Far from being mere empirical data, you can tell a lot about a skipper and his mate by leafing through their logbooks, says Tom Cunliffe


This was my log entry for 25 March 1977: ‘1400 – Horrified to witness the formation of a waterspout about a mile to leeward. Started like a cloud on the water reaching up to heaven. Then, out of a squall above, a dark tornado came fingering down until they joined together. Apparently the wind in the centre can hit 200mph, so it’s best not to hang around. However, it tumbled into the sea, great was the fall of it, and it left us with enough breeze to try for St Croix.’

My wife’s log entry indicates different priorities: ‘1830. Wind falling. Skipper getting the grumps. Bluggoes, Xu-Xu and Irish Stew for supper, followed by lemon curd tart. Beautiful sunset. Silent except for the crackling of sails. Off to bed with Bertie Wooster.’

Sadly perhaps, she had to make do with Bertie in a mildewed old volume, but she slept well
in those days and enjoyed sweet dreams in the privacy of her watch below.

“Skipper had kippers for breakfast – disgusting. Fred seasick and praying for an early death”

Nobody had told me then that a log book should contain lots of columns, so we didn’t have any. We didn’t waste our substance on pre- ruled log books either. Instead, as I look through my library, I find rows of ancient exercise books. None of the early ones has a column to their name. They did run to a sort of gap on the left with the time of each entry, but, on the ocean
at least, the schedule was arbitrary. We’d only trouble the log if anything significant happened or we had nothing else to do. Otherwise we didn’t bother, except at noon when, by ancient tradition, I noted down the yacht’s lat and long position as determined by, usually, a running fix on the sun. If I’d managed morning stars, this would be logged and plotted after breakfast, but it was around noon that the clock of our lives turned.

Here’s an entry:

‘1200 – 3° 31’N 46° 58’W. Further north than the DR. Must be the outpouring of the Amazon even out here, 200 miles offshore. Steering 330°T with full main, jib and balloon staysail. Lovely day. Had haircut and shaved off beard.’

Any weather data are non-empirical; they emerge only as comments in the narrative. The only item that should have merited a column and never got one was the barometer. It was religiously monitored, as it still is, but was only entered if it started playing tricks.

One reason for lack of data in those early logs was that we had no instruments to give us any. Dead reckoning was by compass and looking over the side to see how fast we were going. We became adept at this. I’ve lost the knack now I have a dial.

My log books today appear to come from a different planet. The hardware, as it were, remains exercise books, cheap though stoutly bound, but the left-hand pages of the spreads are ruled into columns for time, log, course steered, position, COG, SOG and weather. I even note when my engine is on or shut down so as to check the hours since the last oil change. The right-hand pages, thank goodness, are still reserved for ‘remarks’, which remain full of colour. They might be ‘Bridge Buoy at hand’, but could just as easily read, ‘Skipper had kippers for breakfast – disgusting. Fred seasick and praying for an early death. Mainsail just blew out. Why do we bother?’

Looking back through the yellowed, dog-eared leaves, the best finds are often the guest entries. We’ve never had a visitors’ book. Instead, we encourage those bold enough to accept our hospitality to inscribe their name, rank and number in the log, together with any comments, sketches, photos or poems they feel moved to share. Unconstrained by the format of a ‘bought’ book, they can use a whole page if they like. Some do and their pithy observations are often beyond price, but my space here is short, so they will have to wait for another occasion.