About Michael

Sketch by Jill Hurley

Michael Hurley is an American author and attorney who lives in London. His wife Jill retired from schoolteaching in England to cross the Atlantic with him aboard their thirty-two foot, 1967 British-built sloop, Nevermore. The pair were married in London in 2018 after spending two years sailing the West Indies and eventually to America, a voyage of 7,000 miles in total. Michael has two grown children: a son, Kip, and a daughter, Caroline, who live in the States.

Michael was born in 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest by ten years of the four children of Jay and Joanne Hurley. His father took a degree in economics from Columbia University but lacked the funds during the Great Depression to accept the place offered to him at Harvard Law School. Jay gradually succumbed to alcoholism and bipolar disorder after serving with the Marines in some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific during World War II. An abusive drunk, he left the family for good by the time Michael was two, but Joanne’s refusal to condemn or completely abandon Jay for the rest of his troubled life was a lesson in kindness and forgiveness that remained indelible for their youngest son. Joanne, suddenly a single parent with a high school education and no work experience, taught herself to type and worked two jobs, eventually rising in the ranks of federal social service agencies to afford Michael an idyllic childhood.

In the 1960s and 70s, Michael studied piano for several years at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but he was quietly asked not to return when professors complained of his failure to practice classical pieces by notation in lieu of ragtime and jazz. He continues to play piano, however, and during college performed as a jazz pianist in bars and at cocktail parties.

Michael spent summers as a small boy with children from rather more well-to-do families in private camps that his mother struggled to afford. He took first prize in English equestrian show jumping at the McDonough School near Baltimore, where he stood out not only for his form but for the white miner’s helmet he wore in contrast to the proper English riding gear of his classmates. (The helmet came free from Mine Safety Appliances, the company where his mother worked as a secretary.) It was at McDonough where he also received tennis lessons at a camp run by 1938 Wimbledon champion Don Budge, eventually learning the game well enough to earn extra money during high school as a private tennis tutor.

Michael had perhaps the most formative experiences of his adolescence while living for two summers on the rustic tobacco farm of his mother’s uncle and his wife in rural Tennessee. It was a wonderful life for a boy, with no running water and only wood fires for heat. Here, Michael spent long days fishing and learning to hunt and shoot small game with a .22 rifle and a bow, fletch his own arrows, and dress what he killed for the kitchen table. Although he had been raised in the Episcopal church back in Baltimore, attended an Episcopal school, and even served as a cathedral choirboy, it was not until these summers in Tennessee that he deeply considered Christianity for the first time as expressed in the gospel revivals of a small country church. He returned to the Episcopal Church as an adult, but the spiritual awakening of those Tennessee summers has informed his faith ever since. Years later the memories of those halcyon days would form much of the material for his award-winning essay collection, Letters from the Woods.

Michael began writing at an early age, selling his first story to Maryland Conservationist magazine at 17 and receiving a check for $45 that his mother promptly confiscated to pay the light bill in their small apartment. In high school he met future Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Ken Geiger, and the two teamed up to sell a feature on the city of Annapolis, Maryland, to Travel magazine in 1977, when Michael was 19.

The 1978 Western Maryland College Lacrosse Team, NCAA Div. III Middle Atlantic Conference South Champions

Although a child of Baltimore, Michael did not take up the sport of lacrosse until he was 14. He had middling stick-skills compared to many of his classmates who had played the game almost from infancy, but he was tenacious and athletic enough to make the team at Western Maryland College (since renamed McDaniel College). In his sophomore year in 1978, Western Maryland went undefeated to win the NCAA Middle Atlantic Conference Championship.

In the summer of 1978, after a chance encounter with military recruiters in the college student union (and without speaking to anyone in his family about the idea, first), Michael joined the U. S. Marine Corps Reserves and reported for Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. Having abandoned the idea of law school on the advice of a mentor who told him there were “too many lawyers” in Baltimore and Washington, he imagined he would complete two summers of OCS and accept a commission as an officer at his college graduation. Fresh from lacrosse season, he found the physical training of OCS easy enough, but he thought better of a career as a Marine after seeing the regimentation of military life up close for the first time. He requested permission to drop from the program after four weeks. Now, years later, he remains conflicted about that time in his life, paradoxically recalling his choice not to become a Marine as both the smartest decision he ever made and one of his biggest regrets.

In his junior year he transferred to the University of Maryland at College Park and changed his major, from Political Science to Education. He planned to become a high school English teacher. While often skipping class and paying very little attention to his formal studies, Michael tried and failed to start a campus newspaper, Maryland Greek Week. It folded for lack of advertising sales after the first issue, which included an interview with the president of the Maryland State Bar Association. He also founded a company with two of his fraternity brothers to photograph and publish a classic black-and-white pin-up poster of a girl from a local modeling agency wearing the fraternity tee-shirt. The poster sold out in a nationwide direct-mail marketing campaign to other schools, but the venture folded for lack of capital after Michael and his buddies spent all the proceeds from the first poster on an extravagant, champagne bash celebrating its unexpected success.

Some academic work managed to find a way through the fog of fraternity life. While studying education, Michael wrote a thesis on a non-traditional approach to teaching grammar by encouraging students to read and recognize the rhythms and patterns of great writing in literature. Never expecting it to be published, he offered it to multiple education journals simultaneously, only to see two of them, Media & Methods and Curriculum Review, publish the same article in the same month. But despite this success, he remained an indifferent student. He rarely attended and ultimately flunked an upper-level education course in grammar, and his dry, “chalk-and-talk” method of teaching wasn’t in synch with the education fads of the 1970s. His student-teaching supervisor agreed to give him a passing grade for the semester on the condition that he promise never to teach.

After he met his first wife Julie at Maryland and the two decided in the summer of 1980 that they would apply to law school together, Michael retook classes in which he’d done poorly, managed to pull his G.P.A. up to just barely a “B,” and graduated from Maryland in May 1981 with a degree in English Education—a year late and seemingly by the skin of his teeth. He and Julie were accepted by the School of Law at St. Louis University, a Jesuit school in Missouri and the oldest law school west of the Mississippi.

Justice William Rehnquist (center), Judges Bright (left) and MacMillian (right), and moot court partners Bryan Kozen (far left), and Michael (far right) at St. Louis University Law School, 1983.

This footage from the final round of the 1983 Moot Court Competition at St. Louis University Law School, with Justice William H. Rehnquist of the U. S. Supreme Court presiding in addition to two judges from the 8th Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals, is a rare film record of Justice Rehnquist hearing arguments and asking questions from the bench during his time as a Supreme Court justice. Proceedings in the U. S. Supreme Court are not videotaped or filmed.

In stark contrast to his indifference toward education courses in college, Michael thrived in law school. He was selected by the law school faculty to receive the Milton Napier Award, given each year by the Lawyers Association of St. Louis to the top student in trial advocacy. He served as a faculty fellow in evidence to Professor John C. O’Brien, assisting him with research for the first edition of the Missouri Law of Evidence. In his second year, Michael and his partner Brian Konzen won the school’s moot court competition and received the Kniep Award for Oral Advocacy, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the United States Supreme Court and Judges Bright and MacMillian of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals presiding in the final round.

After graduating from law school in 1984, Michael moved to Houston, Texas, and began his legal career as an associate in the litigation section of a thirty-five-lawyer firm then known as Taylor, Hays, Price, McConn & Pickering. He remained with the firm for nearly four years before leaving at the age of 29 in January 1988 to start his own practice. He was joined shortly thereafter by his wife Julie as a law partner. The firm represented Texaco as well as medical liability insurers in malpractice cases and general liability insurers in business and casualty litigation. By 1991, Hurley & Hurley was recognized by the Houston Business Partnership (chamber of commerce) as the fastest growing law firm in the city based on year-over-year revenue growth for the past three years.

While in Texas, Michael developed a keen interest in sailing that until then had been an experience only occasionally shared with his older brother Jay while growing up around Chesapeake Bay. In 1985 he bought his first sailboat, then sold it to buy a larger boat before ever buying a house. By 1992 he had qualified for and passed the U. S. Coast Guard’s Captain’s examination, entitling him to carry passengers for hire. When he and Julie decided to leave Texas with their two-year-old son and newborn daughter and move to New Bern, North Carolina, he worked briefly as a sailboat charter captain on the Neuse River until the waiting period for his North Carolina law license was fulfilled.

As his children grew old enough to join him on adventures, Michael rekindled a love for wilderness canoeing and camping from his scouting days. He began writing and publishing stories about their expeditions together far from New Bern, all over the United States and into Canada. Hurley’s Journal was a subscription literary journal, printed and published quarterly for eight years beginning in 1995, that offered essays, trip reports and hand-drawn maps. It became very popular among traditional canoeing and wilderness enthusiasts, notably including Laurence Rockefeller, who signed his subscription renewals with an “L” enclosed with a check from the Rockefeller Trust.

The growth of the journal was such that Michael was forced to outsource the printing, mailing and marketing functions. His son Kip, who appeared frequently in photographs in the journal, would be recognized by complete strangers he passed on portage trails in Canada. Reader-rendezvous attended by subscribers and their families were held on lakes and rivers in Wisconsin, the Adirondacks of New York, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, and the Peace River in Florida. Before the last issue appeared eight years later, more than ten thousand subscribers from forty-eight states had signed up to receive the journal. In 2003, all of Michael’s essays from the journal were collected in his first book, Letters from the Woods. It was selected as a finalist in the Nature category for Book of the Year by the editors of ForeWord magazine.

After practicing as an insurance and medical malpractice defense-lawyer for five years in New Bern, Michael moved with his young family to Raleigh to accept a position as of counsel with the law firm of Yates, McLamb & Weyher, where he later became an equity partner and practiced for eleven years. He left Yates McLamb on January 1, 2009, taking some of his clients with him to form a boutique litigation firm in Raleigh. He was selected for inclusion in North Carolina Super Lawyers (selection criteria at www.superlawyers.com) for ten consecutive years, from the first year the recognition began, in 2006, until his retirement in 2015, when his practice was acquired in a merger with the law firm of Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo. 

Michael’s marriage to Julie ended after twenty-six years with their decision to separate in October 2006. In the wake of that failure he sought solace at sea, eventually sailing solo in a 1979 Endeavour 32 sloop, the Gypsy Moon, in fits and starts over three years beginning in 2009 from Annapolis to the Dominican Republic. Mechanical troubles along the way forced him into the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, where he remained long enough to meet his second wife, Susan, in December 2009. They became engaged a week later and were married nine months later. The marriage lasted not quite five years.

In January 2012, two days after leaving the Dominican Republic bound for home and two thousand sea-miles after embarking from Annapolis, the Gypsy Moon lost its headsail and jib halyard in high winds and rough seas. Turning beam-on to the waves, it violently broached and suffered a knockdown, the force of which cracked the engine mounts and disabled the engine. Alone, unable to steer upwind without a headsail, and being blown south between Cuba and Haiti, Michael was given the ultimatum to abandon his boat in order to accept an offer of rescue from the U. S. Coast Guard cutter Mohawk. The cutter itself had been damaged in the rough seas and was headed to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for repairs. Michael was given a berth aboard the Mohawk and stayed with the officers and crew after it docked in Guantanamo before flying home to Charleston. 

Once Upon A Gypsy Moon, a memoir of his divorce, his high hopes for a second chance at love with Susan, and that harrowing voyage, was published in 2013 by Hachette. The book was well received by critics but was not a commercial success, selling  too few copies to enable the publisher to recoup the $75,000 advance. It remains for that reason the only book Michael has sold to a major New York publisher. The hardcover and ebook remain in print by Hachette, with a UK edition published by Little Brown & Co.

After finishing Once Upon A Gypsy Moon, Michael turned his pen to novels. His first, The Prodigal, was published under his own imprint, Ragbagger Press, and has been the most commercially successful of his novels to-date. It was widely reviewed and well received by the trade press. It won the $1,000 prize for Book of the Year awarded by Chanticleer Reviews in 2013 and was optioned for film by the former head of actress Melanie Griffith’s production company. Michael’s second novel, The Vineyard, was published in 2014 and competed with several titles from independent and university presses to win the Eric Hoffer Award for General Fiction.

In the fall of 2014, Michael began writing his third novel, The Passage. With retirement and the luxury of having time on his hands at that point just over the horizon, he conceived the idea to generate advance publicity for the book by sailing solo and nonstop from Charleston to Ireland, just like the protagonist in the story. The boat for the trip would be a 1965 Allied Seawind Ketch named Prodigal that he had bought and extensively refurbished two years before with money from his advance for Once Upon A Gypsy Moon.  He set sail from Charleston on May 27, 2015. The dramatic, unexpected events of the voyage would lead him to rewrite the plot of The Passage completely.

Michael aboard the Prodigal on a solo passage to Bermuda from Annapolis in 2014, the year before she was abandoned at sea.

The first two weeks of the passage to Ireland were plain sailing, but after that the Prodigal began taking on water. The problem was easily managed at first by a regular schedule of pumping. Days after first refusing an offer of rescue from the Coast Guard in Boston, Michael still believed the boat would complete the remaining 2,500 miles without difficulty. By this time he had come 1200 miles from Charleston and was approximately 500 miles out to sea, south of Nova Scotia, not far from the resting place of the Titanic. Then, three days after the leak began, after a particularly rough night of sailing close-hauled to windward, Michael awoke to find the cabin ankle-deep in seawater. This appeared to be due to a worsening breach in the hull-to-deck connection along the starboard rail that had been awash when the boat was heeled over during the night.

The Seawind is a fabled and proven circumnavigator but is known to have a weak hull-to-deck bond. This problem had in fact prompted the builder to use a more robust design for the sturdier but less lovely Seawind II. After Michael mentioned the worsening leak in a Facebook post to friends and family, sent from his satellite communicator on board, the Coast Guard contacted him again. They offered, and Michael accepted, rescue from a nearby training ship operated by the Maine Maritime Academy. The State of Maine, with more than 200 cadets on board in addition to officers and professional crew, was headed back to the U.S. on the return leg of a voyage to Spain.

Thankful to his rescuers and grateful to be alive, Michael privately felt humiliated to have abandoned a boat at sea for a second, excruciating time. As he ruminated on the many what-ifs of that experience, he enjoyed the fine hospitality of the cadets and crew of the State of Maine for the remaining three days of their journey to Portland. In the meantime, the president of the academy shared the news of the sailor rescued at sea with the press, who soon learned through Facebook of Michael’s and Susan’s efforts during the voyage to save their marriage. Michael was met at the dock by an Associated Press reporter and television news crews. The Associated Press story appeared in papers around the world and was covered by local TV stations in Portland and Charleston. Three weeks later, after Michael was back in Charleston and the hubbub over his rescue had died down, Susan asked for a divorce.

The Prodigal with Michael aboard, struggling 500 miles south of Nova Scotia in June 2015. This was shot from the deck of the State of Maine training ship by one of the crew of the Maine Maritime Academy, who performed the rescue.

This would be a watershed event in Michael’s life for more than the usual and obvious reasons. The Prodigal, like the Gypsy Moon, was uninsured and a total loss. Having recently sold his house in Raleigh and given up his law practice, and with his children grown, out of college, and settled in careers far from home, Michael had big decisions to make but also a unique opportunity to make them unfettered by the restraints that most people face in middle age. As explained in a short film he later made entitled “The Leap,” he decided to sell or give away everything he owned that he could not carry on his back, leave the US, live frugally, travel, write, and take time to seek the answers in life that had so long eluded him. 

Arriving in Ireland in August 2015, alone, feeling quite depressed and sorry for himself, and suddenly without a home or a plan for the future, Michael backpacked the Wicklow Way for several days through the rolling hills south of Dublin. There, he met four Irish women searching along the trail for something they’d lost the week before. Within a few hours, he and his fellow travelers were singing Irish ballads and on their way to a pub for Guinness and dancing. These women, whom Michael later recalled as “angels met unawares,” planted the idea in his mind to leave Ireland two days later without a guidebook, map, or a single reservation and travel to France and Spain, where they assured him he would find what he was seeking along the 500-mile, medeival pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).

Michael arrived in Biarritz, France, without even an idea of where “the Camino” was, but he soon learned to rely on other pilgrims who  had come to the same place by the thousands  seeking the same answers. He found a sense of peace and a surge of resolve while walking through the mountains and valleys of France and northern Spain for two months with new friends from around the world. In his pack he carried the stained glass relic given to him by fellow parishioners of Grace Cathedral in Charleston to carry aboard Prodigal on his ill-fated voyage to Ireland, which he had been commissioned by the church to deliver as a gift to the Bishop of Cork. After walking 535 miles on the Camino, Michael arrived in Santiago de Compostela to find unexpectedly an Irish priest from Cork delivering a humorous and touching funeral mass for a man married three times who had died happily on the Camino. Michael gave the relic to the Irish priest, who insisted that Michael should return to Ireland someday to see the relics of his own family at Hurley Castle in Cork. This and other seemingly mystical experiences of his travels inspired Michael’s seventh book, Tales from the Caminopublished in 2016.

The Nevermore moored in Marigot Bay, St. Lucia, in the West Indies in 2017.

From Spain Michael flew to London in October 2015, then traveled in November by train to Wales, where he had rented a room in a cottage in Ceinws to spend the winter finishing The Passage. He met his future wife Jill on a first date to a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall in London that Christmas.

After returning to London in January 2016, Michael began to look in earnest for a sailboat on which to continue his travels after his six-month tourist visa in the UK expired in April. He found one of the storied Nicholson 32s for sale at a shipyard in Essex. With a full keel, robust construction, and weighing in at almost 15,000 pounds, “Nick 32s” had been used as sail-training vessels for the Royal Navy. Eight of them had completed circumnavigations. But the boat that would become the Nevermore, built in 1967, needed extensive repairs and improvements before she would be ready for sea.

Michael commissioned a local shipyard and a sailmaker in Essex to complete the  work. A Monitor wind vane was custom-made and shipped from California. Before the work was completed, Michael’s alloted time in the UK was due to expire. So, he spent the month of April enjoying the cafés of Paris while waiting until the boat could be launched and delivered to him across the channel in Calais.

On May 5, 2016, Michael set out alone aboard Nevermore from Calais, sailing through the English Channel and the busiest shipping lane in the world, out into the Atlantic, and offshore down the coasts of Europe and Africa. He arrived 18 days and 2,000 miles later on a nonstop passage to the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands.

Nevermore spent the summer hurricane season at the dock in La Palma while Michael returned to England and Jill. The following December, they flew back together to La Palma to ready Nevermore for her maiden Atlantic crossing and Jill’s first sailing trip of any kind.

Leaving La Palma on January 10, 2017, Michael and Jill covered 3200 miles in 28 days before making landfall at St. Lucia in the West Indies. After spending an idyllic two years with Jill sailing between long-term anchorages in places like the Grenadines, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Antigua, Michael sailed 1500 miles solo from Martinique to Miami. Jill rejoined him there to sail the remaining legs to Charleston and then Oriental, North Carolina, where they stored the boat and returned by air to London.

Now living permanently in London with Jill, Michael is working on several books and other projects. The Nevermore remains in America, tugging at her lines for the next adventure.  For more information about Michael and his work, please choose from the menu headings, above, or contact Michael by email at mike@mchurley.com.