In this season of the year, one thing that's as certain as the ubiquity of "White Christmas" is columnists' telling readers about a few items that they have found helpful, entertaining, or inspiring — and that might make good gifts. Before I mention a few books and some nautical works of art, I want to remind you of the one sailors' gift that provides the gift of life. That's the safety harness. If you and your crew don't already have harnesses, give them for Christmas. Then make a New Year's resolution to wear them and hook them on to the boat. If the harness is integral with an inflatable PFD, that's for the better, but a PFD isn't enough. After all, if you don't fall off the boat in the first place, you won't need to stay afloat.
In a moment I'll recommend some new technical and history books that I've found satisfying. First, though, let me mention two sources of nautical beauty and inspiration. These are two online archives of classic marine photography at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in Mystic, CT. One is the Rosenfeld Collection, the other the Carleton Mitchell Collection. They complement one another perfectly. For 70 years the Rosenfeld family took photographs of boats underway, always striving to make them look as beautiful as possible. The Rosenfeld Collection also includes many remarkable historic photos dating back to 1881.
Carleton Mitchell's specialty was taking photos of people on and in boats, some of them his own vessels as he cruised and raced extensively and successfully for many years. (He famously won three straight Newport-Bermuda races in his 38-foot yawl Finisterre.)
Do yourself a favor and take an hour to look through these two collections online, if only to discover the power of black-and-white photography of boats and people under way. You may find yourself placing an order or two. Here are their links:
The Rosenfeld Collection:
There you'll find highlights of the collection.
The Carleton Mitchell Collection:
This site includes a search capability for the Mitchell collection. Search terms, including "ocean sailing," "America's Cup," and "cruising," will turn up dozens of fascinating images.
Now to the books. The most interesting, helpful, and at the same time entertaining technical book that I've read this year is Bill Seifert's Offshore Sailing: 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips, written with the assistance of Dan Spurr, former editor of Practical Sailor. Take the subtitle with a grain of salt. Almost everything in this manual by an extraordinarily experienced and thoughtful cruising sailor, boatbuilder, and delivery captain will benefit normal cruising sailors in normal cruising boats. The range of subjects is stunning, with chapters devoted to on-deck safety, galleys, rigs and sails, improving the interior, electronics and other systems, routines at sea, choosing a boat, cruising abroad, tools, and spare parts. To give an idea of its range, there are sections on maneuvering under power and on speeding up a passage by using polar diagrams (which show the boat's optimum speed and sailing angle for all conditions). This is no dry lecture by a pompous authority. A funny fellow and writer, Seifert's ever willing to make a point by recounting one of his own mistakes.
Among the history books that came my way, I can recommend two. Scott Cookman's Atlantic: The Last Great Race of Princes is about the 1905 race from New York to England in which the three-master Atlantic set a speed record that has never been equaled in a race by a monohull boat. Cookman's portrayal of the race, the boats, the sailors, the owners, and their era is fascinating and (technically speaking) pretty accurate.
A somewhat more scholarly and, I think, ultimately a more important book is a new biography of one of America's greatest, most influential, and least known scientists. In Tracks of the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans, Chester G. Hearn tells how Maury transformed the study of seafaring and weather. If you've ever used a pilot chart (which presents weather patterns at sea), you've taken advantage of only one corner of Maury's valuable career. Maury has not always received the full attention he deserved due to envious colleagues and his occasional poor judgment. Now's the rime to redress that balance.
I wish I were able to recommend one more book, Taking on the World, by Ellen MacArthur, the remarkable English long-distance sailor, but it hasn't been published yet in the U.S. You'll remember that a couple of years ago she finished a close second in the Vendee Globe non-stop singlehanded around-the-world race. And now in November she won the Route du Rhum race across the Atlantic in vicious weather. Of the 18 Open 60 trimarans that started the race from France to Guadeloupe, only three survived to the finish. In her 60-foot monohull, MacArthur beat those three and everybody else, too, as she broke the old monohull course record of 15 days, nine hours by two days and almost six hours. "That was one hell of a race," said MacArthur shortly after the finish. "The stress levels were hardly ever below maximum, I could not have given any more, the intensity has been extraordinary." She seems to thrive in such conditions. I hope her autobiography tells how.