Julia Jones reviews the latest maritime reading and picks the best sailing books, cruising guides and pilot books of 2020
What have been your favourite sailing books of 2020?
Yachting Monthly’s literary contributor Julia Jones reviews the books released this year.
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BEST SAILING BOOKS OF 2020
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Jo Winter, RCC Pilotage Foundation/Imray, £55
Jo and Giles Winter were partway through a circumnavigation when they were captivated by ‘the fabulous cruising grounds’ of Southeast Asia. Her book builds on the work of Stephen Davies and Elaine Morgan, and offers passage-planning advice (including crossing the terrifyingly busy Far Eastern shipping lanes) with detailed cruising guidance from Singapore to Hong Kong via the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan. It’s an area with complex winds and tides; few dedicated yachting facilities; typhoons, crocodiles, poverty and piracy. Winter’s approach is informed by common-sense, experience and cultural sensitivity as well as her receptiveness to beauty and fascination with sea areas where one can cruise for months without seeing another yacht. A truly impressive book.
SEA, ICE AND ROCK
Chris Bonington & Robin Knox-Johnston, Vertebrate Publishing, £12.99
Chris Bonington was in New Zealand, considering a climb in Tien Shan (part of the USSR – remember?) when Robin Knox-Johnston persuaded him they should sail together to Greenland and climb there instead. They collected a crew and did just that – each of them sampling each other’s expertise. This new edition of their joint book (first published in 1993) has acquired a certain period charm: GPS is still a novelty: there’s no radar to help Suhaili in fog and when they hear news of the fall of Gorbachev, they wonder whether their younger members will be needed to fight. It remains a good read, full of insight and some excitement. Sir RKJ’s tenacity through his first climb had me gripping the pages, white-knuckled!
DARK, SALT, CLEAR: LIFE IN A CORNISH FISHING TOWN
Lamorna Ash, Bloomsbury, £16.99
Lamorna Ash was named for a small Cornish village beyond Penzance and returns to explore. It’s not herself she travels to discover but the working fishing community of Newlyn, ashore and afloat. Eight days on a trawler gives her insight into the fishermen’s work and the existential experience of being at sea. Ash learns to gut. She cannot believe fish do not feel pain but must still do this job. ‘I let out a cry and stab the ray in the heart.’ Her title comes from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. There’s high- writing and high-thinking here but also harsh realities and nights in the pub. ‘Don’t romanticise us,’ say the fishermen – and she doesn’t. Deeply perceptive.
Dirk Liesemer (translated Peter Lewis), Haus Publishing, £14.99
In this elegantly-produced, quietly quirky book, Dirk Liesemer presents brief histories of 30 islands that have appeared on maps and inspired explorations: Atlantis, Breasil, Saint Brendan’s Island, Rupes Nigra, Thule. Several have shifted their charted position over the centuries but none of them exist. (One may even have been a squashed fly, caught in the process of digitisation, yet, in 2012, requiring a survey ship and 20 scientists to prove its non-existence.) Liesemer’s overall themes are the provisional nature of knowledge and the power of wanting to believe. There are blank pages in this volume which might have tempted me to sharpen a very fine pencil and sketch my own. Instead, I contented myself with enjoying the unobtrusively good writing and perceptive insights.
HOW TO TIE KNOTS
Tim MacWelch, Modern Books, £9.99
Tim MacWelch founded the Earth Connection School of Primitive Living Skills. It sounds self-consciously millennial but it’s an approach of which Baden Powell would have approved. These knots are for anyone who camps, fishes, climbs or sails and who may need to improvise.
MacWelch explains, for instance, how a sheet bend can be used to attach rope to the corner of a piece of fabric, ‘when the grommets are torn out, absent or too small’. His focus is on self-reliance and being prepared for emergency. Perhaps one day I might need climbing and fishing knots and instructions on how to make my own rope – even from ‘stretched dried intestines’ (though I’m rather hoping to avoid a crisis on that scale!) This would make an excellent gift.
BRIDGING OUR DIFFERENCES
Gerry S M Hughes, New Generation Publishing, £11.99
Scottish sailor Gerry Hughes was born profoundly deaf – misfortune enough, one might think. But this was compounded by an educational system which insisted deaf children should be taught by lip reading, rather than in their natural language of signing. Gerry reached age 13 unable to read or write and detached from his own identity. His struggles to learn (and to become a teacher) are horrifying. Sailing with his father off the west coast of Scotland was a happier experience yet the barriers to independent achievement and recognition were almost equally daunting. Hughes suffered from depression but persevered. He was the first deaf yachtsman to complete the OSTAR – and then went further. An inspiring book.
Stuart Fisher, Adlard Coles, £25
A brilliant addition to Stuart Fisher’s series of observations from his sea kayak, possibly even better than last year’s England and Wales volume. Refreshingly, Fisher is not interested in analysing his inner journey, only in recording what he learns. Regular topics include geology, literature, history, tidal currents, coastal furniture, wrecks, fauna, flora and folklore, parking and toilets. The photos are, of course, wonderful and the pages further enlivened by images of book jackets, beer bottles (full) and postage stamps. Maps and positioning icons are well used, though with such a spate of information to absorb, I might put in a future plea for a slightly larger type size or possibly sub-titling. A wealth of unexpected fact on every page. Highly recommended.
THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED ANTARCTICA
Sheila Bransfield, Frontline Books, £25
Edward Bransfield was kidnapped by a Royal Navy press gang from Ballinacurra, County Cork in 1803. Sheila Bransfield has researched the logs and muster rolls of every ship in which he subsequently served. Bransfield went from the lower decks to become an expert navigator and ship’s master. In December 1819 he was sent from Valparaiso in a merchant brig to investigate reports of a southern continent. He and his companions named landmarks and proved the existence of Antarctica – though few took much notice. Bransfield’s achievement was all in a day’s work which makes it even more impressive.
FANTASTIC FEMALE ADVENTURERS
Lily Dhu (illustrated by Chellie Carroll), Shrine Bell, £12.99
Lily Dhu ‘the girl who hated sports at school’ introduces 13 female adventurers ranging from celebrities, such as Ellen MacArthur and Helen Sharman, to Mira Rai, the child soldier from Nepal who became a mountain runner.
Devout Muslim Misha Khan from Manchester hadn’t walked in the hills until she was 40: since then she has climbed Kilimanjaro and skied to the North Pole. Karen Darke, paralysed from the neck down, went hand-biking in the Himalayas. Sarah Outen battled mental health problems as she rowed, kayaked and cycled round the world. Not everyone succeeds — sometimes it’s enough to have made the attempt. Although this book is presented for children, it offers inspiration for us all.
TRIM: THE CARTOGRAPHER’S CAT
Matthew Flinders, Philippa Sandall and Gillian Dooley, Adlard Coles, £12.99
When Captain Matthew Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius he lost his cat. Trim had been born on passage from the Cape of Good Hope to Botany Bay and had sailed with Flinders as he surveyed the Australian coast. As well as catching vermin, Trim climbed the rigging, wheedled scraps from mouths and amused the crew. He had survived a shipwreck but couldn’t adapt to captivity. When he was sent to be a young girl’s pet, he disappeared. Flinders, bored and lonely, wrote this delightful brief biography: Sandall & Dooley respond on behalf of the ‘seafurrer’. A neat gift book telling a sad tale sweetly.
THE BOUNDLESS SEA
David Abulafia, Penguin, £35
Professor Abulafia’s magisterial volume focuses on exploration, on the making of material links between societies and the increasing navigational connectedness of the ocean. He identifies breakthrough moments such as in 20 AD when Hippalos’s observations of the monsoon wind systems made it possible to sail directly from Egypt to India. This narrative presents trade – rather than conquest or colonisation – as the primary motive for marine networking. The tons of ceramics loaded onto medieval Chinese junks ‘simply could not have been carried on the backs of camels’. Substitute aircraft for camels, container-ships for junks and it’s equally true today.
Tom Nancollas, Penguin, £9.99
Although subtitled ‘A Lighthouse History from Eddystone to Fastnet’ this beautifully written account is a selective exploration of seven rock lighthouses: the Eddystone, Bell Rock, Haulbowline, Perch Rock, Wolf Rock, Bishop Rock and Fastnet. A 300-year history is constructed from these iconic examples: it’s an exploration into different levels of meaning as well as use. Nancollas is a building conservationist so appreciates both the practical challenge of dovetailing granite blocks in extraordinary conditions and the evidence of social and cultural aspiration. His degree of physical access to each lighthouse varies: a compelling chapter records five days on the Fastnet. These lighthouses may tremble at the battering of the sea but they still offer certainty to navigators.
LIFE ON THE DEBEN: THE STORY OF A SUFFOLK RIVER
Nick Cottam & Tim Curtis, Lifeonthedeben.com, £20
Not a pilot guide, not a cruising companion, Life on the Deben focusses on the river itself. Its primary achievement is to follow the whole Deben from source to sea. When a river becomes non-navigable there’s a natural tendency to lose interest in it.
Life on the Deben is not a campaigning volume; it’s an attractive, well-written sequel to a successful film. Nevertheless it’s a reminder to be a little more curious and take to our dinghies, kayaks or feet to see what happens on the far side of river walls and beyond the upper reaches.
RIVERS OF POWER
Laurence C. Smith, Allen Lane, £20
This may not be an obvious choice for a yachting library as it’s about rivers but not boats. Laurence C. Smith is a hydrologist who is currently tracking changing river flows in the Arctic. The scope of this book is global, ranging from the earliest geology to the latest hydro-electric diversion projects. I was shocked by the callous cruelty of river use in warfare and mildly cheered by the focus on riverfront access in modern urban planning. Smith is American with access to astonishing satellite technology (and research funding, it seems). The personality of his book is humane and his writing style often thrilling. This is a big book which may change your view of even the smallest river.
THE TITANIC & THE CITY OF WIDOWS IT LEFT BEHIND
Julie Cook, Pen & Sword, £19.99
The city is Southampton and among the women desperately scanning the survivors’ list outside the White Star office is Emily Bessant, mother of five and a widow. Her husband William had signed on as a fireman at £6 a month, a welcome wage in hard times. But now she must survive alone. Julie Cook is the Bessants’ great-granddaughter. Her focus is on the bereaved families and how they coped, aided by the Titanic Disaster Fund. Sailors today may feel grateful for the next big Southampton sailing in May 1912, when 300 crew members walked off RMS Olympic, protesting against inadequate liferafts: a significant leap towards SOLAS legislation.
Duncan Wells, Adlard Coles, £17.99
You may feel the chandlery bookshelves already have enough navigation primers for even the most anxious student but this begins with a specific objective: to give a navigator confidence that she or he understands what the electronics are saying and can manage without them if all power dies. It was initially designed for occasional sailors needing help to get a charter boat from the marina out to sea, equipped with a plotter. The lay-out is clear and the material is accessible at different levels: from the person who needs to start from first principles to a sailor whose on-board instrumentation is so sophisticated that it calculates laylines and adjusts the set of the sails needed to achieve them. The promised stress-reduction comes from understanding.
NAVIGATION: A NEWCOMER’S GUIDE (3RD EDITION)
Sara Hopkinson, Fernhurst, £12.99
Books like this continue to be needed as new people continue to take up sailing and realise that finding one’s way at sea involves more than downloading an app. Sara Hopkinson writes in a reassuring style and gives sensible advice; such as when entering an unfamiliar harbour ‘keep things simple and, in a yacht, use the engine’. Probably this is what a newcomer would do anyway but it’s helpful to have ‘permission’. This book offers basic principles but contains few practice examples. It might be best used in conjunction with a hands-on course. Hopkinson runs a RYA training school and is offering her diagrams for use by other instructors.
YACHTMASTER FOR SAIL AND POWER (5TH EDITION)
Alison Noice & Roger Seymour, Adlard Coles, £25
In five years since the previous edition, certain electronic aids to safety and navigation, which might then have felt extravagant, have become almost mainstream. AIS is the most obvious example. Roger Seymour has incorporated these developments seamlessly in his update of the late Alison Noice’s companion to the RYA Coastal Skipper / Yachtmaster Offshore course. The clarity of the overall approach remains unchanged, There are revision checks at the end of each chapter but for those not preparing for an exam, small details such as the potentially lethal qualities of a flying baked bean tin in a blow, or advice to store a pair of gardening gloves in the flare box may remain longest in the memory.
TRAVELS WITH MY NAN
Nick Imber, Lodestar Books, £14
An attractive account of three generations of family sailing. Nick Imber’s parents bought the 1904 barge-yacht Nan in the late 1950s and spent many happy holidays exploring the East Coast and then Devon. For a while they were joined by an ex-Arthur Ransome dinghy Swallow II and much of the writing has a whiff of the faintly didactic, unpretentiously jolly, sub-Navy flavour which other children of the 1950s may find nostalgic. Imber’s book is technically interesting as he describes the particular challenges and skills of sailing a flat-bottomed yacht. As the children grew up, Nan offered mates’ sailing, girlfriend sailing and began again with a new generation. It was a sad day when her maintenance became too demanding and she was sold.
MINGMING II & THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE
Roger D Taylor, Fitzroy Press, £12.99
Roger Taylor’s most recent titles have the ring of an adventure series (think Harry Potter books or the Indiana Jones films) and that’s how they read. The central character, however, is not a teenage wizard or fedora-wearing archaeology professor but a small, 24ft concept yacht. Mingming II is junk-rigged, bilge-keeled and designed with such rationality that the human element (Roger Taylor) can travel with her for 56 days, covering 3,480 miles, only needing to exit her main hatch seven times. When conditions are at their toughest, Taylor has no need to struggle into his foulies and grapple with sail-changes; he furls the single sail and either heaves-to or trusts the self-steering gear. Then he lashes himself into the leeward bunk and trusts her in-built buoyancy to ride the rhythm of the seas. In this fifth (and possibly final) instalment Mingming II carries Taylor north of Svalbard, then east along the line of 81°N into the usually inaccessible Queen Victoria Sea. They sail close to the islands of Franz Josef Land until they discover their ‘limit of rational endeavour’. Taylor’s lucid explanations can be watched on his videos: this book offers his reflections on the overall experience. Mingming II’s voyage took place in 2018 and should have been impossible because these areas are normally ice-bound. As he looks back to earlier explorations and forward to a possible ice-free future Taylor knows he is ‘sailing along the cusp of a seismic shift in our species’ relationship with its world.’ He feels the grief yet achieves intellectual distance and some challenging insights.
Mingming II and the Impossible Voyage is philosophical but not gloomy. It has passages of lunatic humour and conveys the sweetness of the small yacht herself as she frolics home. Taylor and Mingming were previously awarded the 2010 Ocean Cruising Club Jester Medal for their ‘outstanding contribution to single-handed sailing’.
THE MAKING OF AN IMMIGRATION JUDGE (2ND ED)
James Hanratty RD, Quartet, £15
Yachtsman James Hanratty’s memoir has been revised since first published in 2016. His reminiscences of early life and education, and his career until retirement remain unchanged. Since then, however, immigration has become a yet more contentious issue and sailors may feel a particular interest as we recognise the ‘short choppy seas’ and ‘enormous risks’ faced by those who attempt the Channel crossing in overcrowded inflatables. Hanratty’s mix of experience (including time in Hong Kong) ensure these chapters are particularly enlightening. He also worked on the Windrush ‘Lessons Learned’ Review. He has earned his summer’s sailing.
CRUISING GUIDES & PILOT BOOKS
THE GIFT OF A SEA: A SHORT HISTORY OF YACHTING IN THE MEDITERRANEAN
Rod Heikell, Taniwha Press, £32.50
Every few months, it seems, Rod Heikell’s Mediterranean knowledge needs to spill over into some new outlet. Most often it’s a revised edition of one of his pilot books; a cruising guide, handbook or almanac. This time he has produced a history extending from the pharaohs to the oligarchs. Heikell’s stories of the super-rich are entertaining but the most valuable section is his account of the development of flotilla sailing and chartering. He links the post-war renewal of infrastructure with the innovatively designed, mass-produced yachts that both created and satisfied new leisure sailors’ aspirations. Fascinating.
THE CAPE VERDE ISLANDS
Donald M. Street Jr, Seaworthy Publications, £39.95
This is a book with a mission: to convince transatlantic sailors to cross via the southern route and allow themselves time to relish the cruising delights of the Cape Verdes. ‘Depart from Brava the first week in December. The good solid trades will boost you the 2,100 miles to the Caribbean at hull speed in time for Christmas.’ It’s an updated version of the 1st edition (published 2011) and although Street, now in his late 80s, has swallowed the cruising anchor, he has a range of local contacts, a lifetime’s experience and the ability to interpret evidence gleaned from sources such as Google Earth as well as his own excellent charts. He’s also scrupulous in dating his information. An utterly convincing publication.
CHILE: ARICA DESERT TO TIERRA DEL FUEGO 4TH EDITION
Andrew O’Grady, Imray, £45
The photographs of anchorages in this book tell an eloquent tale. They are austere, deserted, surrounded by steep slopes and often rocky shores. Beautiful certainly but with a challenging beauty – one can almost feel the ‘rachas’ – the fierce, sudden winds.
This is a vast cruising ground, redolent with history and never to be taken lightly. Andrew O’Grady clearly loves and understands Chile yet there are large areas he has not had time to investigate in detail, even over 16 years. He is scrupulous in saying so. His guidance on the official permit requirements of the Chilean Armada (navy) are detailed and he is sensitive to aspects of southern hemisphere cruising that may seem counter-intuitive. An explorer’s guide.
ADRIATIC PILOT (8th EDITION)
Trevor and Dinah Thompson, Imray, £45
If this summer has necessarily become a time for future planning rather than present adventure, Trevor and Dinah Thompson’s guide has much to offer. It covers Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and the east coast of Italy, from Trieste to Otranto – a varied and often beautiful cruising ground. They’ve been exploring the Adriatic since 1984, when the likes of Albania were off-limits. They’ve observed changing political and social attitudes together with a dramatic development of yachting facilities. These days the Thompsons often arrive as trailer-sailors, which seems temptingly accessible. This edition includes a download voucher for Imray’s digital charts – encouragement to do more than just dream?
FIRTH OF CLYDE INCLUDING SOLWAY FIRTH AND NORTH CHANNEL (3RD ED)
Clyde Cruising Club (editor Geoff Crowley), Imray, £35
This volume of CCC Sailing Directions and Anchorages covers a complex area from Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast; north to the Crinan Canal and Upper Loch Fyne; westwards into Belfast Lough, then up the Antrim coast to Ballycastle. The Firth of Clyde is the historic centre for Scottish yachting, British shipbuilding and a naval tradition which is not yet defunct. The value of Bob Bradfield’s recent hi-resolution surveys which have identified many underwater obstructions is acknowledged. The CCC has also updated its Sailing Directions for Orkney & Shetland with N and NE Scotland: edited Iain and Barbara MacLeod, published Imray, £35. An essential series.
AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO CRUISING THE INLAND WATERWAYS OF FRANCE: CANAL DE LA MARNE AU RHIN (EST)
Gordon Knight, Google Play Books £5
A new series of twelve full-colour digital guides to moorings along the French Inland Waterways produced by Gordon Knight, also known for his work with the Cruising Association. This sample booklet comprises 22 pages of potential stopping points, extending from the sizeable and popular port de plaisance at Strasbourg to the Port du France at Toul, via numerous (I counted 52) basins, quays and rural haltes, all illustrated and annotated. Some charge a fee and offer facilities: most do not. The booklets are produced in aid of ASPAS, a French wildlife charity, and are digital only. For more information on titles and updates visit the author’s Facebook page.
A COCKPIT ANTHOLOGY: POEMS TO BE READ AT SEA
Paul Williams, ARC Subsea, £14.99
Any anthology is a personal selection, likely to produce unexpected pleasures as well as occasional disappointments. I was intrigued by the inclusion of verses from The Song to the Isle of Mingulay but would also have enjoyed the lilting rhythms of The Mingulay Boat Song. Singing (or declaiming) when alone in the cockpit is a pleasure that helps the miles go by and there’s good material in this spiral- bound, waterproofed volume. It’s an anthology of words and phrases – ‘groggy’, ‘lubber’, ‘tarpaulin muster’ – which offer an alternative diversion if the solitary warblings are voted down.