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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Books Aboard a Cruising Boat

Stephen and Nancy Carlman

April 6th, 2022

Many of you will have heard Bill Norrie, from the Calgary Chapter, in February 2021 as he talked about and showed photos of his solo circumnavigation September 2019 to September 2020.

He began the presentation with reference to famous sailors like Ulysses and the fictional Ancient Mariner, whose exploits come down to us in literature. Later on he mentioned reading classic books like those of Homer and Jane Austen, as his wind vane steered Pixie.  That was in between tweeking sails, eating, sleeping, and communicating with Cathy, his wife, of course.

His presentation put me in mind of the books Stephen and I had with us on Fairwyn, while we were cruising to the Mediterranean and back for 15 years, from 1999-2014.

Book Story From 1981

First, however, I have a short book story from 1981.  Stephen and I were sailing south on the outside of Vancouver Island at the end of June in our Contessa 32’ Aquavit. We were sailing downwind at 6 knots with only a double-reefed main in 25-knot (A) NW winds and full sunshine as we passed the Brooks Peninsula.  The hydrovane was steering.

I was below on the starboard side listening to the weather forecast on the VHF, and Stephen was sitting in the cockpit reading a paperback edition of The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain.

Without warning, the boat gybed, and we got pooped. Water pushed Stephen off his seat, filled the cockpit, splashed into the cabin on the port side, and carried on across the cabin top, lifting halyards off their cleats on the mast.

Cushions, a gas can, and The Innocents Abroad floated in the cockpit.  The water took a long time to drain (that winter we replaced the cockpit drains with larger ones). The hydrovane carried the boat onto the other tack that turned out to be a better one, and we continued overnight to anchor near Effingham Island in Barkley Sound.

We dried out The Innocents Abroad, and Stephen finished reading it. It survived the ordeal quite well.

Books Aboard Fairwyn

Fairwyn is a 42’ classic wooden yawl built in 1957.  Over the years, more and more electronics and electricity-drawing features have been added to what was originally, at least compared with this Century, a basic boat with compass, VHF, wind indicator, knot meter, and depth sounder.  The additions included radar, SSB, computer, modem, plotter, autopilot (we couldn’t use a wind vane with the mizzen boom), AIS, GPS, EPIRB, 12-V refrigerator with a small freezer compartment, Webasto furnace, and solar panels.

However, we were always conscious of electricity use, so tried not to use any more than we had to.  If Kindles had been around when we left BC, I don’t know whether or not we would have bought one.

For starters, we had bound log books, specifically printed for Fairwyn, to show what we really wanted to record, because off-the-shelf log books include items we’re not interested in and omit the items we do want to keep track of. We now have 15 that recorded our cruise, with details of date and time, log, position (place or Lat/Long), course, sailing or motoring, speed through the water and over the ground, barometer, air and water temperature, weather, wind direction and speed, visibility, clouds, sea state, tide, as well as marine traffic and hand-written entries relating to depth and bottom of anchorages, marinas, fuel and water used, shore visits, boats and people we met.

We also had a guest log which people who came aboard Fairwyn signed. It now rests in our bookcase at home and serves as a record of when and where we met other cruisers, often with email addresses in case we want to get in touch with them.

Knowing that we wanted to keep books aboard to a minimum, I scanned (in the old-fashioned rather than computer sense!) my collection of cookbooks to choose the ones I thought I was most likely to need.  The Joy of Cooking (1964 printing, which I’ve had for 55 years) I chose as a basic cookbook since it covers almost everything, even how to skin a squirrel (something I never had occasion to do). Although it has a big section on bread making, I took Northern Cookbook, issued by the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, because I like the recipe for light whole wheat bread. (It also has an extensive section on game, but I never used that either.)

Because we hoped to (and did) catch fish, I took James Beard’s 1954 paperback Fish Cookbook.  Note from the photo how that held up!

Over the course of our cruise, I added some cookbooks: Yucatecan Cuisine, Cooking in Sardinia, and Canary Island Cuisine (all published for tourists with no authors or dates), The New Orleans Cookbook by Rima and Richard Collin (1984), and Curry Easy by Madhur Jaffrey, given to us by English friends in 2010 and still used weekly back here in Vancouver.

Important Books

Fortunately we had all the instruction manuals for our equipment. It is inevitable that problems will occur–and they did. The manual for our quite old OM 636 Diesel engine was used a number of times when we suffered breakdowns. Our Robertson autopilot quit as we started our return crossing of the Atlantic from the Canary Islands, causing the three of us aboard to have to hand-steer for 22 days.  In Antigua, a technician was able to use the instruction manual to repair the autopilot.  We have no photos of these important books since they went to the new owner of Fairwyn in 2017.

We had some reference books aboard: a dictionary, foreign language phrase books, bird, tree, and fish identification guides, as well as Nautical Rules of the Road, which turned out to be very important when the US Coast Guard boarded us in 2006 in Gulfport, Mississippi, since they had that on their list to check, as well as for navigational charts, fire extinguishers and anti-dumping plaques in the engine room.

Besides paper charts, we also had cruising guides to all the areas we visited and Lonely Planet guides for shore travel. Many of these we bought while underway, since we did not know at the beginning of our cruise exactly where the winds would take us. We often had occasion to give these guides away to other cruisers when we knew we would not be revisiting countries.

We had a little pocket atlas, not, of course, for navigation, but to look at the big picture.

We carried our address book and the directories for Bluewater Cruising and the Vancouver Rowing Club. Yes, these addresses could have been saved electronically.  Fortunately, they were not because our Mac was stolen when we were at the Club Nautico in Cartagena, Colombia. We think it was taken by a cruiser who left at daybreak before we discovered the theft. (There were no Apple stores in Cartagena in 2004.) These days I’m sure we would have backups for the computer.

Less Important Books

For reading while sailing (in easy waters, of course) or in anchorages, we took a few books we had been wanting to read. Some, like the Patrick O’Brian and Dudley Pope series, were good to trade when we encountered other cruisers or were in marinas. Most marinas had book exchanges. In Europe, you could find books in many languages, including many in English. Most of these books were “read ‘em, trade ‘em” paperbacks, but occasionally we found philosophy or history books, like The Real Mexico (1914), which we still have.

In our collection is one unique book, Portobelo Chronicles by Patricia A. McGehee, 2001. Well, I thought it was unique. The copy we have we bought from the author in her house on the harbour in Portobelo, on the Caribbean coast of Panama in 2003.  The book was self-published and printed, very badly, in Colon in 2001. The hard cover has worn so it is difficult to see the title and the lithographs of the Portobelo forts.

McGehee researched the history of Portobelo in libraries and museums in Panama, the U. S., Spain, England, and Colombia.  Portobelo, on a safe, deep harbour, was the port through which the gold and silver riches stolen from the Incas in what is now Peru were carried by slaves across the isthmus of Panama and loaded on ships for transport to Spain. Though not a historian, McGehee recorded Portobelo’s story from its 1502 sighting by Columbus to the restoration of the Spanish Customs House in 2001.

Little did I know until I checked on the internet that the book was republished in 2014 and is available on Amazon and at Barnes and Nobel.

I took Ulysses by James Joyce, a slow, difficult read, on the boat.  I had read it once but knew I could start it again if I had nothing else to read.  Over the 15 years, I think I started it twice, neither time getting beyond the first chapter before something else turned up. We also had Melville’s short novels but not, for some reason, Moby Dick, perhaps because we purposely avoided sea disaster books. A friend gave us A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, but Stephen never started it because it is so big!

Even in the age of the internet, I still think many of these paper books are important to have on a cruising boat.


  1. Bill,Norrie says:

    Thank you STEVEN and NANCY,
    Terrific article and yes as you kindly remember reading is “I believe “ , an essential ingredient to successful cruising. Not just a coping mechanism but a truly life enriching behaviour which blue water sailing fosters so well. I feel strongly about this as a bonus of cruising much better than endless Netflix binging behaviour . As open ocean sailing is jogging sprinting speed and it fits our human reference so well : reading a book fills our human discussion and depth similarly well and meaningful. CLASSIC books have withstood time and will continue in our Western Canon and the NY BEST SELLERS LIST will most likely be forgotten . I know how I want to spend my time .sailing is so great in that it foresters meaningful human exploration. Thank you again for speaking of READING AFLOAT , we would all be rewarded to choose carefully.

  2. Jordan and Judy Mills says:

    We have finished our circumnavigation and we have lots of books, guides and charts for sale for the offshore sailor. Contact us for details.

  3. Mary Anne Unrau says:

    Thanks for the terrific article … it makes us want to re-read some of the books you mention.
    On our boat we also always have Bill Tilman’s books … the omnibus of Seven Mountain books and the Eight Sailing-Mountaineering books. These are always my personal Go-To books when I run out of reading material.

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