My pile of maritime books for review this year contains an eclectic mix of practical and reference titles, books of photographs, cruising tales, maritime history, and some classics from the golden age of yachting. The criteria for a place in the pile and on the list are that the book must have an engaging narrative, with a bit of a spark and humor. It must have lasting interest, and it has to have some real value as a source of information. Space on my library shelves is limited, so acquisitions are rigorously vetted, and only rarely does the list include a book that I wouldn't wish to own. Further, it will be a cold day in the nether regions before I ever step on a racing sailboat again, and my interest in extreme sports has waned dramatically, so there will only be an occasional reference to the current crop of books about the spate of round-the-world sailboat races and other endurance challenges.
Here you will find books that provide pleasure for the armchair sailor and a different perspective during the winter months. And just as a lagniappe, I've thrown in a few tools that will make the winter boat to-do list go more smoothly.
Over the years, Ian Nicolson - a British naval architect and surveyor - has written many books about marine surveying and boats in general. His current title, a well-illustrated paperback manual for Witherbys Publishing in the U.K., is particularly valuable to the current or would-be boat owner. Titled "Surveying Anchors, Chains, Moorings, Spars, Rigging and Sails," it is a comprehensive guide for the professional and the layman about items of vital importance to anyone who spends time on a boat. The first chapter, the "Process of Surveying," begins, "Surveyors save lives...Surveyors prevent accidents...Surveyors protect property...Surveyors are practical engineers," a very succinct but excellent introduction to what every owner (or skipper and crew member) should know and do before setting off - check out, inspect and repair, or replace these vital parts of any boat's gear. This book includes many carefully drawn and labeled illustrations and sketches, as well as photos. There is a small bibliography and appendices. Mr. Nicolson has written other books, such as "Surveying Small Craft" and the "Boat Data Book," which should be in every serious maritime library as well.
"Coming Down the Seine" by Robert Gibbings (out of print, but available through antiquarian maritime book dealers) is a lovely book with a very engaging narrative about a summer's adventure sometime after World War II. Written by a fine artist (the book has wonderful woodcut illustrations) with Irish zest, verbal dexterity and charm, this is the story of a trip down the Seine, which originates near Dijon and Beaune, in a small boat as he rows toward Paris and then by various ships to Honfleur. The dust flap notes that Gibbings stops all along the river, "long enough for wonderful conversations, for observing the enchanting vagaries of life on the shores and for relishing a chance discovery." This is a book to be savored slowly, chapter by chapter, in just such a fashion.
Another choice which should be read thoughtfully and with deliberation is "Isabel and the Sea" by George Millar. Millar was a British journalist, military man and sailor who wrote numerous books on a wide variety of subjects. He died in 2005. This is one of his more interesting books and is about cruising through the French canals, this time on a substantial motor ketch named Truant, which George and his wife Isabel bought after the war in the South of England. With very limited seamanship skills, they took on an extended cruise from England through to the Med and beyond, to Greece. Mr. Millar's considerable journalistic talents are evidenced in the wealth of detail included, and these two books - very different but very engaging - inspire the patient reader (and these are not fast reads, as there is a lot of detail and information, perspectives and observations in each) to undertake a similar cruise, perhaps with either book in hand to act as a guide and for comparison with the present. This is another book that is out of print but available with a little effort. George Millar also wrote "Oyster River," which is a delightful and little-known classic sailing tale about the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany. Any of these three titles (or any of the others by either author) would make a fine choice for the cruising library or for a passage.
I can't think of any acquaintances, family, or friends still alive on the Vineyard who can remember rum-running days, but many of us knew folks who did, and there are still stories which circulate about maritime efforts to subvert Prohibition, particularly up-Island. One book that I picked up during the Wooden Boat Show this summer in Mystic is "The Real McCoy," part of a group of books published recently by Flat Hammock Press in Mystic about rum-running and some of the rum-runners. "The Real McCoy" was written by Frederic F. Van de Water, based on an extensive series of conversations with Bill McCoy and published originally in 1931. With lots of photos and a brief bibliography, as well as a forward, afterward, and extensive remarks by the publisher, Stephen Jones, this is the story of America's premier maritime rumrunner and his lovely schooners, principally the Gloucester fishing schooner Arethusa, reportedly the great love of his life. Everett S. Allen, a Vineyard boy, wrote "The Black Ships" about the rum-runners, and another book, written from the Coast Guard perspective is "Rum War at Sea" by Malcolm Willoughby. Flat Hammock is also publishing Stephen Jones's "The Actual McCoy." McCoy started off as a boat builder and then established several maritime businesses with his older brother and sister in Florida. During Prohibition, he owned several schooners that he would sail north from the Bahamas carrying cases and "hams" of liquor to the various rumrunners. Ironically, McCoy was a teetotaler and known for his honorable transactions. When you bought from Bill, you could be sure the hooch was "the real McCoy."
Mystic Seaport has several vessels from the Vineyard in their extensive vessel collection, including the dragger Roann, which was in the shipyard being rebuilt in July, and anyone contemplating a visit to the museum would be well served to read up on the various vessels preserved and displayed there. One excellent source of information is "Mystic Seaport Watercraft," by Maynard Bray, Ben Fuller and Peter Vermilya. Another is "Mystic Seaport, a Visitor's Guide," which is a much more general paperback introduction to the exhibits, including some of the vessels.
I wrote briefly about "Worthy of the Sea" by Maynard Bray and Tom Jackson last year, but I did not have the book in hand then. Published by Tilbury House and the Peabody Essex Museum, this large and lovely volume is subtitled "K. Aage Nielsen and His Legacy of Yacht Design." Aage Nielsen worked with John Alden, Murray Peterson and Fenwick Williams in the Boston office of Sparkman and Stephens and in his own design office. His plans are known for remarkable attention to form and detail and for seaworthy double-ended cruising yachts inspired by the Danish vessels of his youth. The book is full of plans, photos, design details and all sorts of important information. Maynard Bray notes, in his introduction, that the plans "show...not only exquisite hull shapes and interior arrangements, but details of how the various pieces are put together, drawn by a man who could actually build about anything he could design - a rare combination of talents claimed by only a handful of designers in the history of the profession." I might add that there are at least two wooden boat builders in Vineyard Haven who share to varying degrees those same qualities (as well as being superb seamen).
"An Island Odyssey" - no, not our Island. This is about sailing around the various coasts and islands of Scotland (there is a lot of Scotland in this list) and the voyages were undertaken by Hamish Haswell-Smith. Subtitled "Among the Scottish Isles in the Wake of Martin Martin," who wrote in 1703, Haswell-Smith undertook a voyage to 52 different islands. The book has a wonderful map and is a wonderful blend of history, travelogue and anecdotes, with numerous watercolor illustrations by the author of the places and the sights. The book is described as a "delightful way to discover and re-discover the romance, beauty and inescapable magnetism of the Scottish islands." I've had the good fortune to sail in the Outer and Inner Hebrides and along the west coast of Scotland several times, and I would leap at the opportunity to return. Maps and pencil sketches enrich this book, and it is a must for the shelf labeled, "I want to go there."
By contrast, a very silly book (but undoubtedly very lucrative because everyone will want to buy it) is "Fifty Places to Sail Before You Die: Sailing Experts Share The World's Greatest Destinations," by Chris Santella, who has made a career out of writing books on a similar theme. This book landed squarely on my pile of books not to recommend, or buy, but I feel compelled to issue a warning. I am sure that Santella enjoyed the research, but I was glad to see that "our islands" did not make the cut, and I feel a bit sorry for any islands that did. There are some lovely photos, but the captions are useless and contain virtually no identifications, and the pocket descriptions provide little information of interest. The only plus is that the places I've found to be truly worthy of inclusion are missing.
"The Voyage of the Tai-Mo-Shan" by Martyn Sherwood is a very engaging cruising tale by and about five naval officers who had a ketch built in Hong Kong and then sailed her home, leaving on May 31, 1933, to sail via Japan and the Aleutians, then to the west coast of the U.S., down through the Panama Canal, to Jamaica, the Bahamas (where the ketch - built and sailed without an engine - was caught on a lee shore, grounded and washed ashore, necessitating a massive effort to re-float her), then Bermuda and home to Dartmouth, England on May 30, 1934. Tai-Mo-Shan is still sailing and a recent published article confirms persistent rumors of an additional mission that the crew undertook, which was to research possible locations for future Japanese military bases in the Kurile and Aleutian Islands. This helps to explain the route, which was "the wrong way home." The spying connection is interesting considering that the boat had no engine (and no charging facilities for batteries) but carried sophisticated radios. Each member of the crew went on to very difficult missions and commands in WWII, for which each was heavily decorated, one posthumously. Aside from the espionage mission, which is unmentioned in the book (published in 1935), the author wrote that he hoped this book would be "useful as a guide and an encouragement to other small-boat owners who decide to put their dreams into practice." The book has lots of photos, maps and numerous appendices. This book is out of print but available via antiquarian maritime book dealers. This is a great story, particularly considering recent revelations.
"Duffers on the Deep" by Winifred Brown, first published in 1939, chronicles a series of voyages in the 45-foot Perula. Built as a fishing boat, the boat was later converted by her builders, A. M. Dickie of Bangor, to more of a yacht with a yawl rig, though with her powerful engine she was essentially a motor sailor. Perula carried Ms. Brown and a crewmember known only as "Adams" on several ambitious cruises from Wales up and around Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland Islands and to Norway, culminating in a very challenging adventure, sailing to Spitzbergen. Although an accomplished aviatrix, Ms. Brown was no seaman at the beginning, and she cheerfully and sometimes ruefully admits to a lot of sins of commission and omission on the various voyages. This is classic cruising in small boats before the war (although the rumbles of the approaching WWII are faintly audible) and it is another great story. The book is out of print but available if you search.
"Lulworth, the Restoration of the Century" - subtitled "The World's Largest Gaff Cutter" by Andrew Rogers (principal author) is a book that almost defies description. This is almost the ultimate coffee table book, although its price is substantially more than most coffee tables, and the contents are far superior to most books designated as coffee table books. Lulworth is now almost 80 years old and she is the world's largest gaff cutter. She is also drop dead gorgeous, the ultimate classic yacht in a world where large, trophy sailing vessels are no longer unusual. This is her story, combining maritime history, narratives about yacht building in the 1920s (and the 2000s), details of a truly enormous restoration effort (very authentic and to her 1920s state), and vignettes about all the players, all rich in detail and information. There are numerous photos, paintings and prints, plans, notes and footnotes, interviews and almost 400 pages devoted just to Lulworth. One caption describes her as "the best of the sailing world. She is a dream that came from the banks of the Hamble River and a testimony to the unlimited passion of those who brought her back to life. Being on board Lulworth was an incredible sailing experience." For the rest of us, we'll have to drool over the book once you've collected enough recyclable cans to pay for it, because we're certainly not going to be able to afford the boat. She's for sale (don't ask) and the ad describes her as, "Not for the faint hearted, the rig is powerful, beautiful and fast, and the interior is meticulously restored." I guess. Look at the main - it must be close to 100 feet on the foot, and it has only got one reef, but this is not a boat that you're going to sail to Patagonia, and if you are, there are probably offshore and/or passage sails.
"The Cape Cod Canal" by Robert H. Farson is about another dream. It is the story of a large ditch that makes the Cape, technically, an island. The canal, the passion of August Perry Belmont, was built in the early 1900s to enable the passage of vessels via a much shorter route than out around the offshore islands and Nantucket Shoals, and a route safer than the passage through the sometimes treacherous Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds and out through Pollock Rip Shoals between the tip of the Cape and Nantucket. Published some years ago but just as interesting now, the book details the story of what is the "widest artificial waterway in the world." The canal had many pluses (technologically, economically, socially, militarily, etc.) but financially it was a disaster as a toll waterway, and it was taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers, which run it today. This fine paperback contains numerous black-and-white photos, appendices, maps, sketches, a bibliography and index. Sailing through the canal on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon on a fine yacht, and waving to the folks along the shore, is a real high.
"The Camera's Coast: Historic Images of Ship and Shore in New England," by W. H. Bunting is an interesting paperback originally conceived as a way to make available some of the images in the collection of Historic New England, from their million documents, photographs, architectural records, items of ephemera and manuscripts. The book contains Bill Bunting's usual eloquent, informed and detailed narrative and a forward by Harvard historian John Stilgoe, as well as detailed information about the images and postcards. This is a very unusual and interesting (and inexpensive) book.
"Early California Voyages" is a history of the voyages along the California coast between 1542 and 1880 and covers the voyages of such explorers as Francis Drake, Sebastian Vizcaino, Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno, Jose Galvez, La Perouse, and George Vancouver, the early traders, clipper ships, and the whalers. Written by George Emanuels in a limited edition, the book is all narrative with a bibliography and an index. There are sketches and photos of later vessels but no maps, an unfortunate omission.
"Bronze Casting for the Boatbuilder" by Samuel Johnson (boat builder) is another book that I picked up at the Wooden Boat Show. It is a self-published paperback manual which Sam Johnson put together to serve as a text for his classes at Wooden Boat School. It is available from Mr. Johnson at email@example.com or 206-375-3907 and is modestly priced for the quality of the technical information and publication. The booklet contains all sorts of information on pattern making, metallurgy, bronze casting, and lots of reference material including sources for all sorts of stuff to do with casting. This is good stuff for the backyard builder, or the professional boatyard.
"On Land and on Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection" by Margaret L. Andersen Rosenfeld is a large book of photographs featuring women, culled from the Rosenfeld Collection at Mystic Seaport Museum. Some are nautical and some are not, but all are beautifully produced and illustrate some interesting vignettes of cultural and social history from a woman's perspective. Ms. Rosenfeld has included detailed essays that give social and historical context to the photos as well as extensive captions. Unfortunately, this book would have benefited from a more careful editing of the captions, as some are either factually incorrect or could have included more information. For some reason, the section "Displaying Womanhood" contains a lot of the photos that are a bit cheesecake-ish - skimpily clad models promoting runabouts, but then there are really wonderful sections about women in the workplace and another section titled "In the Yard," which provide some balance. The book is worth the cost just for the picture of Mrs. Tommy Sopwith (every inch the grand dame) at the wheel of Endeavor II on the cover, taken in Newport in 1937.
Dr. Mary Malloy, who teaches maritime history at Sea Education Association in Woods Hole and museum studies at Harvard, has written several books. Her latest is about Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, titled "Devil on the Deep Blue Sea," published in paperback by Bullbrier Press. Many of us have heard stories, and songs about Sam Hill, and it never occurred (at least to me) that he wasn't just a mythical figure. In fact, he was a real person, larger than life, and apparently a thoroughly nasty character. This is a biography with extensive additional sources (bibliography, footnotes, index, source material, etc.) about a gentleman who is described thus: "had he not been a madman, Captain Samuel Hill would likely be remembered as one of the great maritime adventurers of the early nineteenth century."
Several more books (all paperbacks) that I'm either reading or must read are "The Teatime Islands: Adventures in Britain's Faraway Outposts" and "Ben Fogle: Offshore, In Search of an Island of My Own" by Ben Fogle. Fogle spent a year living on the Scottish island of Taransay as one of the volunteers for the BBC's Castaway 2000 program. "Teatime Islands" is about trips that he made to various islands which are still part of the British Empire: Tristan de Cunha, St Helena, Gough Island, the Falklands, Pitcairn, and the British Indian Ocean Territories. Having spent a year living on a remote island, he wanted to find out how other islanders lived and coped, and why they choose to be islanders (aside from being born on one). Offshore is a trip in an improbable vessel, an inflatable dinghy, that Fogle made all around the UK coast to scout out an island that he could purchase or claim as his own. These books are a bit in the Bill Bryson mode, with a touch of Eric Newby (although not the latter's degree of humor and hubris) and a bit of Paul Theroux. They are not sailing books per se, but they describe places that a lot of us would like to visit (or have).
The last book, by Nick Thorpe, is "Adrift in Caledonia" (more Scotland) which is about the author's 2,500 miles through and around Scotland in all manner of vessels, ranging from a sea kayak to a fishing trawler. I have to note that on the back, this author is described as "better than Bryson, as shrewdly observant as Theroux" and I would feel that I had cribbed except that I wrote my comments above before examining the book. Both Thorpe and Fogle are accomplished writers who have made a life (and a living) of setting off on improbable adventures, writing about them and then dreaming up other equally improbable trips. And why are we islanders? We'll live a lifetime finding out why.
Virginia Crowell Jones lives in West Tisbury.