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HOLIDAY BOOKS : Survival at Sea : Children's book author Gary Paulsen recalls his own sailing adventures in 'The Voyage of the Frog.'

December 13, 1990|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When 14-year-old David Alspeth set sail out of Ventura Harbor that May evening, it wasn't a pleasure cruise. He carried with him a small box containing the ashes of his beloved uncle who had bequeathed him the 22-foot sloop the Frog.

He intended to scatter the ashes at sea as his uncle had requested. But the voyage became a fight for his own life, as he spent nine days battling storms, sharks, killer whales and a near-collision with an oil tanker.

It's all in "The Voyage of the Frog" by Gary Paulsen, one of the hottest children's book authors in the country. Paulsen lives in New Mexico now, but for a memorable eight months during the mid-1960s he lived on a 24-foot sailboat in Ventura Harbor.

On a whim, he quit his job as an engineer in Barstow and moved to Los Angeles to become a writer. He figured the cheapest way to live was on a boat. Although he didn't know a whit about sailing, he spent $2,800 on a sailboat.

"I couldn't even raise the sails," he said in a telephone interview. He kept his boat in the Ventura Harbor because slip fees were the cheapest around and the marina was uncrowded.

"Nobody wanted to be there," he said. "The marina was very dangerous. It didn't have a breakwater then." Coming into the harbor could be a life-threatening experience.

But it was here that he learned to sail, mainly from anyone who would teach him. He wrote magazine articles and started a book. Those were lean times, and many of his meals consisted of anchovies he caught.

He sold the boat and left the Ventura County area, but he bought a second sloop in the late 1970s and kept it in Oxnard Harbor. He lived in Colorado at the time and dropped in now and then to sail the boat.

Most of David's adventures in the book happened to Paulsen--the tangles with whales and sharks and the storm.

The violent storm in the book is reminiscent of one that battered Paulsen and his wife, Ruth. They were on their way to Mission Bay from Oxnard to spend Christmas with friends.

"That storm hammered us for 18 hours," he said. "When we finally sailed back to Oxnard, Ruth never set foot on the boat again."

At 51, Paulsen has written nearly 100 books, half of them for children. He has been a runner-up for the Newbery Award for children's book authors three times.

His books draw on his own experiences. His new book, "Woodsong," is based on his passion for dog-sled racing. Another recent novel, "Canyons," takes place near his New Mexico home and delves into Indian history. His bestseller, "Hatchet," is about a boy who survives a plane crash and 54 days in the wilderness.

"I've lived that way," Paulsen said. "I've lived in the woods many weeks."

"The Voyage of the Frog" is another survival story. He wrote it, he said, simply because he loves sailing and the Pacific Ocean.

As Paulsen said: "It's kind of an addiction."

In addition to Gary Paulsen's books, others are selling well as Christmas approaches. Here is a list of hot titles collected from an informal survey of Ventura County book sellers:

* "Carl's Christmas" by Alexandra Day: This is another in a series of wordless picture books about the protective Rottweiler, Carl, and the infant he looks after. In this one, the tender canine takes the child on his back for a Christmas shopping romp.

* "Peace": A collection of stories, poems and songs by 30 popular children's writers and illustrators whose aim is to help children understand and appreciate the concept of peace.

* "Waldo" by Martin Handford: A series of books that are as much games, as kids try to find the Waldo character hidden on each page while they learn about history and geography. The newest book, "The Ultimate Fun Book," is a collection of puzzles, stickers and games.

* "The Wild Christmas Reindeer" by Jan Brett: The story of Teeka, an arctic resident who is asked by Santa to prepare the boisterous reindeer for their Christmas Eve voyage. She finds that patience and kindness work better than bossiness.

"Just a Dream" by Chris Van Allsburg: The story of Walter, a litterbug who can't be bothered with environmental concerns until his wish for a look at the future shows him what he hadn't expected.

* "50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth" by EarthWorks Group: Just as it says, a list of simple home projects designed to protect the environment--everything from how to detect water leaks to starting a compost pile.

* "The Little Mermaid" editions by both Disney and the original author, Hans Christian Andersen: The story of the little mermaid who falls in love with a human.

* "Babysitters Club" by Ann Martin: The never-ending series about seven teen-age girls and their adventures.

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