“There are three difficulties in authorship: to write anything worth the publishing, to find honest men to publish it, and to get sensible men to read it.”
-Charles Caleb Colton
Boating magazines understandably tend to portray the cruising life in the gleam of brilliant sunshine, swaying palms and calm seas disturbed only by your own wake, but I sometimes look forward to a rainy day and some rocking motion, for it is at those times that I’m freed from the responsibility and guilt of not being topside underway and can instead revel in the opportunity to do nothing more than stretch out in the cockpit or the saloon settee and settle into a good book.
My library shelves are replete with titles almost exclusively having to do with vessels and the water, from The Odyssey to Melville and Jack London; Mark Twain to Hemingway, Dana and countless stories, novels, scientific journals and picture books in between. Some might think this a somewhat narrow literary focus but when you consider the history, technology, adventures, tragedies, triumphs and raw emotions that boats and boating bring to the fore, I think not. In the end, I prefer books that cut across the lines of power versus sail, inshore versus offshore, commercial steel hulls versus a clinker-planked skiff ¾ all in storm tossed or rock strewn situations ¾ for those which instead reach out across the timelessness of the ocean and appeal to all my positive watery senses. So I’d like to share with you several of which I’m betting you’ve never heard of, but all I consider ‘must reads.’
First You Have To Row A Little Boat: Reflections on Life & Living
By Richard Bode, Warner Books, Inc. © 1993
This diminutive book is one of the first to be read when embarking upon a true understanding of why we first desire to take to the water. Bode relates how, as a lad, he became transfixed with sailboats and started hanging around a boatyard where he was taken under the wing of a legendary local sailor who…. “Instead, (he) reached into the cockpit of his boat, pulled out a couple of oars, and walked down to the snub-nosed dinghy he had tied up against the dock. He handed me the oars.
“Get in!” he said. “The first thing you have to do is learn to row a little boat.”
So starts the journey of a young man as he discovers that he and the rowboat become one and the same: that as he rows then sails, so must he sail his moods.
“To sail a boat is to negotiate life,” Bode writes. “The value of my sloop wasn’t in her wood hull, her lead keel, her canvas sails. Her value was in the lessons she taught me as I grew from a boy into a man, and those lessons would remain with me long after she was gone.”
The Republic Of Pirates: Being a True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down
By Colin Woodward, Harcourt Books © 2007
I think the heart of every boater harbors some bit of a piratical spirit and this is the DEFINITIVE book on the Golden Age of Piracy, meticulously researched and skillfully written. Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Black Sam Bellamy, Calico Jack Rackham… the pirates of the Caribbean were more than a simple band of thieves. They were a formidable nation state of rogue sailors, indentured servants and slaves who turned to piracy as a revolt against the conditions they suffered on ships and plantations, and they were mostly fair in their dealings. In their day the public generally regarded them as heroes and their philosophies actually fanned the flames of democratic sentiment that led to the American Revolution. Together, the pirates established a crude but distinctive democracy in the Bahamas which, for a brief period, was enormously successful until one man, Woodes Rodgers, brought their reign to an end under the sword of the law.
A Call to the Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the U.S. Constitution
By Claude Berube and John Rodgaard, Potomac Books © 2005
The annals of U.S. naval history are filled with names we all know: John Paul Jones, Raphael Semmes, admirals Farragut, “Bull” Halsey, Chester Nimitz and Hyman Rickover to name a few. But the unsung man who had the most to do with the development of the U.S. Navy during its most crucial years was Captain Charles Stewart (1779-1869), having served presidents from John Adams to Abraham Lincoln. Stewart held more sea commands (eleven) than any other U.S. Navy captain and served longer (sixty-three years) than any officer in American naval history. At a time when our fledgling nation was trying to develop both its naval strategy and make-up, Captain Stewart led the way. And not from the comfort of a D.C. office but as commander of the vessels that confronted our enemies, from the Royal Navy to the Barbary corsairs and he was never defeated in battle, most notably when commanding one of our nation’s most famous ships, “Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution.
The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth
By Lena Lencek & Gideon Bosker, Secker and Warburg © 1998
Waterfront real estate prices are all you need take into account to conclude that waterside living is the most desired of all lifestyles. This was true thousands of years ago when the Greeks and Romans built their palaces and spas overlooking the sea. But for a long intermediate period in human evolution, the water’s edge was considered a place of pestilence and disease. Why such changes in our views and sentiments? Why, despite the unconquerable natural forces that constantly reshape and redefine the coastal realm, do we constantly battle those forces to keep the coast the way we think it should be? Why, when a barrier island shifts according to natural oceanic dynamics, do we choose to call a beach “unhealthy” just because we decided to build something ‘permanent’ there and the ocean tries to erode it? This book will soon have you realizing the folly of many of the views we hold about the coast and how those views have gone full circle over the centuries.
By John R. Stilgoe, Yale University Press © 1994
With chapter titles like “Glim,” “Guzzle,” “Smudge” and “Bikinis” you know this isn’t your average book. It is an examination of every aspect of our complex and constantly changing relationship with the quaggy shoreline, providing plenty of reflective reading with observations such as “… the last place on earth where American adults walk barefoot.” Consider further: “Where else do nearly naked strangers sleep within arms reach of one another? Where else do children play within grasp of voracious wild animals? Where else is a zone so marginal in every way?”
So Others May Live: Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers Saving Lives, Defying Death
By Martha J. Laguardia-Kotite USCG (ret.), the Lyons Press © 2006
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then in the Kevin Costner movie The Guardian, we all witnessed the heroic actions of one of our most elite yet unsung military organizations, the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter crews and most particularly, the rescue swimmers, relative newcomers in the armed services. This book details 14 of the greatest maritime rescues attempted, from the ocean caves of the Oregon coast to burning oil rigs, to Niagara Falls. It is a gripping testament to the resolute heroism of those who risk it all to save the lives of strangers in some of the most horrific conditions imaginable.
All Available Boats: The Evacuation of Manhattan Island on September 11, 2001
By Mike Magee, MD; Spencer Books © 2002
Rather than try and write it better I’ll just relate the jacket notes:
“On the morning of September 11, 2001, as The World Trade Center tragedy unfolded, thousands of men and women on or near the waters of New York Harbor converged to help any way possible. Answering the U.S. Coast Guard radio call for ‘All available boats,’ hundreds of vessels of any and all types raced across the Hudson and East Rivers and the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. Over the course of the day, these boats would evacuate over 300,000 people from Manhattan, pump water from the harbor to feed hoses, bring in needed supplies, rescue people in the water, and carry firefighters, police and medical and emergency service workers to Ground Zero. This is their story.”
Using text graphics and photographs in a powerfully subtle way, author Magee brings you back to that horrific day with stories of ordinary waterfront people doing extraordinary things.
‘The Legend Of’… books
By Jeffrey Rodengen/Write Stuff Syndicate (www.writestuffbooks.com)
Renowned corporate history author Jeffery Rodengen has published a number of excellent “The Legend Of…” books on the history of some of the best known names in boating: Don Aronow (of Cigarette fame), Mercury, Johnson/Evinrude, Chris Craft, Bertram, Electric Boat and Sea Ray. In impressive coffee table formats sporting countless photos, these books trace the history and development of the legendary contributors to the boating industry, often clarifying or debunking some of the myths and misconceptions we often hear around the docks.
By James Michener, Random House Publishing © 1978
Lastly, my copy of this ultimate classic is probably the most worn out, dog-eared, taped- together paperback you’ve ever seen since it gets a thorough reading every few years. Tracking the political, environmental and cultural history of one of the world’s greatest bodies of water, it is at the same time a microcosm of one of the crucibles of our national history and the human and natural forces that have shaped us.
Starting in the mid-sixteenth century with an outcast Native American of the Susquehannock tribe, the book eloquently narrates how the natural bounty of the region had much to do with its development, but also takes the time to spend an entire chapter inside the mind of one of the area’s most recognizable creatures, the great Canadian geese. Like all Michener’s novels, the entire book is based in historical fact, skillful character development and reads in a magnificently sweeping panoramic style. It is in my estimation the greatest American novel ever written.
So Dear Reader, I hope you’ll now revel in the thought of the next rainy, windy day tied to the dock. Oh, and a cold beer or goblet of Merlot doesn’t detract from the experience.