I’m often asked the difficult question,
I’m learning to sail. What books should I read?
There are hundreds of learn-to-sail books, but I’ve never read a single one. I didn’t learn to sail from a book. I learned to sail through experience, by working my way up “through the hawsepipe,” as it’s said, and I believe that the right experiences with the right mentors are the best way to learn to sail.
Once you have a good understanding of the basics, here are some excellent books that I believe are essential references for every shipboard library. They’ve helped me identify a fish I caught for lunch, they’ve refreshed my memory on the steps involved in a bow beam bearing, or troubleshooted white engine smoke from a bent connecting rod. I referred to my library before stitching up an open wound, and when I was simply curious to know if Daphne actually had a poop deck.
U.S. Chart No. 1: Symbols, Abbreviations and Terms used on Paper and Electronic Navigational Charts
Nigel Calder’s Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual
US Department of Homeland Security Navigation Rules
REED’s Nautical Companion
This is the companion to the almanac. While I choose to use Eldridges (see below) for tidal and current information, I love REED’s Companion. Be sure to select the companion and not the almanac. This is a great reference with nearly every topic you can think of. However, I believe it was out of print for a while. If you can get a copy, then hang on to it. Its worth every penny.
Weather For the Mariner
Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book
You’ll need a tide and current reference aboard. I find Eldridge’s to be easy to use and informative. Eldridge’s is only an East Coast reference.
Don’t be nervous by the size of this book. Its absolutely fascinating and having a solid knowledge of traditional navigation doesn’t only help you find your way. Practicing traditional navigation enhances the entire experience at sea.
The Arts of the Sailor by Harvey Garrett Smith or The Marlinspike Sailor by Harvey Garrett Smith
Harvey Garrett Smith has made two beautifully illustrated books about the beauty of rope work. Instead of taping the end of your lines learn to whip in a beautiful way. Make art out of sailing. Sure you can tie a bowline, but there are thousands of knots and beauty is an important quality too.
The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice by Brion Toss
Storm Tactics Handbook by Lin and Larry Pardey
Oceanography: An Invitation to Marine Science
One of the wonderful things about sailing is experiencing the ocean first hand. But understanding your environment makes it all the more beautiful and interesting. Perhaps you’ve seen some of my Sea Science articles in SAIL magazine. This oceanography textbook is a great read on a calm passage. You’ll want to read it cover to cover!
The Mariner’s Dictionary by Gershom Bradford
First Aid (I’m still searching for the best first aid book! Its been a long search)
Books that Capture the Spirit of Sailing
Learning technical skills is only one step to becoming a good sailor. Developing a spirit of tenacity, resourcefulness, resilience, and humility is also critical. Sometimes even more critical than anything that can be learned from a book. This develops not from know-how, but from experiences, from years of sailing, from storms and cold wind burning your face, and from scary incidents. There is no certification or skills checklist to determine if you’ve gained this mental attitude. In fact, it can never be achieved completely and the moment you believe you’ve arrived is the same moment when you’ll be knocked down. Here are some books to help inspire the old salt in you:
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Shackleton’s is an amazing leader and captain. This is a must read.
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
Mutiny on the Bounty
First You Have to Row A Little Boat by Richard Bode
At The Mercy of the Sea by John Kretschmer
Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love everything by Emerson. While he wasn’t a sailor, he does embody the values that I try to carry with my while sailing and in life in general. His is a good perspective to think about while at sea.
Readings from the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School
Excellent little nuggets of inspiration or for a daily reading. It will keep you thinking throughout the day and experiencing the wilderness in a new frame of mind.
Movies that Capture the Spirit of Sailing
Around Cape Horn with Capt. Irving Johnson
This is the absolute best sailing mini-movie ever! If you haven’t seen it then you must. Without a doubt.
Jean-Du-Sud Around the World
One Simple Question …nudge nudge, wink wink!
Now its your turn! What books am I missing? Which ones are on your essential list? Please add them in the comments below to help build this listing of wonderful references and sea stories.
P.S. Daphne does in fact have a poop deck and she has been pooped! The term comes from the French word poupe. Can you guess what it means?
This is a wonderful list, Teresa, and to it I would like to add this summer’s edition of Lapham’s Quarterly. Its theme is “The Sea.” http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/
Hey Teresa, you got most of my favorites on there! You’re missing The Long Way’ by Bernard Moitessier – I think it’s easily the best “spirit of sailing” book ever written, particularly if you’re dreaming of ocean sailing. Hal Roth’s “How to Sail Around the World” is another great reference book. Two more classic reference books we keep on ‘Arcturus’ are Ferenc Mate’s “The Finely Fitted Yacht” (for when you’re looking for little projects to make the boat a nicer place to live), and Don Street’s “The Ocean Sailing Yacht, Volumes 1 and 2” – they are slightly outdated in terms of gear, but the philosophies on seamanship within are timeless, and the appendices are priceless. (And by the way, it’s spelled “Brion Toss” with an ‘o’).
Funny that you mention “The Long Way.” It was actually on the list, but I removed it because I never finished it completely. I still loved it though I wouldn’t say it was the best. Maybe I’ll add it back because of your suggestion.
Hal Roth’s book is in our library. Ben’s more familiar with it than I am. I’ll have to look into it more.
YES! Totally forgot about “The Finely Fitted Yacht.” We have that one too! Its an excellent book.
Great suggestions. I think we might have a similar bookshelf!
Actually funny that you never finished ‘The Long Way’ – my first attempt I only got about halfway through. But I finally did finish it a few years later, and have re-read it probably 5 times since. Try reading it again straight through and see what you think.
I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see women the world over really following their passions for sailing and travel! I wanted to share my sister’s story with you. She is also a sailing woman and is now sailing the South Pacific with her husband making a documentary of the islands, people, culture and beauty there.
She is also bravely taking on the beauty and force of the ocean and the earth’s natural elements to follow her dream of photographing the world. I know this story will really resonate with you. Please please check out the link.
1. Alone Through the Roaring Forties from Vito Dumas.
2. In the Heart of the Sea from Nathaniel Philbrick.
For Reference or preparation (not all necessarily to be kept on board):
* +1 on Don Street’s books. It took me a while to come across these, but I love them.
* Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna J. Sass. Every boat should have a pressure cooker. Especially if you don’t have/use refrigeration and/or love legumes.
* Cruising Under Sail (the later edition that includes Voyaging Under Sail) by Eric Hiscock. Perhaps the most comprehensive cruising resource I’ve found. Dated, but encyclopedic and easy to read.
* Heavy Weather Sailing by Coles. All ocean voyagers should read his case studies of heavy weather sailing.
* The Cost Conscious Cruiser + The Self-Sufficient Sailor by the Pardeys.
* Self-Steering without a Windvane by Lee Woas
* Self-Steering for Sailing Craft by John S. Letcher Jr.
* The Complete Book of Anchoring and Mooring by Earl R. Hinz. Some might accuse this book of being dated by the lack of modern anchors, but the principles of anchoring are unchanged and Hinz is the only writer I’ve seen that’s tackled this subject in a scientific manner.
* The Glenans Sailing Manual. Probably the best book I’ve read to learn to sail with something for all skill levels.
* Celestial Navigation in the GPS Age. Weird title, but my favorite book on the subject so far. In addition to being a straightforward treatment of common methods it also has appendicies with rare techniques like how to recalibrate your clock by star sights if for some reason you no longer have accurate time nor a radio signal to recalibrate it.
* Marine Diesel Engines by Nigel Calder and your engine’s manual, part’s list, etc. if you have one.
* Voyaging on a Small Income by Annie Hill.
* Fish from the “The Good Cook” series by Time-Life Books or some other fairly comprehensive work on preparing and cooking fish. Also, a similar book about sea vegetables would be recommended if you like them as much as I do.
* +1 on Harvey Garret Smith’s books and I actually have both of them aboard plus the Ashley Book of Knots and a few other books on rigging, splicing and knots, but, then again, rigging is my favorite boat work to do.
* Instant Weather Forecasting by Alan Watts. Every cruiser should have a copy of this aboard.
* Anything from the Mariners Library Series published by Rupert Hart-Davis Limited, London. I haven’t read it all, but everything I’ve read has been a treasure. It’s amazing reading about the voyages and cruises undertaken long before the Hiscocks and other folks that largely forgotten to todays cruising fraternity.
* The Lonely Sea and Sky by Sir Francis Chichester. Published a bit before his famous two-part circumnavigation. His achievements were great by his honesty and openness about his shortcomings are failures are just as inspirational by showing that you can overcome your own.
* Anything by Moitessier, the Hiscocks, the Pardeys, Tristan Jones, Fatty Goodlander.
What a great selection of reading and reference books. We can always come up with more but yours is a great list to get you there and back.
I happen to be a writer– novelist– and I wrote a book that many non-sailor have enjoyed along with sailors. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it. I try to give, in the form of a fictional story, the feeling of being at sea. It’s not overly technical so that non-sailors would enjoy it. I would be happy to send you a copy or as a kindle ebook. Just let me know. The title is, In Search of a Soul.
I really do enjoy your blog and have learned much from it as well as enjoying your style of writing. Thank you
Hi Teresa and Ben,
We read your post a few days ago, but then fell into disagreement upon what to contribute; sailing books are one of our favourite topics. Since then several of our choices have been mentioned; Adlard Coles and Vito – a favourite for his calm and charm.
I think I (Duncan) was fourteen when I read ‘Maiden voyage’ by Tanya Abbi, it set my young mind; I wanted to sail off. In the next couple of days we will leave, so I had to mention Abbi as my inspiration.
Unfortunately most of Dave Lewis’ books are out of print, but I think they’re worth tracking down. In particular the books on circumnavigating with his young family. Please read beyond ‘Icebird’; something of a life-crash of a book!
We named our Aeries windvane after Miles Smeatons’ wife Beryl. ‘Once is enough’ is an awe inspiring read.
If you guys cross the Atlantic we would strongly recommend a visit to the beautiful Glénans islands. The book is an excellent study of sailing but the place is just magical!
Good luck in your boat hunt and can’t wait to see your film.
Duncan and Ruth
I enjoyed “Confessions of a Long Distance Sailor” by a very smart guy, Paul Lutus. He would be interesting to hear from re. your Best Features of a Blue Water Boat series.
His book is “free” online at:
and here is where you can pay for it:
As far as essentials goes, I’d add:
Mariner’s Weather Handbook, by the Dashews (Made the incomprehensible understandable.)
Shipshape, by Ferenc Mate (Very, very useful, and insanely funny as well.)
Admiralty Ocean Passages For The World (Because it’s there.)
To the lists above I’d like to add two books that I read and re-read in my early years, which sent me to the coast and out on the ocean, were Saga of a Wayward Sailor by Tristan Jones and Between Wind and Water by Gerald Warner Brace.
Thanks to all for posting your favorites. I’ll be looking into many of them in the future.
Teresa, do you hail from Elk Rapids? Growing up our family visited an uncle and aunt on Elk Lake every summer. It’s been 5 years since my last visit — I need to get back there.
Ahoy Teresa and Ben ,,, When in NZ , I was turned on to the author , Frank Bullen .
Frank wrote about sailing and whaleing , and his descriptions were great .
One book , The Voyage of the Catchalot , was quite interesting to read when in NZ , the other book , A Sack of Shakings , (a collection of short stories for a UK magazine) is a great read , too. I particularly liked his story The Orphan .
Happy reading ,,,, BCC Calliste , Okinawa , Japan .
Jean-Du-Sud Around the World is a great film, tell me where I can buy One Simple Question and I’ll buy it RIGHT NOW 🙂
Allo vous deux,
Might I suggest Cruising Chef Cookbook by Michael Greenwald; informativve and entertaining. A friend planning her own voyage would add The Essential Galley Companion by Amanda Swan-Neal.
You might be inspired by Andy Barnes song The last of the Great Whales a.k.a The Last Leviathan. There are about 30 recordings of this song, mostly under the latter title.
Fair winds and calm seas to you
Looks like some good references. Maybe something I can use to add to my own little library.
Did some work on the engine for my Nor’sea the last couple visits and now have the sails up. First sail should be coming up soon 😉
Other people have already mentioned lots of the books about the practicalities of sailing that I have found useful. But for pure inspiration you can’t beat Tim Severin’s ‘The Brendan Voyage’ and Thor Heyerdahl’s ‘Kon Tiki’. For my birthday, a friend gave me a biography of Heyerdahl, and I can’t wait to get my teeth into it.
Dougal Robertson’s ‘Survive the Savage Sea’ is a book I think every cruiser should read. Although his family was shipwrecked in the early 1970s, before EPIRBs and satellite phones and gadgetry, the survival skills documented in that book are something we all should know about. And it’s a blooming good read!!
Happy voyages Teresa and Ben. We’re preparing to sail to France hopefully at the end of next week, for a few weeks cruising around the north Brittany coast.
Pingback: Blog of the Week 7/28/13-8/3/13 | The Crazy Chronicles: 5 Kids and a Boat
Hi Teresa and Ben,
Being clumsy we have a few medical books, just in case: Your Offshore Doctor by Dr. Michael H. Beilan, Sea Survival Handbook by Keith Colwell, and Outdoor Medical Emergency Handbook by Dr. Spike Briggs and Dr. Campbell Mackenzie. The last one we also take when we go backpacking.
Fair Winds and Safe Journeys!
For Sprit of Sailing it is pretty hard to beat: Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting
Avast me hardy’s Teresa and Ben,
The term “poupe” refers to the stern or poop of the craft. Avoir le vent en _, also to sail before the wind, to be in a lucky way or to be in favour which obviously you two are.
As to your list of books:
Boaters Bowditch by Richard Hubbard for a little bit of information on just about everything.
For the pleasure read in the calms:
Any of the Hornblower tales by C. S. Forrester. (21 in all) a great way to relax into another age of sailing.
The Black Ship by Dudley Pope (again the Royal Navy and the Caribbean)
Sailing in a Spoonful of Water by Joe Coomer (pleasant read about a man and his wooden boat)
Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach by Don Casey & Lewis Hacker (an absolute MUST read)
May your seas all be gentle, may your tides all be high and may the wind always blow the way you are headed.
Read all the books you want but until you get your hands on the boat and fell the reactions to your actions the information you read has little meaning. I have found reading about sail trim and balancing the boat is good to further understand how the sail works but nothing beats the hands on to learn at any stage of sailing Happy sailing to everyone!
Just recently purchased “Marine Medicine”. As a nurse I wanted something comprensive yet realistic as well as something my husband could understand and use if I am the one injured. This is it. I highly recommend it and best of all it is compact, perfect for the boat.
“Happy Hooking.The Art of Anchoring” covers everything about the newest anchors and gear, technique and even etiquette in a very readable format. My husband and I are the authors and we’d be glad to answer any questions.
I really like Eric Weiss’ “Marine Medicine”
Also try http://www.wildmed.com/wilderness-medical-courses/first-aid/offshore-emergency-medicine.php for emergency medicine at sea training.
Also the Merck Manual Home Health Edition is a wonderful general health references written for lay people and is available to view online for free. http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/index.html
Where do I begin…..literally…..’Two Years Before the Mast’, Dana…. ‘The Complete Sailor:Learning the Art of Sailing’, Seidman….’Sailing the Farm’, Neumeyer…..’Knot Craft’, Pawson….’Dove/The boy who sailed around the world alone’, Graham…’The Barefoot Navigator’, Lagan…..’The Sailor’s Sketchbook’, Bingham…..’The Practical Pilot: Coastal Navigation by Eye, Intuition and Common Sense’, Eyges….’Tideland Treasure’, Ballantine and for fun, ‘Women Sailors & Sailors Women’, Cordinglly…..and recently published, ‘Hawai’iki Rising’, Sam Low.
Big Screen classics: ‘Captains Courageous’, ‘Call it Courage’, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, ‘Amistad’, ‘Captain Ron’, ‘Wind’, ‘The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific’ and the documentary of Ellen McArthur’s epic round the world alone record setting, multihull classic ‘Taking On the World’
My Sailing inspiration sample: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elb-cus-Luo