Essay : A 2008 Christmas book list for the sailors among us
Each year it is my pleasure to review, for your gift list and your pleasure, some of the maritime books read over the past year. Lacking any interest in racing ("it will be a cold day in the nether regions before...") the usual focus is on cruising, design and construction, and a miscellany category which includes everything else. Introducing my grandsons to boats has widened the field for me, to include kids books. And, one could argue that the increasing range of very sophisticated electronic devices should receive a mention too, since one can, in theory, play movies, or music, or games, as well as listen to and even read books on various thingymajigs. But, as an unrepentant Luddite, I've resisted the siren call of all those expensive little gizmos, although a few DVDs are included.
With a sour economy turning turtle, many of us will be throttling back discretionary spending and the ways we pass leisure time. One good solution is to pile up some good books, make a pot of tea (or pour a glass), and settle into a comfortable chair or sofa to read. Herewith, the foundations for your pile, or someone else's.
Titanic, The Last Great Images by Robert Ballard: published last summer by Running Press in an appropriately large format. This is a book for anyone with a hint of interest in the Titanic, marine archaeology, or underwater photography. The photographs are, in a word, stunning, with historic photos juxtaposed with photos - some in color and some in black and white - from the various Ballard expeditions. It is particularly interesting to see a detail such as of the chandelier from the grand staircase of the original vessel, in a historic photo, contrasted with a color photo of the same detail as it is now. The narrative is detailed, informative, and, ultimately, eerie and tragic. Ballard's team discovered the Titanic's grave in 1985 and they have explored it using WHOI's Alvin and other underwater exploration vessels numerous times since. Since the initial discovery, there have also been privately financed expeditions, and Ballard argues persuasively that the many subsequent expeditions have damaged and compromised the integrity of the wreck. He feels that the wreck should be designated a historic sanctuary in perpetuity so that the vessel's remains undisturbed except by "passive" visitors. My six-year-old grandson has pored intently over the photos, we've read other pieces about the vessel, and we scaled off 12,000 feet (the depth of the site) by traveling up South Road, from the West Tisbury Church about two thirds of the way to the Allen Farm. A fascinating companion book is Jennifer Hooper McCarty's What Really Sank The Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries, published by Citadel Press, published this year. For my grandson, I will buy Inside The Titanic, A Giant Cutaway Book by Hugh Brewster, published by Madison Press in 1997.
Vineyard Poems and Prints by Joseph Chase Allen and Sidney Noyes Riggs, published in 1934 by The Tudor Press is a lovely book of wood cuts designed and cut by Dr. Riggs to complement JCA's poems. As the writer of a regular column (with poetry) for Yankee Magazine, JCA was known as the Oracle. For his Vineyard Gazette waterfront columns, he was known as the Wheelhouse Loafer, and he was a prolific writer. Born in Chilmark, he lived for years in Vineyard Haven until his death. Dr. Riggs, of West Tisbury, was also a fine writer, but better known for his wood cuts, which, framed, still grace Vineyard walls. Although all the selections in this book have a Vineyard theme, many are maritime in execution, thus we have a poem "Slushin' and Scrapin' Down," another about "Menemsha," and yet another about "The Beach Comber." This is a truly beautiful book, apparently little known and very scarce (I pride myself on knowledge of Vineyardiana and it wasn't familiar to me). If you want a copy you'll have to troll the antiquarian and old book stores and you might just get lucky.
Classic Yachts with a text by Francois Chevalier and photographs by Gilles Martin-Raget (foreword by Gary Jobson) is an oversized (coffee table) book published by Abbeville Press Publishers, and although expensive it is beautifully, and meticulously designed and printed. The authors selected 14 classic yachts, ranging from the 1899 54-foot gaff Sibbick cutter Bona Fide to the 110-foot Fife schooner Sunshine (launched in Myanmar in 2004) and in narrative, drawings, and photos, provide a comprehensive and informative chapter on each. The presentation is consistent and detailed, and the photos are clear and well laid out. There is a definite Euro-centric focus to the selection although a number of the boats are from the drawing board of American designers and were originally built in America, but many of the most beautiful and thorough yacht restorations have, alas, taken place in Europe where there appears to be a greater appreciation of these stunning vessels. That is, except in Vineyard Haven where we have our own sizeable collection of truly historic and gorgeous boats. The price of this book is not for the fainthearted, but it is a treasure and decidedly less expensive than some of the more focused books dedicated to a single boat. Thus you can buy a very expensive book about Tuiga, Mariquita, or Lulworth, with other boats available as well. There is a phrase about boats, "if you have to ask the price you can't afford it", and in this case, the phrase should be modified to include the books as well.
Messing About in Boats for 80 years with Jack Stuphen. Published by the Classic Yacht Foundation in mid-December of 2007, this arrived too late for me to review last year, and then I misplaced it. Mr. Sutphen very kindly sent me a replacement copy and mentioned, in passing, that it has just been republished. A high quality paperback of about 100 pages, this is a memoir filled with boats, family, friends, life, sailing, and great times by one of the leading racing skippers of the Long Island Sound area, and most latterly, San Diego. Containing lots of stories and lots of photos, this is an inexpensive and engaging addition to the nautical library.
Blue Water Sailing by Barry Pickthall, published by Adlard Coles, 2006, in England, would be useful for anyone who contemplates undertaking any long distance cruising or ocean sailing. The book is divided into three broad sections: The Boat, Preparation and Planning, and Out at Sea, with chapters on everything from hull construction to weather, jury rigs and repairs, ocean passages, medical matters, and every other aspect of offshore sailing, accompanied by numerous photos, lists and diagrams. This book was published in England, with a concomitant bias, but it would be valuable to any one who wants to use their boat for more than day sailing or a tied to the dock as a summer cottage.
Practical Sailor's Guide to Sailing Gear just published by Practical Sailor Magazine should be another very valuable reference work for any sailor. I just got the advert for this and have not seen the book but the blurb notes that there are 352 pages and 210 product categories with over 1,450 items tested and compared. As a subscriber to their magazine, I can confirm that their articles are comprehensive and well researched; this book should be equally valuable. And the price is reasonable at $19.95, plus $ 3.00 S & H, if you order from the publisher. The comparative analyses contained should help you save a ton of money, and considerable frustration.
Do Dolphins Ever Sleep? By Pierre-Yves and Sally Bely, published by Sheridan House in 2007. Conceived during a leisurely trans-Atlantic passage (many unanswered questions and an inadequate reference library) this fascinating book was originally published in French. The author is an engineer and self styled "passionate cruiser" who has made many ocean crossings. After a recent ocean passage he compiled a list of questions for which he wanted answers, and this number swelled to 212. The answers are carefully explained (with pictures, diagrams and drawings to illustrate the points) in mini chapters of about a page. This compilation is the result of his scientific curiosity and subsequent research as well as consultation with numerous experts and in it you will find the answers to questions about "ships, the sky and the sea," as well as sailing navigation, and questions such as, well such as "do dolphins ever sleep?" This book has extensive references, a bibliography and detailed index.
A Force of Nature by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is partially an autobiography and partially the story of his experiences in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans single-handed race around the world, written in concert with Kate Laven and published by Michael Joseph of Penguin Books. In 2006, Sir Robin was 67 and a grandfather, but the recent death of his wife had forced him to rethink his life, a life which had always included boats, including the double ended Suhaili the boat he built in India and sailed back to England, in the sixties and then around the world in the Golden Globe Race of 1968. The 2006 race was a very different sort of race, much more intense and sailed in much more sophisticated boats, the Open 60. It was an incredible challenge, particularly as Sir Robin was much more familiar with, and at home on less complex boats, but at the end Sir Robin comments: "Whatever the future holds, I cannot visualize a life without a boat, or a voyage to sail her on." Sail on Sir Robin.
A book that I will buy (but don't yet have) is The Boatbuilder's Apprentice by Greg Rossel, published by McGraw-Hill. Reviewed by Classic Boat Magazine in the current issue although published in the US in late 2006, with detailed information about the various techniques and materials it seems like a very useful text for anyone who wants to learn more. It contains numerous plans, diagrams, and a comprehensive index. Even if, like some of us, you have a number of boatbuilding books there are always tips and pointers which will help the struggling boat builder. If you or a friend has some time on our hands and is contemplating building a boat, this book and Greg's Building Small Boats would be a welcome present.
And for anyone who wished to fuel their classic yacht addiction (who wouldn't?), consider a gift subscription to the bible on this side: Woodenboat Magazine from Brooklin, Maine (800-273-7447) or the bible from the other side: CLASSIC BOAT from England. The latter is expensive but you can buy through a US distributor which speeds up delivery, although only the British subscription phone number: 001-44-1444-475675, is mentioned.
There is a definitive book about Six Meters titled Six Meters by Pekka Barck and Tim Street, recently published by Litorali in Helsinki. The authors memorialize 100 years of racing in this popular class. Unfortunately it is $115, so you might wait until it is available as a used book, always risking that it will probably be rare and double the price.
As the grandsons grow older, the stack of kids books (including some from my and my kid's youth) continues to grow. This year the boys have enjoyed Captain Tugalong by Dee Cache, illustrated by Howard M. Burns, and published by Cornell Maritime Press in 1999, and The Littlest Tugboat by Sarah Sherman McGrail, illustrated by James A Taliana, published in Cozy Harbor Press in 2005. Tugboat stories are always popular. When I'm With You written by Elizabeth Elder and illustrated by Leslie Mansmann, published by Islandport Press in 2003, is a nicely illustrated (water colors) and engaging story about adventures along a small stretch of a Maine beach one summer's day. Lightship by Brian Floca, published by Altheneum in 2007 has been a particular favorite. The illustrations are the main "vehicle" for explaining life on board although there is a simple narrative. In addition there is a brief history (in the author's note) of lightships, and a cut away view of a ship with all the parts labeled. Just as a side note, SS Olympic, the sister to the Titanic, struck and sank the Nantucket Lightship, LV 117, on one of her last trans-Atlantic trips as she passed by Nantucket Shoals on her way to New York in 1934, and seven crew of the lightship were killed. Lightships marking, as they did, various reefs, shoals, and navigational hazards, were always at risk because the vessels using them for navigational purposes homed in on the ship as they sailed by. The necessity to keep to schedule, as well as conserve fuel meant that the approaching vessels were normally very, very close.
Traditional Boats Of Ireland is a very special book just published by The Collins Press in Cork. Edited by Criostoir MacCarthaigh this is an exhaustively researched publication from the Traditional Boats Of Ireland Project and was an attempt to record all possible information about all the rapidly disappearing boats. "A group of professionals and volunteers ranging in historians to folklorists, linguists, archaeologists, curators, fishermen, boat builders and owners was mobilized to record not just the physical details of individual boat types but their histories as well." Sixty distinctive boat types were selected for the complete treatment, and anyone wishing to find out more about the common types such as currachs or Galway hookers should know that they can also find meticulously researched information about the Arklow yawl, Dublin Bay pilots, turf boats of the Midlands and many others as well. This is probably the most unusual book in this year's selection and I hope that it will inspire similar books for other parts of the world. In America, and just in my lifetime we've lost so many of the traditional boats once so common, such as the small inshore wooden draggers like Little Lady of Menemsha or Mary Verna, and Roann, now rebuilt and in the water at Mystic Seaport Museum.
Many Vineyard kids now in their forties remember with great fondness A Little Old Man by Natalie Norton, with pictures by Will Huntington. Natalie and Willy told the story of a lonely little old man who loses his house in a storm but gains a boat as a new home and a family of cats to keep him company, in an engaging, comforting story that has lovely pencil sketches. Published in 1959 by Rand McNally, it is dedicated to their sons (Peter and Simon) and it has become a sort of cult baby gift for Island newborns. Only available through the old book dealers this is a book which deserves republication.
DVDs - there is a wide range of instructional DVDs available about boat building, and for those of us who are somewhat challenged at working with our hands or in complex projects these could be very helpful. The WoodenBoat Store (always a useful source for tools, books, DVDs, models, nautical gifts and plans) has several DVDs available at modest prices. The Art Of Lofting by Arno Day is actually 10 hours of lofting, including the Lyle Hess 24' Seraffyn of Victoria. Seraffyn has made many notable long distance cruises and would be a great cruising boat for a single handed sailor or couple. WB Store also markets How to Build the Nutshell Pram, and a two disc set titled The Lines Plan. If you access www.woodenboatstore.com you will find lots of goodies.
Classic Boat Magazine (www.classicboat.co.uk) markets DVDs as well, and this year they have one titled Working Gaffers, which should be particularly popular with the trad boat group of Island sailors. They also have what has to be a definitive set of three DVDs about Irish vessels.
Of particular interest to island sailors is the series of photos found on www.jsjohnston.org. The website presents antique yacht photos by the reclusive marine photographer John Johnston who worked around New York City in the latter part of the 1800's. He photographed America's Cup boats, Herreshoff yachts, and sail and steam yachts of all kinds and all sizes. The photos are magnificent and copies may be ordered through the website. The website belongs to an island couple who are slowly making available a series of photos which they found in an old photo album salvaged from a pile of stuff which was destined for disposal.
We were all saddened by the death in September, at 100 years and five months, of Olin Stephens II. Any of the books by or about him would make a particularly fine gift this year. His books Lines, published in a limited edition, is fascinating and although expensive will only grow more valuable over the years. All This and Sailing Too is a great read, and You Are First (the Story of Olin and Rod Stephens of Sparkman and Stephens) by Francis Kinney, tells of the legendary Dorade's win in the 1931 trans-Atlantic race. It is a biography of the brothers, and contains lots of detailed information in a fascinating narrative about many S & S boats including Blue Jays, Brilliant, Stormy Weather, Bolero, Intrepid and many other boats, some of which are frequently seen in Vineyard waters.
While at the WoodenBoat Show in Mystic, CT in June, several of us made it a point to attend a showing of The Real Mccoy about Bill McCoy, and his schooner Arethusa. Shot in a documentary format, with many island boats (and sailors) standing in for rum running boats and crew, it is about Prohibition, and preserves a lot of interesting photos and details in a DVD format. Produced and directed by Mystic native Bailey Pryor, it is based on a book by Stephen Jones, published by Flat Hummock Press. I very much enjoyed the film (which does not appear to have been released for general consumption as yet) but found the sailing scenes with the white Alabama standing in for the black Arethusa, or the yachty powerboat Ilona chasing "rum runners" strained my credulity. Also there were a lot of still scenes of B & W photos and clever, gimmicky photography, which could have been minimized. Overall though, it was interesting and well done. Martha's Vineyard had more to do with Prohibition and rum running than most of us knows, and a written version of what happened would be a valuable addition to local maritime history.
I hesitate to present a non maritime book but since The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (who died before it was published; the book was finished by her niece) has garnered such great reviews, and because it was written about the island of Guernsey and the German occupation during WW II, I'm including it. Written in the form of a series of letters between the author Juliet Ashton and Guernsey islanders, the first section is composed of letters beginning in 1946 while she is living in London, and continues into a second section after she discovers a story to write in the islander's experiences during the war, and moves temporarily to Guernsey. The letters detail the islanders' experiences - the arrival of the Germans to build heavy fortifications, and the evacuation of island children to England for the duration of the war - and all the privations that both islanders, and eventually, the Germans experienced. It made me really curious as to what this island was like during WW II, and I hope that someone will record their memories. Published by the Dial Press this is a very engaging and interesting book, and the first and only novel written by Mrs. Shaffer.
I must add a plea for more books and more DVDs about marine subjects for kids, and for more really well designed and executed maritime models as well. Most of the models available are for display, or for adults, and many of the remainder are patronizingly simplistic. A rough shape cut out of what appears to be a shingle with a dowel stuck in a hole and a triangular piece of plastic constitutes what some vendors consider a proper boat for a kid. I know of several wooden boat builders (who shall remain anonymous lest they be besieged with requests) who have crafted incredible models of boats which are good for kids but also worthy of display on the mantelpiece. I have a rowboat that I treasure, and the grandsons have a tugboat, the Islander and several barges that their uncle made, plus other models, including a wonderful working model of the dock and rigging crane at Gannon and Benjamin which one of the crew there made. These beat the laughably cheap and cheesy plastic stuff available for kids all hollow.
Finally, as always, if you have a book that you've enjoyed or a source for a great sailing movie, or anything special to recommend, please get in touch.
Virginia Crowell Jones lives in West Tisbury.