Julia Jones reviews the latest maritime reading and picks the best sailing books, cruising guides and pilot books of 2021

What have been your favourite sailing books of 2021?

Yachting Monthly’s literary contributor Julia Jones reviews the sailing books released this year. Julia reviews hundreds of books each year for YM and here she’s selected some of the best she has read this year, from the best non-fiction sailing books, to the best practical sailing books and more.

To see the full list of Yachting Monthly’s sailing book reviews, head over to our Yachting Monthly Book Club pages.

With each book is a link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.

Best sailing books of 2021


Madhouse at the End of the World

There’s a startling opening to Madhouse at the End of the World a sailing book recounting the Belgica’s 1897-9 expedition to the Antarctic.

Frederick Cook, a doctor, serving 14 years for fraud in Leavenworth Goal, Kansas, has finished his voluntary night duty among the inmates howling from the agony of opium deprivation, when he is visited by the most famous polar explorer of this generation, Roald Amundsen.

Julian Sancton’s impressive research and incisive writing style ensures that this lockdown story grips like the pack ice.

Buy Madhouse at the End of the World from Amazon

Birth of a solo sailor book

Birth of a Solo Sailor

The most lively and unusual bluewater cruiser book that I’ve read this year.

Maik Ulmschneider’s story – or stories – begin in the autumn of 2019 when he and his partner split up in Suriname (on the north coast of South America) and he was charged with returning her two dogs safely to the USA.

Ulmschneider, from Stralsund in the Baltic, had thus become a solo sailor by default.

His energetic invitation to the reader to become part of the crew on his steel ketch Seefalke extends to chapters where the reader is offered different choices of action, before the author reveals what actually occurred.

Buy Birth of a Solo Sailor from Amazon

Island on the Edge: a life on Soay

Island on the Edge: a life on Soay

Island on the Edge is a good read at a time when very many of us, even living on land, have needed to question our expectations.

The author arrives on Soay by fishing boat upon which island she begins a transition to a new life from her earlier life as a graphic designer in London. The book explores her extraordinary unpreparedness for life on a small island with (then) only a handful of residents.

She had no idea of the practicalities of living outside the social infrastructure of utility supply, communications, consumer goods – and regular income.

Were it not for the kindness of her neighbours she is clear that she would not have survived.

The population of Soay has fallen during Anne Cholawo’s life there. She is now one of only three permanent inhabitants.

Buy Island on the Edge: a life on Soay from Amazon


Life on Board Medway Queen

This slim 28-page booklet is the latest from the worthwhile Medway Queen Preservation Society.

It’s a treat for social history enthusiasts as it offers first-hand accounts from two men who joined Paddle Steamer Medway Queen in the immediate post-war period when she was back to work as an excursion steamer.

Buy HMS Medway Queen: Memories of Dunkirk from eBay



Farewell Mr Puffin

Farewell Mr Puffin describes a voyage north – sometimes solo, other times with crew – which Paul Heiney made in the Brexit referendum summer of 2016.

It took him from Suffolk to Iceland where Wild Song over-wintered at Reykjavik. Then they ventured further to cross the Arctic Circle.

As Heiney sets off up the British East Coast, visiting ports such as Blyth, Peterhead and Wick, he’s inspired by the idea of North, the anticipated tang of that pure cold air and the sense of following in the wake of past fishermen.

Buy Farewell Mr Puffin from Amazon


The Backside of Normal: a sailing life of adventure

If your starting point is Los Angeles then your cruising ground is immediately the Pacific.

Roger Olson’s first expeditions took him to Catalina Island and down the coast of Mexico.

An unexpected divorce in his 30s kickstarted a reappraisal of his life and its priorities. Soon he was setting out for the Marquesas and beyond.

The Backside of Normal: a sailing life of adventure, written aged 80 gives an account of what he experienced and discovered.

Buy The Backside of Normal: a sailing life of adventure from Amazon

Best sailing skills books

The Practical guide to celestial navigation book

The Practical Guide to Celestial Navigation

The word ‘Practical’ in this book’s title is a good one.

There are those with fine-tuned minds who love celestial navigation for its own sake; for the intellectual beauty of its concepts and the sense of being at one with the structure of this universe and beyond.

There are others (like the present writer) who feel a headache approaching at the very sight of astro-navigation tables so hurry to deny its necessity in the new happy world of GPS.

Phil Somerville leads the reader in gently, pointing out the electronic drain of GPS on the systems of an ocean-going yacht and also its vulnerability, both to electronic failure and to malice.

Buy The Practical Guide to Celestial Navigation from Amazon

The book of knots

The Book of Knots

Most yachtsmen value knots for their practical utility.

This book sorts them by construction and typing method rather than function. Its sections therefore are bends, loops, hitches, lashings, coils, stoppers and whippings.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know how to tie a Hangman’s Noose though the knot histories are interesting.

I suppose if one had failed to master the Highwayman’s Hitch (for a quick getaway) then one might well discover the special qualities of Jack Ketch’s knot ‘designed to withstand a heavy shock-loading in rope’. These days its use is for fishermen.

This book makes the reader aware of a community of knotting web masters who ‘represent every kind of knot application, from the basic to the bizarre.’

Buy The Book of Knots from Google Play

Imray Explorer guides - Tides

Imray Explorer Guides: Tides, Tidal Streams, The Moon

These three small booklets represent an interesting new ‘explainer’ approach.

A very few concepts are introduced in each booklet with infographics, links to download and construct simple paper models, calculation pages and (most important) clues to lookout for in the real world.

The three booklets are closely linked by both style and content, with a significant amount of repetition being used to ensure that connections are made.

While readers may wonder at this use of paper, teachers will recognise an essential technique. It also means that the books can be read in any order.

Buy Imray Explorer Guides: Tides from Imray

Buy Imray Explorer Guides: Tidal Streams from Imray

Buy Imray Explorer Guides: The Moon from Imray


Best cruising guides and pilot books

Reeds 9 language Handbook

Reeds 9 Language Handbook

The Reeds 9 Language Handbook may not have been flying off the shelves during the Covid pandemic, but for anyone with aspirations ever to cruise beyond UK waters again, I’d suggest it’s a must-have.

This pocket-sized volume contains specific boat-related vocabulary in French, Danish, Dutch, German Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Greek.

It’s very well thought out, being divided into sections relating to the boat, ‘Under Way’ (this includes harbour formalities), maintenance and repairs, emergencies.

Buy Reeds 9 Language Handbook from Amazon


North Brittany and Channel Islands Cruising Companion

The North Brittany and Channel Islands Cruising Companion is a sailing book that epitomises the best qualities of a cruising companion.

It’s thorough, well-informed, full of good suggestions and possesses the invaluable quality of intensifying enjoyment without bossily directing it.

It covers the area from Cherbourg and the Contenin peninsula to Ushant and the harbours of the Chenal du Four.

An example of unexpectedness is the reminder that Ushant / Ile d’Ouessant is more than an iconic seamark, it’s also a community which, if you have time and the weather is settled you might visit.

Buy North Brittany and Channel Islands Cruising Companion from Amazon


The Canal Guide: Britain’s 55 best canals

I’d love to see the author of The Canal Guide: Britain’s 55 best canals, Stuart Fisher, on Mastermind:

His apparently effortless outpouring of information on matters far removed from his specialist subject of Britain’s canals would surely make him unbeatable in the general knowledge rounds.

As previously in his excellent guides to Coastal Britain (two volumes – England and Scotland) the reader is treated to a scintillating riff of facts – about plants, pubs, history, literature, film sets, architecture, place names as well as the detail of canal history and engineering.

There’s not a dull page in the book.

Buy The Canal Guide: Britain’s 55 best canals from Amazon

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