Reviews From 2017

February 2017 Newsletter

Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human

BY GEORGE MICHELSEN FOY (Flatiron, 2016; 291 Pages, Hardcover; $25.99)

Finding North

In the wake of his brother’s recent death, George Michelsen Foy becomes interested in the fate of his great, great grandfather, Capt. Halvor Michelsen, lost aboard the Norwegian packet Stavanger Paquet when she went down under Havlor’s command in 1844. Hoping to understand something of the Stavanger Paquet’s loss due to a navigational error, Foy plots a course offshore from Hyannis, Massachusetts, to Maine aboard Odyssey, his aging Morgan 35 sloop, employing the same sorts of navigation tools and strategies his great, great grandfather would have used.

Over a winter spent readying Odyssey and himself for the voyage, Foy finds himself drawn deeper into the art and science of navigation, and the ways in which it informs and is in turn affected by almost all of our daily activities. In between dusting off his old sextant and making necessary repairs to Odyssey, he travels to the Caribbean to sail with a Haitian skipper who carries no compass; journeys to the Greek island of Samothrace to visit the “shrine of the megaloi theoi, the great gods,” where the ancient Dioskuri initiated would-be navigators in the magic art; consults with neuroscientists mapping those areas of the brain involved with navigation; and visits the “Dark Heart” of today’s GPS at Schriever’s AFB in Colorado. All the while, Foy finds himself navigating his own memories as well, especially those that now make up his relationship with his brother.

When it comes to what matters most in life, Foy realizes that “navigation and the disorientation that’s part of it have taught me: that we cannot live without loss.” And that when we lose those things that make us who we are, “we are forced to look hard around this world” to find our way, and ourselves, again.

Every sailor who's ever looked at a chart, tried to take a sight with a sextant, wondered how GPS works, or had to rely on dead-reckoning out of sight of land will enjoy Foy's examination of navigation's many fascinating aspects in Finding North. Those who have ever looked in the mirror, or into their heart, or the heart of another, to locate a different sort of fix, will discover even more.

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Anne Bonny’s Wake

BY DICK ELAM (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2016; 232 Pages, Hardcover; $22.99; Kindle Ebook, $4.99)

Anne Bonny's Wake

Is it every sailor’s dream to rescue a mermaid, a topless lady in distress? What could be better? How about a somewhat modern slant on the mermaid theme…say, a mermaid who can get around on two good legs and who just happens to know how to hand, reef, and steer? Too good to be true? Perhaps. Imagine she comes aboard with a bushel-load of personal baggage she’s keeping secret and is stalked by bad guys who just might kill anyone who happens to be aboard?

Author Dick Elam captures readers’ attentions from the start, when Maggie Adelaide Moore, fleeing her tormentors, swims to the anchored boat of Herschel Barstow. What do you say to a semi-naked lady?

Hershel’s sentimental cruise on his former sailboat, now in charter, was meant to be a time of reflection in which he would spread the ashes of his deceased wife. When they weren’t working as CIA operatives, he and his wife had enjoyed their time on the Anne Bonny, a sailboat named for a well-known female pirate. But now the identity and motivation of his new crewmember, who arrived dripping wet in her cutoff jeans, was in doubt. Was she another female pirate or on the right side of the law? Which of her stories were lies and which were the truth?

There are enough twists and turns in this book that you can’t be sure. Suffice it to say that it’s a good thing Hershel has his CIA training and the ongoing friendship of his former trainer, who is now retired. The two are determined to learn Maggie’s secrets. But Hershel may die trying as he and Maggie sail the Carolina waterways to return the Anne Bonny to the charter company…always just a few strong strokes of a mermaid’s tale ahead of the bad guys.

This is Dick Elam’s first in what may become a series. He clearly is a sailor who knows good old boats. He doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining to the non-yachtsman among his readers what this is or what that means. A few lubberly expressions such as “Over and out” as a signoff on the VHF radio, and “bumpers” for fenders, made me think he had a bit too much “help” from non-sailor early readers or editors, because all the rest rings true and there is the occasional mention of “lines and fenders.” If you can overlook those trifles, you just might enjoy sailing along in the Anne Bonny’s wake, just so long as you are safely in your armchair and can’t feel the bad guys’ breath on the back of your neck.

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Notable Boats: Small Craft, Many Adventures

BY NIC COMPTON, WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY PETER SCOTT (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2017; 160 Pages, Hardcover; $29.95)>

Notable Boats

This is an intriguing little book. Although it is titled Notable Boats, it really is the story of some extraordinary people. Compton, who is a past editor of the British magazine, Classic Boats, sets out to profile 36 small boats which he deems to be worthy of note, and his eclectic selection certainly provides interesting reading. The only trait that is common to his choices is that none have engines as their primary propulsion, with the vast majority being propelled by sail. Some, such as Huck Finn’s raft, have no propulsion system at all, and three are propelled by oar alone. The latter include the Tom McClean’s 20-foot dory, Super Silver, which he rowed across the Atlantic in 1969, Jerome K. Jerome’s Pride of the Thames from Three Men in a Boat, and Casanova’s gondola. Indeed, like Huck’s raft, some of Compton’s picks exist only in literature, such as Robinson Crusoe’s periagua. Some that he selects are well known to most sailors, including Joshua Slocomb’s Spray, Robin Knox-Johnson’s Suhaili, the Olin Stephens-designed Dorade, Sir Francis Chichester’s Gypsy Moth IV, Robin Lee Graham’s Dove, and, of course, the schooner yacht America and the iconic Canadian fishing schooner Bluenose.

The majority of the small boats that Compton profiles have completed some truly remarkable solo ocean voyages, a number of which I was either totally unaware or had only peripheral knowledge. A couple that truly astounded me were the 3,400-mile transatlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to St. Martins in 1956 by the young German doctor Hannes Lindermann in an open folding kayak — a voyage he made to test the bounds of human endurance — and the around-the-world voyage in 1999 to 2003 of Evgeny Gvozdev, in an 11-foot 10-inch boat he built on his balcony in Russia! The amazing thing about both these individuals was that these voyages were the second for each.

Through these often amazing little craft and their incredible voyages, Compton focuses on the men and women who sailed them. If you can argue that every boat has a unique personality, then it is no stretch to claim that in each of these boats that personality perfectly matches, and is even instilled by, that of the owner. Even in the case of Chichester and Gypsy Moth IV, a boat he claimed to hate, both the boat and the sailor are forever fused.

The format of the book is well structured, although the order in which the boats appear in the book seems to be totally random. Each segment opens with a page headed by the boat’s name, with a thumbnail sketch of the boat’s and owners achievements accompanied by a plan view drawing of the boat by John Woodcock listing its principal dimensions. The next page has a full color “sail plan” profile drawing of the boat in color by Peter Scott. Page 3 contains a color map of the voyage by Nick Rowland, along with a description of the achievement extending to all of page 4.

My criticism of this book that purports to focus on notable boats is that the information on the boats themselves is particularly sparse. The chapter on John Lennon’s 1980 voyage to Bermuda in the 42-foot Megan Jaye shows a sail plan drawing that could be a Tartan or Bristol, but the information on the boat does not specify either a builder or designer. The same can be said for Dove and Ellen MacArthur’s 21-foot Iduna, which she sailed around Britain in 1996, as well as Laura Dekker’s Guppy, which she sailed solo around the world as teenager. Each seems to be a fiberglass production sailboat, so I’m not sure why a builder’s designation was omitted.

I would have also liked to know a little more about the illustrators, particularly Peter Scott, who did all the colored sail plan drawings. The name (Sir) Peter Scott is already well known in sailing and ornithological circles. This is obviously a different, but also talented, Peter Scott.

This book is a teaser, giving just enough information to be illuminating, but in a lot of cases left me wanting to know more about some of these incredible boats and people. Fortunately, to satisfy that need, Compton supplies a two page “Further Reading” section at the back of the book. An impulse I had after reading this book was to think of boats that perhaps could also qualify as Notable Boats but that Compton chose not to include. John MacGregor’s Rob Roy sailing canoe, perhaps? Shackleton’s famous Endurance? Any book that leaves you thinking is a book worth reading, and this book does and is. It’s a very worthwhile addition to any sailor’s library. Thank you Mr. Compton.

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Learn to Sail Today: From Novice to Sailor In One Week

BY BARRY LEWIS (International Marine/Mcgraw Hill, 2016; 195 Pages; $21)

Learn To Sail

Note: Editor Karen Larson asked Avital Keeley — a junior member of the Good Old Boat crew and an enthusiastic newbie — to review this book. What better opinion than one from a youngster who is very interested in becoming a sailor? Before she asked Avital for her thoughts about this book, Karen also read the book and offers her own review below.

To a beginner sailor, a book titled Learn to Sail Today: From Novice to Sailor in One Week sounds like a dream. And that it is.

Barry Lewis formats his book according to its name: it is split into seven sections with one section per day. He then divides each section into multiple steps, each adding onto the reader’s knowledge of sailing. Sometimes he includes vocabulary without a good explanation or breezes through a subject that might trip people up. It’s definitely not a book to read when you are tired!

Although it’s meant to be read as you spend a week sailing (and I’m sure that would be helpful), that’s not necessary. This book is incredible in the way that it is easy to understand, even when not aboard or near a boat. I read this book on various buses, before bed, and while eating cereal, yet I still learned more than a summer of weekend sailing trips could teach me (excepting a summer of weekend sailing trips with the amazing teachers I know).

Getting back to those vocabulary terms that were left dangling in front of me. At first they are like the words you can’t translate in a foreign language sentence, completely without meaning. But then you see the words elsewhere, in other contexts, and things click. I’ve already used my newfound knowledge, both in sailing conversations and in odd things in my everyday life.

I can’t wait to go sailing again to see how much this book has helped me (In the same way I’d love to go to France after studying French for years.) Learn to Sail Today not only teaches the terms and the science behind sailing, it teaches so much more. Lewis’ writing style is friendly and warm. It feels like he is right there telling you everything, jokes and all. It’s not a formal, informational book, and yet it relays the same amount of information.

Any beginner sailor should read this book, even if he or she has been sailing before. Experienced sailors might want to read this book as a refresher and to open themselves to a new perspective about sailing and learning.

Learn to Sail Today: From Novice to Sailor In One Week

BY BARRY LEWIS (International Marine/Mcgraw Hill, 2016; 195 Pages; $21)
Minneapolis, Minn

Learn to sail in one week. “Yeah, sure,” I thought. This book claims to be the only book that can take you from landlubber to novice sailor, safely, today. “Ha! Prove it,” I said to myself as I picked it up.

Author Barry Lewis is a Good Old Boat subscriber and friend. He starts by encouraging everyone who has ever thought sailing might be fun to give it a go. Many have the dream but few pursue it. Why? Barry says there are no excuses. If you want to try sailing, there are ways to make it happen. He offers several ways to get access to boats, such as offering to crew at a yacht club or finding lessons near home or as part of a vacation.

Next Barry tells you how to prepare: what to bring and things to watch for and understand when you’re aboard, whether it’s a large or small sailboat. He discusses how to prepare a boat: rigging, basic parts, and a few knots to know. He explains how to be safe before you get aboard, how to step aboard, and what to be aware of once you are aboard. This is basic stuff, yes. But did anyone ever tell you on that first day that it’s a good idea to climb aboard with nothing in your hands and to look for strong handholds, not to pause with one foot on the dock and one on the boat, and -- if it’s a small dinghy -- to step into the center of the boat and sit down quickly?

No, they did not! Yet these are good things to think about and be aware of in advance.

Barry offers an overview of raising sails, talks a bit about tiller steering, discusses strategies for leaving the dock, and tells his readers about capsize recovery in small boats. He gives the basics on sail trim, steering, rules of the road, tacking, returning to the dock, and putting the sails away. He offers just enough that the beginner can be tuned into these activities even if he is not yet competent in any of them. The new sailor learns by paying attention. This book directs his attention to the activities going on around him. With this sort of background, he will not be a passenger but rather will become a willing participant.

What follows, once these basic concepts are covered, are the refinements: how to jibe, improving sail trim, crew overboard procedures, anchoring, and a few more knots. Not to overlook furling gear, use of the VHF radio, and navigation. He even touches on buying and maintaining a boat and adds an appendix section with the basics of first aid, potential emergencies, flying a spinnaker, cruising gear, and the physics of sailing.

Too much in a small book? Not at all. It’s just the right amount to inform a new sailor and to make him aware of the things that are there to learn. Give him this book and access to a sailboat for a week, along with some of your own gentle guidance, and I believe a new sailor will blossom. This might not be the only beginners’ book available. But it would be a good gift to anyone who has said, “I want to be a sailor.”

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