has obstacles which keep getting in their way, just like what happens with anything in life. The book has happily stayed relatable to everyone for 40 years, and you don’t need to know how to sail to understand the story of getting yourself out of trouble”, says Tessa.
However, parts of the book are true anecdotes from Duder’s sailing experience. “The pavlova story is a real story! One wife came teetering down the ramp saying we forgot a pavlova and we had to decide whether to go back or leave it on the dock – and I thought “what an extraordinary thing to take on the boat”!
During her 4 years of writing ‘Night Race to Kawau’, Duder found herself engrossed in fellow nautical writers like Peter Anson and K.M Peyton as inspiration while reading and researching in Takapuna Library.
“I had many mothers say they aren’t sure if I want my kid to read the book because it may scare them – I thought that’s very much ‘helicopter’ mothering and keeping them away from risks”, says Tessa.
“The book functions as a parable for any sailing family – it is always lightly risky and you can get into trouble. Any sailor would have had a similar issue they have had to overcome and people still go sailing due to or despite the dangers sailing have”.
Although not a sailor by trade, Tessa has always been drawn to the water from a young age – having won a silver medal for swimming at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, her father-in-law Nelson Duder having been the RNZYS’s Commodore and having had the reception for her marriage to John Duder in the RNZYS Ballroom.
“I met John in 1964 and he was a sailor – I had been on board before but having John take me on trip aboard his Logan 30 footer ‘Spray’ really got me involved”. Since then, Tessa has been a part of 3 Night Race’s to Kawau and has continued sailing as much as possible, having sailed in the UK, Malaysia and Pakistan.
“I was involved as an instructor in the first waterwise at Milford, where Prince William and Princess Diana opened it! I think Yacht clubs like Murrays Bay and Kohimarama in Auckland have created a great generation of sailors in Optimist’s and P-Classes, and I now see the amazing turnout’s Wakatere Boating Club get as well as racing from the RNZYS almost daily through summer” says Tessa. She still sails as extra crew to this day aboard ‘Spray’, and still loves to be back out on the water
“’Night Race to Kawau’ took me 4 years to write, and I was living in Malaysia when I was told my book had been accepted by the Oxford University Press by a North Shore book shop owner that had given the manuscript to them”
“I was lucky to get in at the ground level, as Oxford University Press was just starting a New Zealand list which included Morris Gee’s ‘Under the Mountain’ and Gavin Bishop’s books. We really founded a whole new wave of New Zealand children’s books”.
Tessa believes she was very lucky to have Wendy Harrex as her editor, and in a collaborative effort they cut out 30,000 words after being told to ‘just tell the story’ that Tessa believes really kickstarted her writing career.
‘Night Race to Kawau’ was originally shortlisted for the New Zealand children’s book of the year which Tessa saw as a huge achievement. However, she doesn’t know how many copies have been sold.
“I’m really pleased with the new cover from Penguin – it’s a fantastic complement to have a 40th Anniversary copy. I originally just wanted to be published, hold the book in my hands and ensure people enjoyed the book – the first copy I received meant all my Christmases came true after 4 years!”
“I’m very pleased and honoured that is it still around in 40 years – very few Kiwi authors have had that opportunity especially for my first book, and I like to think we began a golden era of professional writers of children’s literature that hasn’t slowed down to this day!”
Just like sailing, Tessa has seen the changes in writing from when she began her career. “Young writers these days approach it different and want to get great reviews, overseas contracts and publicity with every weapon available – and good on them for making that opportunity. We didn’t have that option, so their expectations are much higher – for me if kids got introduced to sailing and love the adventure story, that is goal achieved”.
“I think kids stopping reading is unfortunate but kids are still reading for pleasure due to the heroic acts of teachers -I love keeping involved in Storylines Children’s Literature Trust where authors speak to 50k kids about reading yearly and keeping recreational reading.
“I feel my biggest achievement was I was walking through a school corridor and was thanked by a teacher. He had a 14 year old who has been resistant to reading for pleasure, but gave him Night Race, and he has never stopped reading since. It was such a compliment and a reward that a book of mine allowed for them to open up to the pleasure of reading”.
“If my books allow kids to keep their reading going, that’s great”