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Overlooked Books

Adventure-oriented sailors can rest assured that at least one scribe is standing up for the works written by those who have gone before them.

The July/August 2001 issue of the National Geographic Society’s generally terrific new magazine, Adventure, unfortunately stooped to the level of some of its less than subtle competitors by serving up a glaring, brutally subjective and curiously misinformed top-100 list that was both tantalizing and annoying. The subject was books and the topic adventure. Yes sir, with the certainty of Nostradamus the magazine’s expert panel promised to reveal the 100 greatest adventure books of all time.

Before I vent my displeasure at the very nature of the list, let me state that I am a true-blue, atlas-buying, backpack-wearing, supporter of the National Geographic Society. While some boast about the longevity of their American Express membership, for me it is National Geographic, that magical little yellow framed 10-by-seven-inch magazine with the whole world squeezed inside. I can spend hours pouring over the maps that fall like treasure out of each issue’s glossy pages. No, it isn’t the Society that I am about to rip, just Adventure magazine’s list. Now, for the record, I am also something of an adventure-book junkie, especially climbing accounts, and I have read many of the titles that appeared on the list.

So what is the problem with the list? Well, to put it bluntly and cliché-like, it literally missed the boat. The list tilts heavily toward climbing, trekking, and historical books and gives scant recognition to the great body of adventure sailing literature. Only three titles can be called sailing books: No. 27, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, No. 47, Gypsy Moth Circles the World by Sir Francis Chichester; and No. 67, Adrift by Steve Callahan. After my initial disappointment I thought that maybe the panel used a set of criteria that excluded many sailing stories. But no, the editors asked their experts to choose the best books about exploration, survival, and daring recreation. They specifically wanted to avoid to travel books and focus on hard-core adventures.

"There are so many sailing books that should have been included...the inspired writings of Bernard Moitessier are nowhere to be found."
There are so many sailing books that should have been included, but the list has no balanced theme. It includes The Perfect Storm, at No. 30 no less, but not John Rousmaniere’s Fastnet Force Ten. One is an imagined narrative of disgruntled fishermen, the other a stirring, informed account of the greatest sailing disaster ever. Out of Africa, a sentimental swoon through colonial Africa checks in at number No. 37, but the inspired writings of Bernard Moitessier are nowhere to be found. Admittedly, the sea is a central theme in many of the books selected, including The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin (definitely one of the 100 most boring books ever written!) Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl, and Worsley’s Endurance, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s heroic open-boat voyage from Antarctica to South Georgia Island. But none of these are classic sailing adventures.

In Adventure magazine’s defense, selecting a list of the best of anything is virtually impossible, especially books. Few of humankind’s creations spark as much passion, emotion, and controversy as books. Still, sailing literature abounds with powerful, masterfully written adventure stories, arguably some of the best books, not just adventure books, of all time. In many sailors seem predisposed toward writing and they also have an advantage. The nature of a sea voyage unfolds at a pace made for writing. While mountaineers scribble notes with frozen fingers huddled in tents after a day of exhausting climbing, sailors tend to write after each watch throughout the day and night.

So, enough complaining, lets forget about Adventure magazine’s oversights and take a look at my own list. While I don’t have the moxie to create a list of 100 top sailing adventures, I do have some pretty strong opinions about 10 great sailing adventure books.

The quintessential sailing hero has to be Joshua Slocum who circumnavigated on his own over 100 years ago.
1) Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, Sheridan House. Few would dispute that this masterpiece is not the best sailing book, much less adventure sailing book, ever written. The story is well known. Past his 50th birthday and at his wits end, Joshua Slocum is given the wreck of a boat that he transforms into the famous sloop Spray. Slocum proceeds to become the first person to sail solo around the world and has numerous adventures along the way. What makes this book as enduring as the sea itself is the quality of the story telling. I’ve read it from stem to stern several times and it seems better each time.

2) The Long Way, by Bernard Moitessier, Sheridan House. This account of Moitessier’s participation in the 1969 Golden Globe around-the-world single-handed race is a near mystical account of man becoming one with the sea. Aboard his steel ketch Joshua, named after his hero, Joshua Slocum, Moitessier weathers the Southern Ocean and is poised to win the race and reap fame and relative fortune. Instead, he turns his back on the material madness of European society, and continues in the Roaring 40s sailing all the way to Tahiti. I remember skipping class in Junior High to finish reading this book.

3) Gypsy Moth Circles the World, by Sir Francis Chichester, International Marine/McGraw Hill. This book literally changed my life; it infected me with dreams and the demons of Cape Horn. The picture of Gypsy Moth rounding the Horn under staysail only is part of my mind’s hardrive. The story of Senior Citizen Chichester, racing against the clipper ships around the great capes, captured the world’s fancy. The book is actually kind of cranky, and obviously hastily assembled, but the feat is undeniable. Chichester set the stage for all subsequent short-handed ocean racers. International Marine as part of their Sailor’s Classic series recently reissued this book.

The author calls John Rousmaniere's Fastnet Force 10 "a stirring, informed account of the greatest sailing disaster ever."

4) Fastnet Force Ten, by John Rousmaniere, Norton. This account of the 1979 Fastnet Race has become the standard for sailing disaster books, and it is still the best. What sets this book apart from others, including the recent crop of books about the Sydney Hobart tragedy, is that Rousmaniere is not only a superb writer, but he also was a participant in the race. The final tally was chilling—15 people dead, 24 crews abandoned ship, five yachts sunk, 136 sailors rescued. Rousmaniere blends the riveting narrative with insights as to what caused the tragedy and how it might have been avoided.

5) Mischief in Patagonia, by H.W. Tillman. Bill Tillman was a famous mountaineer before he became a sailor. In his mid-50s he found that he was having trouble scaling peaks above 20,000 feet. As a "less rigorous" program, he decided to find the most inaccessible peaks imaginable, sail to them, scale them and sail back. You know, a nice little holiday in places like Greenland and Patagonia. Tillman’s boat, Mischief, was an English pilot cutter built in 1902 and just four years younger than her skipper. Together they logged 140,000 miles. Mischief in Pagtagonia is his first book and clearly his best. Unfortunately, it is out of print, although Under Sail, published in London in 1982 combines most of his writings.

6) Adrift, by Steve Callahan, Random House. This is powerful account of Callahan’s 76-day drift across the Atlantic. Competing in the Mini Transat, Callahan’s tiny sloop is sunk by collision and he is forced into the liferaft. While the story of survival is compelling, he fights off sharks with a homemade spear and distils water by the spoonful, the larger story is a man’s determination to maintain his sanity and hope against desperate odds.

7) North to the Night, Alvah Simon, Int. Marine/McGraw Hill. A beautifully written account of Simon’s ordeal by ice in the frozen north. Together with wife Diana, Simon sets off in a 36-foot steel boat to explore the Arctic. Events conspire to leave him alone, to survive the long winter more than 100 miles from the nearest civilization. The prose is brilliant as Simon swings between moments of reflection and utter despair. The perpetual darkness is an enduring theme, although in the end, light prevails.

8) The Incredible Voyage, by Tristan Jones, Sheridan House. I knew Tristan Jones, and his small stature did not diminish his amazing sailing accomplishments. This account, which at times stretches your sense of credibility, is story telling of the highest order. Jones wants to set the vertical sailing record by sailing from the Dead Sea to Lake Titicaca in a single voyage. The adventure becomes a matter of survival as Jones literally hauls his tiny sloop through the South American pampas and back to the sea. Jones is a unique stylist, and despite a desperate plight he maintains a biting sense of humor, keen powers of observation, and a natural brotherhood with the disadvantaged.

When Sir Francis Chichester circled the globe alone aboard Gypsy Moth (above), it was a seminal event inspiring generations of single-handers. At least Adventure Magazine's panel didn't overlook Chichester's opus Gypsy Moth Circles the World.

 9) Two Against Cape Horn, Hal Roth, Norton (Out of Print) Hal and Margaret Roth have sailed all over the world, and their many books and magazine articles have inspired and informed countless others. This book chronicles a voyage through the channels of Patagonia in their 35-foot Spencer sloop, Wisper. Just 24 miles from Cape Horn they are shipwrecked on a small rocky island. Somehow they manage a makeshift repair and complete their voyage. Roth’s writing is never exciting, but that is part of the charm. The pictures, however, are breathtaking. Look for this book to be reprinted soon by Seaworthy Books.

10) The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin, International Marine/Mc-Graw Hill. Another installment in the Sailor’s Classics series, this book also focuses on the 1969 Golden Globe race. Crowhurst, sailing a trimaran, attempts one of the great hoaxes in adventure history. Instead of sailing around the world, he lags in mid-Atlantic, radioing back false reports of his progress. Other competitors are pushed to their limits by his deceit. Finally the guilt is too much and Crowhurst steps off his boat and puts an end to his madness. Tomalin recreates Crowhurst’s troubled voyage from notes and log pages found aboard the trimaran. The book reads like a detective story and is compelling to the last page.

Well there you have it, one man’s top 10. There are so many other books that spring to mind, Icebird by David Lewis, Once in Enough by Miles Smeeton, Alone in the Roaring Forties by Vito Dumas. For now, I’ll expend my energies readying myself for the Sailnet readers’ onslaught, critiquing my list!

Suggested Reading:

(We're a little reluctant to make suggestions in light of so many worthwhile books listed above, but if you have a taste for articles, try some of the ones listed here.)

A Sailor's Guide to the Gods by John Kretschmer

The Perfect Storm, an Imperfect Movie by John Kretschmer

Grappling with that Vicious Storm by John Rousmaniere

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John Kretschmer is offline  
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