Frank Burnaby

Gulf Islands Driftwood Interview

Gulf Islands Driftwood

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Author shares story of adventure and growth


Author Frank Burnaby’s wife Gayle and their infant son Kokko, with the home the family built on a tiny island in the Maldives in the 1970s glimpsed in the background. The story of how they got there is told in Burnaby’s new book called Island Born.

Island Born Launches April 19

If you’ve ever dreamed about leaving everything behind to sail around the world until beaching on that perfect Pacific atoll, you’re surely in good company.

The sea adventure and its co-conspirator, the island survival story, have fascinated the public for centuries, beginning with Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Living on a small boat or a remote island clearly brings some challenges, but the independence and enforced simplicity of such lifestyles can make either choice sound ideal — from a safe remove, that is.

Salt Spring writer Frank Burnaby is one of the rare people in the world who has actually known both parts of the equation, completing an amazing emotional and physical journey with his young wife Gayle in the 1970s. Their adventures and the birth of their son Kokko on a tiny island in the Maldives are recounted in Burnaby’s memoir Island Born, which will have its official Salt Spring launch at the Lions Hall starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

The story of how this young couple purchased and outfitted a boat, learned how sail, and took off “the wrong way” around the world into the troubled waters of the Middle East and beyond includes more than one component that readers will find astounding. Hardly less surprised is Burnaby himself, who has come to see how remarkable these feats were from the vantage of the present day.

Driftwood article author snapshot

Frank Burnaby

“Experiences grow on you and you begin to realize what they were,” Burnaby said.

“I’d never thought of having a baby in my life, much less on an island. And much less deliver it myself.”

Looking back on his writing he says, “I’m amazed when I read it. I think, ‘Are these people nuts?’ And in a way they were, wonderfully nuts.”

Burnaby met Gayle in Venice Beach in 1972. He was 27 and she was 17; he came from a comfortable background while she lived in the projects and on the streets. Something brought them together that was enough to convince Gayle to believe in Burnaby’s dream and join him in England, where he purchased a vintage 40-ft cutter built of Burmese teak.

Travelling east, they were the first sailboat to go through the Suez Canal after it was reopened following the Arab-Israeli wars. They were trapped in Ethiopia for months by a combination of being detained by naval gunboats on two separate occasions and then missing the trade winds. They even weathered an extra-marital affair before arriving at last in the Maldives, where they were to build their home with permission and support from a local headman.

“It really wasn’t about place, it was about a place inside us, more than outside of us,” Burnaby said of their bare bones island life. “Finding a way to be self-reliant was a way to continue our relationship of intimacy with ourselves and the world around us, and what started us on our sea voyage. So going from boat to island came as a surprise to us too, but when we realized what was going on we just went for it — totally.”

“We both had a similar approach to understanding our lives,” Burnaby said.

“Gayle was a tough one. She didn’t look to anyone to decide what she was going to do … When she decided to sail across an ocean, she sailed across an ocean. When she decided to have a baby on an island, she found the resources within herself to do it.”

Gayle died of cancer when her son was just 14, after the family had returned to North America. Kokko himself has become a corporate head hunter based in Seattle. He is an artist in his spare time and sails on the weekends.

“The story of his origins is a source of pride for him,” Burnaby said.

While Burnaby didn’t write Island Born to impart a lesson to his son or anyone else, he feels it can be a metaphor for how to live through one’s imagination.

“I think it’s really important to dream from that place — and step into your dream,” he said. “You may not be able to sustain that life, but you have to put yourself out there.”

Island Born is available at Salt Spring Books and on

The book launch begins at 7 p.m. with refreshments and an author discussion starts at 7:30 p.m.

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