Book Collecting Warms a Sailor’s Soul


The book that ignited my interest in small boat cruising in high school. Robert Manry made the wind and waves accessible to me.

In my east coast incarnation I was a seller of so-called antiques and collectibles. It amounted to being a sort of nostalgia merchant. The experience showed me that niche markets grow from niche interests. If you are a stamp collector you will like selling stamps. If you are a sports fan then sports memorabilia, autographs or trading cards will suit you. I am a sailor.  Although I have always followed a broad array of interests sailing is the one that never fades from my worldview. If you like your obsessions the way I do you will find nothing better to feed them than books.

While beachcombing for books I have come upon various kinds of readers and book collectors. The antiquarians are seeking the oldest and rarest volumes. Speed readers tend to get through a volume and then pass it on to someone else. I like to savor a book and will reread some if they are particularly useful, meaningful or well written. Selling books, especially old ones, is interesting because you can get an insight into a person by what they choose to read.

Books are at the foundation of all my interests and so it is with sailing. They teach, entertain and encourage like loyal friends. Thus, I have always been a collector of books on my favorite subject. Life sent me in directions which have caused me to leave behind a large library of precious friends but I am making an effort to recover them. In the world of collecting few things are as ubiquitous as books. The opportunity to find new treasures or replace old ones is everywhere. There are used bookstores in every city. Antique malls always have a loose selection of old books and often some very good dealers in printed matter. Independent booksellers are invaluable in an age of franchised purveyors of the lowest common denominator. Flea markets and estate sales teem with boxes of books to be had at dirt cheap prices.

There are many classic stories of the sea, from Moby Dick to Mutiny on the Bounty. Everybody knows these from school but the wider body of work is immense. Fiction is just a part of the whole. There is a vast array of real life accounts of voyages short and long. Instructional books on sailing, navigation, boat-building, seamanship, pirates and more things nautical flow from the publishing world like an ocean current. Certain classics have been in print for many years.

the-ashley-book-of-knotsThe Ashley Book of Knots is a big heavy book formatted in an encyclopedic style showing every conceivable way to use rope From the practical to the irrelevant. If you are into marlinespike seamanship it’s an essential text. When I settled into life in Washington state it was the first book in my new library.

Maritime history in our country has had no stronger preservationist than Howard I. Chapelle (1901–1975). He roamed the country documenting and measuring traditional working craft that were disappearing from the waterways. His books are part history and part studies in naval architecture. I have been rummaging through these volumes since I was a high school student hiding out in the library. The Search for Speed Under Sail, The History of the American Sailing Navy, Boatbuilding: A Complete Handbook of Wooden Boat Construction, and American Small Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development and Construction are essentials of which I am still missing two. As money allows it will be easy enough to pick them up on ABE books. Fortunately they had a long print run.

L. Francis Herreshoff (1890-1972) is one America’s premiere yacht designers. He published several of my favorite books, The Common Sense of Yacht Design, Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol, The Writings of L. Francis Herreshoff, Sensible Cruising Designs and An L. Francis Herreshoff Reader. The Compleat Cruiser: The Art, Practice, and Enjoyment of Boating is one of the most engaging and informative books on cruising under sail ever written. Some would find the book to be very outdated but if you are paying attention you will learn more than you expected about anchoring, boat designs and simple navigation tricks. Such tricks might save your bacon when the GPS goes unexpectedly silent.

For the kind of entertainment that can only be had in the pages of fiction I have always preferred C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. These 11 novels tracing the career of a British naval officer during the great age of fighting sail ring with authenticity as well as drama. I have read the whole series at least five times. I also like to have a shelf full of Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho novels. More ripping yarns from a British pen. Many people like the more modern equivalent in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian but I have never quite warmed up to the characters. To each his own.

A favorite part of the genre is those volumes that review various sailboat designs or feature the work of a particular designer. They are usually illustrated with photos and plans. Prime examples are Good Boats, More Good Boats and Still More Good Boats by Roger C. Taylor. The genre reminds me of motorheads who can tell you the make, model and year of any car on the road and give you an informed opinion on it’s performance. In my head is a catalog of boat designs built up over more than 40 years of absorbing everything I could about sailing vessels. The characteristics and qualities of various rigs and sail plans crowd my memory banks. Wooden boats take precedence but I don’t discriminate against other materials. The best boat I have owned so far was fibergl15454845328ass.

The best of vintage nautical books have either great engravings or maps bound in. This goes hand in glove with one of my other collecting passions. Maps bring distant locations to our table tops in a way that is both informative and soul enriching. The art of navigation begets the art of topography. I cannot see a detailed chart, old or new, without concluding that it springs from an artistic sensibility as well as applied science. The universe provides both the canvas, the paint and the brush.

When circumstance ties the sailor to the land he may drown in the details of work and civil society. the right book may be a lifesaver that sustains him in this dry element. This is especially true when chilly mornings descend icily while landlocked in the colder seasons. Then it is time to seek comfort in book-lined anchorages where time is suspended like a boat in a gale hanging in an eternity-like few seconds on the crest of a wave. Somewhere beyond the multitude of whitecaps is a blue sky and a kinder wind.

By the fire one hears the rattle of rain on window panes. The mind strains to be far away. It is often the best course to spend time with friends we have collected to line our shelves. They are companions in our housebound exile. Gathering them has been an adventure in itself which has it’s own set of fond memories. Literature is a comfort to a sailor, even on land, as snow falls softly amid the ranks of sleeping hulls in a wintry boatyard.

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