February is a nasty little month. The pleasures of last fall’s sailing are far behind us and it seems as if the frozen harbour will never thaw. A good time to stay indoors and see what is on the sailing bookshelf to take one’s mind off the snows.
Lodestar Books, a small publishing house in England promises “new and neglected nautical writing.” It is rarely evident at the time of first publication if a sailing book (or any book for that matter) is destined to become a classic. For a publishing venture to add a new title to their list there is some comfort in trolling through the lists of out-of-print books in hopes of finding a gem. Richard Wynne, the owner of Lodestar, has a knack for finding volumes that deserve re-publication. Taking a flyer on an entirely new publication can be quite another matter.
Recent releases from Lodestar illustrate this all too well. Of the four books reviewed here two are solid pieces of nautical writing while two others seem to miss the mark. The hits were originally published in 1938 and 1951 and the misses are new original publications in the last year or so.
Water Rat’s musing on the pleasures of messing about in boats in Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows appears on everything from tee-shirts to coffee mugs (although rarely worn or held by actual sailors). It is more appropriately used as a title for John R. Muir’s volume of reminiscences about his half-century of experience with a series of small yachts. I have a particular weakness for stories of small boats (not much bigger than the one in which I sail) messing about in the Thames Estuary, beating up the Channel or thrashing about off Devon. John Muir certainly appeals to me with his experiences in the early 1900s and between the wars in boats that he himself did not consider to be proper yachts. Most of his boats were converted (or more often not converted) working boats such as Bristol pilot cutters. His boats are devoid of all but the basic necessities. They lack electronics but revel in the warmth of a tiny coal-fired stove. Dead reckoning and liberal use of the lead are the navigational tools of choice and cranky and for the most part ancient mariners are Muir’s shipmates and crew. The sorta-yachts don’t go very far or very fast but it is clear in the writing that the quality of the time spent aboard is what is important and not the ports visited. Messing About in Boats is a fine read, best slowly sampled a chapter at a time leaving much time for contemplation between the tales.
George Millar’s A White Boat from England is one of three books he wrote about sailing in post-war (the second war this time) waters Two other volumes in the trilogy; Isabel and the Sea and Oyster River are also back in print from another small publisher located in Dorset. Dovecote Press whose list has begun to include a number of nautical titles. The Lodestar reprint is third of the series and in contrast to Muir’s noodling about in home waters tells of a 1951 trip in a graceful, slender tall-masted and modern 16 ton yacht. The route took Millar and his wife across the Channel to the Channel Islands, around Finisterre, across the Bay of Biscay, down the Spanish and Portuguese coast to Africa, through the Straits of Gibraltar o the southern Spanish coast, the Balearic Islands and ends on the French Riviera. Millar was a keen observer with an impressive war record and prior to the war had been the Paris correspondent for the Daily Express. And this shows in the text for while not lacking in the charm of the first hand account of other yachting tales he is a writer of great skill with a number of other books to his credit.
Given the success of a number of the Lodestar titles it was perhaps inevitable that a modern-day equivalent of the classic sailing book would show upon the publisher’s doorstep. In this case the new should perhaps have been neglected. On the surface the volume has possibilities. It tells of a circumnavigation of England and Scotland by an experienced pleasure sailor and his friends. However, All Aboard, by Rod Shiers, has a hollow feeling as if the author is trying too hard and making too much of too little. The classic books seem to do the opposite as they underplay the adventures. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the “bare bones” nature of the classic sailing tales with small boats without modern conveniences such as navigation equipment, radios and engines. Part of the problem may be the revolving cast of characters as crew enter and exit chapters of All Aboard, fulfilling obligations to the skipper to help him in his determination to meet the scheduled voyage round the Isles. Although a 32 foot Westerly Fulmar is hardly a mega-yacht it is a modern well-equipped vessel and a 2013 trip around the British Isles is hardly the pioneering voyage it once was. The book just isn’t that interesting. Given the ease of self-publication and short press-runs this might have been a better book if it had been privately printed by the skipper and circulated to his crew and friends.
Richard Powell’s The Canoe Yawl is a different sort of volume. Unlike the others this book is not about the experience of sailing in known or unknown waters. Rather it purports to be a history of a particular type of sailing yacht. The canoe yawl is nowhere defined in the book which wanders among several different types of vessel before settling on a general embracing of small yachts with canoe sterns and the yawl rig, that is to say a shorter second mast mounted aft of the tiller. The forward by a modern designer of traditional craft, Ian Oughtred, pays tribute to the user-friendly rig with short spars and a low centre of effort in which the rig can be quickly and easily adjusted for wind conditions. Powell tries hard to find the genesis of the canoe yawl in early boats that possessed neither a yawl rig or a canoe hull but is unconvincing in his enthusiasm. Readily available books about designers Albert Strange and George Holmes do a much better job of presenting the canoe yawl type. A chapter on the canoe yawl today presents the work of a number of recent designers and the type is very much alive. Powell is not a designer but he cannot resist presenting his own ideas of what the ideal 21st century canoe yawl would look like. The book might have been better if it had ended without this as the last chapter. What to volume does offer as a collection of excellent drawings and photographs suitable for February dreaming.
In spite of presenting both hits and misses the quality of these volumes, and indeed all the Lodestar books is extremely high. Quality paper, excellent design and layout and sewn bindings mean that these are books that will survive multiple readings and will not disgrace a sailor’s bookshelf.