Ginny’s Christmas list – reviews of books we would have liked, and some we would not

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Ginny Jones of Martha’s Vineyard has suggested I share her Annual Christmas list – a review of books she’s read this year, and a couple of other items she believes we could all benefit from knowing about. Well, it may be too late for Christmas, but maybe one or two can be found in time for the sailing season and those peaceful times when we’re waiting for the tide.

I should explain that Ginny is a seriously well-seasoned sailor, and through her company Firefox Consulting offers surveying and other services on and around Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the books she lists are likely to be available via, or ABE Books.

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‘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 on the pile, and on the list, is that the book must have a narrative which is engaging, with a bit of a spark and humour, 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 sail boat again so there will only be an occasional reference to books about round the world sail boat races and other endurance challenges. Here you will find books that provide pleasure and a different perspective during the winter months to the armchair sailor. And just as a lagniappe I’ve thrown in a few tools that will make the winter boat “to do” list go more smoothly. [A lagniappe is a bonus, such as the 13th bun in a baker’s dozen – ed. ]

On The Wind – The marine photography of Norman Fortier should be on everyone’s must-have list this year, and it will be a wonderful gift for anyone who values maritime photography or history. With introductions and detailed captions by Calvin Siegal and Llewellyn Howland III, and Michael Lapides as the photographic editor, this lovely book contains photos from the 60 years that Norman Fortier has been prowling the waters of SE New England, ranging from Block Island on the West to the Outer Cape on the East, and including both sides of Buzzards Bay, Vineyard and Nantucket Sound and the bays and harbors of the Elizabeth Islands, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

‘Pictured are ports and people, fishing vessels, commercial vessels and ferries, classic sailing and power boats, all sorts of maritime artifacts, and several photos of our own Shenandoah, which are both familiar and famous. In 1947 Louie Howland’s Uncle Wally (Waldo Howland of the Concordia Company) built Norman Fortier a building on the grounds of the Concordia Company in Padanaram, which served as his studio and office until just recently.

‘When Fortier was approached several years ago by Mystic Seaport Museum to purchase his collection of images (over 100,000) and ledgers, the New Bedford Whaling Museum was “keenly aware that the area had permanently lost the whale ship Charles W Morgan to Mystic Seaport before World War II, and aware of the value of the collection as a historical resource” and so “determined to purchase all of the existing negatives.”

‘The Whaling Museum Library acquired the entire collection in December of 2004 and they have been catalogued and preserved. Published by David Godine the book is produced and printed to his usual high standards. The photos are beautiful of course and the captions and narrative are superb. My only quibble with this book is that the modest size of the volume does not do justice to the images, the lack of a chart is unfortunate and the lack of an index is frustrating.

‘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 paper back manual for Witherbys Publishing in the UK, is a book particularly valuable to a boat owner or a 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 any one who spends time on a boat.

‘The first chapter on the process of surveying starts by stating that “Surveyors save lives…Surveyors prevent accidents…Surveyors protect property…Surveyors are practical engineers.” – an excellent introduction to what every owner (or skipper and crew member) should know and do before setting off, that is, checking out, inspecting and repairing or replacing these vital parts of any boats’ gear.

‘This book includes many carefully drawn and labeled illustrations and sketches, as well as photos. There is a small bibliography and appendices. Nicolson has written other books such as Surveying Small Craft and the Boat Data Book that should be in every serious maritime library as well.

Coming down the Seine by Robert Gibbings (out of print but may be available through antiquarian maritime book dealers such as ABE: see link at the bottom of this post) is a really 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 wood cut 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 savoured slowly, chapter by chapter, in just the same way.

‘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 of a wide variety of subjects and who only 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, and with very limited seamanship skills took on an extended cruise from England through to the Med and beyond, to Greece. Millar’s considerable journalistic talents and skills are evidenced in the wealth of detail and these two books – very different but very engaging – inspire the patient reader to undertake a similar cruise, perhaps with either book in hand to act as a guide and for comparison with the present. These are not fast reads, as there are a lot of detail and information, perspectives and observations in each.

‘This is another book that is out of print but available with a little effort. George Millar also wrote Oyster River, a delightful and little known sailing 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 island 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 WoodenBoat 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 foreward, afterward and extensive remarks by the publisher Stephen Jones, this is the story of America’s premier maritime run runner and his lovely schooners, principally the Gloucester fishing schooner Arethusa, which was reportedly the great love of his life. Everett S Allen, a Vineyard boy, wrote The Black Ships about the rum runners, and another boat, written from the Coast Guard perspective is Rum War at Sea by Malcolm Willoughby.

‘Flat Hammock has also published Stephen Jones’ book The Actual McCoy. In fact, 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 who would sail north from the Bahams carrying cases and “hams” of liquor to the various rum runners. Ironically McCoy was a teetotaler and known for his honorable transactions. When you bought from Bill you could be sure that it was “the real McCoy.”

‘Mystic Seaport has several vessels in their extensive vessel collection from the Vineyard including the fishing vessel 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 Watercraft Collection 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 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 & 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 notes, in his introduction: 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 VH who share to varying degrees those same qualities (as well as being superb seamen).

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 fifty-two different islands. The book has a wonderful map and is a wonderful blend of history, travelogue and anecdotes, with numerous water color 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 as 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 authoring books on a similar theme. This book landed squarely on my pile of books not to recommend, or buy, and I feel compelled to issue a warning. I am sure Santella enjoyed the research and there are some lovely photos but the captions are virtually useless and contain no identifications, and the pocket descriptions provide little information of interest.

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 the 31st of May, 1933 to sail via Japan and the Aleutians, then to the West Coast of the US, down through the Panama Canal, to Jamaica, the Bahamas (where the ketch – built and sailed without an engine – caught on a lee shore, grounded and washed ashore necessitating a massive effort to refloat her), Bermuda and home to Dartmouth, England on the 30th of May, 1934.

TAI-MO-SHAN is still sailing and a recent published article confirms persistent rumours 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 not mentioned in the book (published in 1935, the 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’ 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 the crew member 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 along the various voyages. This is classic cruising in small boats before WWII (although the rumbles of the approaching WWII are faintly audible) and its 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 1920’s state), and vignettes about all the players, all rich in detail and information.

‘There are also numerous photos, paintings and prints, plans, notes and foot notes, 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 fain 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 its only got one reef – this is not a boat that you’re going to sail to Patagonia, even if she has offshore and/or passage sails.

The Cape Cod Canal by Robert H Farson is about another dream; it is the story of the 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 to the passage of vessels via a much shorter route than out around the off shore 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. This book, published some years ago but just as interesting now, 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 who run it today. This fine paperback contains numerous B & W 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 John Stilgoe, Harvard historian, as well as detailed information about the images and post cards. This is 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, which is an unfortunate omission.

Bronze Castings for the Boatbuilder by Samuel Johnson is another book that I picked up at the WoodenBoat Show, and it is a paperback, self-published manual that Sam Johnson put together to serve as a text for his classes at the WoodenBoat School. It is available from Johnson at or +1 206-375-3907 and is modestly priced for the quality of the technical information and publication. There is 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.

Rosenfeld has included detailed essays which give social and historical context to the photos and there are extensive captions for the photos. Unfortunately this book would have benefited from a more careful editing of the captions as some are either factually incorrect or would have benefited from more information. And for some reason, in the section Displaying Womanhood a lot of the photos are a bit cheese-cakeish…skimpily clad models promoting runabouts – but then there are also really wonderful sections about women in the workplace and another section titled In the Yard which balance it off.

‘The book is worth the cost just for the picture of Mrs Tommy Sopwith (every inch the grand dame!) at the wheel of Endeavour II on the cover, taken in Newport in 1937.

Dr Mary Malloy, who teaches maritime history at SEA 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 paper back 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. I only just purchased this book so can’t write much more than that this is a biography and extensive additional sources (bibliography, foot notes, 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.” This promises to be a very interesting book.

‘Several more books (all paperbacks) that I’m either reading or have on the pile of “must read” are The Teatime Islands and Offshore – In Search of an Island of my Own by Ben Fogle, who spent a year living on the Scottish island of Taransay as one of the volunteers for the BBC’s Castaway 2000 program. The former book 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. The impetus was that, 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).

Offhsore is a trip in the improbable , 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 2500 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 this 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 life time finding out why.

‘While you are languishing in a comfortable chair in front of a nicely burning fire, perhaps with a mug of something soothing (to properly accompany this list with so many Scottish books, the only possible drink is either strong tea or single malt scotch) you’ll probably be pondering various boat jobs that you have ahead for the winter. There are various tools that will make life, and the jobs ever so much easier. The first would be a full time crew, of course, but that is unrealistic because you have to feed and house them as well as put up with their idiosyncrasies (and vice versa). The next best thing might be a set of Pro-Prep scrapers from the WoodenBoat Store in Brooklin, Maine. This is a nifty set of variously shaped and very sharp scraper blades, each of which cleverly fastens on to a universal handle. To say that these blades (there are 10 in the set) make just about any refinishing project enormously easier is an understatement. Coupled with a heat gun you will be able to scrape and refinish acres of paint and varnish, even the cursed polyurethane varnish. The set comes in a neat nylon pouch that keeps everything together.

‘And while you are refinishing the cosmetics and making the boat pretty improve the life of the cook and get a new galley stove. A boat moves by the wind (or by the engine) of course but a boat really moves on her stomach. A well fed crew is a happy crew, and a good sea cook is a pearl almost beyond price. A true sea-going stove will improve the chances of the former and improve the working conditions for the latter – its truly a synergistic combination. Over the years I’ve cooked on a number of galley stoves, in virtually all conditions off shore, and if I ever cook on an alcohol stove again it will be too soon. On certain boats and in certain climates a diesel range with a high sea rail and good pot clamps – even ungimballed and mounted thwartships will do – makes sense. However, on your average recreational sail boat a propane stove (three burners with oven) with all the appropriate safety features, flame failure protection, door locks, gimbals, and very important, a high sea rail, is the only sensible choice.

‘My current favorite stove is a TASCO 755 LP, which is not perfect but is close. It is stainless and well insulated, the oven door locks and will not fly open; the stove is gimbaled or can be locked in port. The stove does need additional weight on the bottom, but the oven is ample, the stove is very easy to clean, and the custom designed and built high sea rail is superior to the normal version. It is relatively easy to light and you can use the oven manually or, with a battery powered electric ignition. For more details contact TASCO (North Dighton, MA at +1 508-823-0786, ask for Cliff, and tell them you want the stove with the custom built high sea rail (it lifts off so that the whole top can be scrubbed clean. Tell ‘em that Ginny sent you.’

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