Armchair Travel: 10 Books about Sailing Adventures

This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of vitamin sea.

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Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end.  So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…

  • Sailing Alone Around the World – Captain Joshua Slocum

The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made.  Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement.

  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old.  More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago.  I was really interested by the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage.

  • We, the Drowned – Carsten Jensen.

I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why.  The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific.  Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies.  Nancy Blackett is my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack.

  • The Brendan Voyage – Tim Severin

Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus.  Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions.  A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about.

  • The Last Grain Race – Eric Newby

In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers.

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  • One Wild Song – Paul Heiney

Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression.  Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing.  A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought provoking.

  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – Dava Sobel

For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error.  The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time.  A classic of the history of science.

  • This Thing of Darkness – Harry Thompson

A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and  filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America, and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drives a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return.

  • Against the Flow: The First Woman to Sail Solo the ‘Wrong Way’ around the World – Dee Caffari

More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so.  Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure.

Have you enjoyed any of these books?
Which salty adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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What I’ve loved this spring

Hi there vagabonds!

Spring has been a transitional time for me over the past few years.  My seasonal ranger contract on the Isle of Wight ends, as the overwintering birds I work on start their migration journey to the high Arctic, and I find something new to keep me occupied through the following months.

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I’ve hatched out of my winter shell, ready to head to sea for the spring!

 

Where I’ve been:

After packing up my life on the Isle of Wight, and dropping things into storage, I flew out to Bilbao in northern Spain.  I’d been selected to join the crew of the sail training tall ship Atyla as a watchleader, spending a couple of months on board as we sailed around Europe.

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Maman, by Louise Bourgeois, outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

 

The first couple of weeks were dedicated to finishing winter maintenance, fitting and testing equipment that had been in storage, and provisioning for our upcoming voyages.  We also completed extensive training, familiarisation with systems on board, and how to lead sailing evolutions with trainees, and also in teamwork and leading personal development activities.

 

 

Atyla runs coaching for trainees, so alongside working together to sail a ship, they tackle sessions on critical thinking, international collaboration, and environmental responsibility.  Despite my initial reticence about taking part*, the coaching sessions were excellent, and it was awesome to witness the transformative effects on our trainees.

 

*I don’t have emotions.

As well as exploring Bilbao, our voyages took up across the Bay of Biscay (twice), around Brittany, through the channel to Belgium, then around the British and Irish Isles.  We attended several maritime festivals, in Ostend and Calais, and a tall ships regatta from Liverpool to Dublin and Bordeaux.  The final event was the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux, which ended with one of the most spectacular fireworks displays I’ve ever seen.

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Watching a linesman transfer demonstration at the Escale à Calais maritime festival

 

Sailing alongside other tall ships is awesome.  On shore, you’re too far from the action, or the ships are tied up alongside and has a very different feel, and on board you’re just too close to everything, and perspective is limited.  We spent a windless couple of days in the Irish Sea, drifting back and forwards by other vessels, then absolutely rocketed from Waterford, Ireland, across the Celtic Sea and into Biscay, towards Bordeaux.

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Racing head-to-head with Morgenster on the way to Bordeaux; Atyla takes the line, and first place overall, with 14 seconds to spare.
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And the view in the other direction. Photo courtesy of Rafa Otero.

What I’ve done:

Spring is the start of beach cleaning season, as winter storms have washed extra material up on the coast and people become more willing to spend a couple of hours outdoors picking up litter.  With a couple of friends I organised a few small events on the Isle of Wight, filled several sacks with waste, met some brilliant people, and even discovered a new part of the island.

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Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans.  Plastic bottles and balloons floating in the water were a disappointingly common sight on my sailing voyages this spring.

At the end of March I undertook a Day Skipper practical course, spending a week sailing around in the Solent in the pouring rain on a 36′ sailing yacht.  I think we had only one dry day, where we spent several hours beating closehauled towards Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, getting nowhere beyond Newtown.  But I passed the course, and am now the proud owner of an International Certificate of Competence, the basic level of qualification to charter my own yacht.

Before departing for Spain, I headed to Bristol for a training weekend with the team from Explorers Connect for an expedition leadership course.  The sessions covered the theory of planning and organising an expedition, safety management and risk assessment, provisioning and sourcing equipment.  It’s certainly given me plenty to think about for the rest of the year.

And finally, at the end of this season, I had an interview for a very exciting job to work in a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  And to match the nature of the job, a very exciting interview process, involving several team building challenges, scenarios and exercises.  Ultimately, I wasn’t successful this time, but I left with fantastic feedback from the team, and feel inspired to apply for the same job again in the future.  Fingers crossed that next time it will be mine.  Until then, I might just keep on messing about on boats.

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Common dolphins were our near-constant companions through the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea.  I also spotted minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and so many seabirds.

My Spring Love List

What I read: We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen. An epic saga centred on the Danish port of Marstal, spanning several generations, two world wars, and circumnavigating the globe. I’ve had the book for ages, and been recommended it by so many people, so finally finding the time to read it has been so satisfying.

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What I listened to: Black Hands, a true-crime podcast from New Zealand that delves into the murder of several members of a Dunedin family, and the subsequent trial that rocked the city of Dunedin. Like Serial, but a bit more fush and chups.

Film: A Plastic Ocean. A challenging but essential watch, highlighting the threats to the health of the ocean posed by microplastics.  In this year alone every person on the planet will consume 136 kg of single-use plastic. How can a disposable product be made from an indestructible material?

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Olivia, ship’s dog on Atyla, loves to collect plastic bottles on her walks, and helped turn walkies ashore into impromptu litter picks

Equipment: I’ve practically lived in my Helly Hansen sailing jacket and salopettes during my Day Skipper course, and to cross the Bay of Biscay.  They’ve been pretty indispensable in keeping me warm and dry through wet nightwatches on Atyla.

Treats:  Wine!  There’s been plenty of good red wine this season; after work with a plate of pintxos in Bilbao, celebrating with the rest of the crew in Liverpool and Dublin, and while watching the most amazing fireworks at the Fête le Vin in Bordeaux.  Though this Belgian waffle in Ostend was pretty awesome too.

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Sailing westwards into the setting sun at the end of a beautiful day at sea.

Thanks for following the voyages of These Vagabond Shoes. I hope some of the things I’ve worked on over the winter are making a difference on the blog, and you enjoy what you find here.

You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Buena proa!
Let me know in the comments about what you’ve been up to this spring or your plans for the season ahead.  I’d love to hear from you.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the North

Welcome to the first instalment of my Armchair Travel series!

In this occasional series I’ll aim to bring you inspiration for your travels, and transport you away from everyday life, through some of my favourite books. Like a wee holiday, but without leaving the comforts of your home.

For me, reading has always provided so many of the things I get from travelling: being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking; an insight into an unfamiliar culture; being part of a challenging adventure; or complete and total escapism.

Books, like a sailing ship, could take you anywhere. So throw off the bowline and let yourself be transported with ten of my favourite books to take you in to the icy north…

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  • Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

I love books like this, ones that outwardly take a single topic, but are packed with everything you can think of. History, geography, science, natural history, spirituality, indigenous culture, adventure, travel; all drawn together in Lopez’ beautiful prose. To be dipped into again and again.  Find it here.

  • North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship – R. Bruce Macdonald

Sailing ships might become a bit of a theme through this blog. This is the story of the last of the ships trading in the Canadian Arctic, and a record of a way of life changed forever.  You can buy it here.

  • Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

A chilling horror story set in a scientific research base in an abandoned mining camp in Spitzbergen, just before the outbreak of WWII. The waning of the moon in the depth of the polar night plunge Jack into full-blown terror.  You can find it here.
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  • Far North and Other Dark Tales – Sara Maitland

A deliciously dark collection of short stories that draw inspiration from fairy tales, bible stories and traditional myths, with a strong focus on the female experience. The title story is a reworking of an Inuit legend.  You can get it here.

  • The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen – Stephen R. Brown

We tend to know Amundsen as “the one that got there first”, thwarting Scott’s attempt at the South Pole, but the Norwegian was the ultimate polar explorer. Inspired by Nansen and learning skills from indigenous peoples in the Arctic, he was leader of the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, navigated a route through the Northeast Passage, and crossed the North Pole in an airship. He disappeared on a mission to rescue the crew of another airship returning from the Pole. Get the book here.

  • The Long Exile – Melanie McGrath

The documentary film Nanook of the North revealed the lives of Unagava Inuit to the world. This book reveals the dark aftermath; the forced relocation of Inuit families to the barren shores of Ellesmere Island. A shameful episode of recent history, the shockwaves of which echo through the generations to today.  You can find it here.reading_for_a_cold_day_1

  • The Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

The first part of the Dark Materials trilogy (also known as The Golden Compass in North America), this is the north of dreams and fantasy. Ice bears in armour made from sky-iron; lying, tale-telling Arctic foxes; ancient witches flying of sprays of cloud pine; fierce Tartars scouring the tundra with their wolf dæmons; and the mysterious and terrible aurora. Get it (and the rest of the trilogy) here.

  • To Build A Fire – Jack London

I read White Fang when I was about twelve years old, and Call of the Wild not long after. The wild and brutal Yukon setting burned into my imagination. To Build a Fire is just one of the greatest short stories ever written. Find it here.

  • Farthest North – Fritjof Nansen

I have a massive crush on Nansen; there’s no denying it. I’m fascinated by so much about him; all his adventures, his thirst for scientific knowledge, and his humanitarian work. This is the story of the Fram expedition, to take a ship through the polar sea locked in the ice, and reach the top of the world. And on the way, demonstrate excellent leadership and establish the science of oceanography. Get the book here.

  • The Blue Fox – Sjón

Fabulous, in the original sense of the word, and beautifully poetic, the atmosphere of this novella is as dark and chilling as the Icelandic winter in which it is set. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will transport you to a different world.  You can find it here.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any North themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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Where I’m going in 2018

I know its getting a bit late in the month now, but Happy New Year to one and all!

Now the celebrations are past, first footing is long over, and resolutions may be wobbling, it seems to be a good time to reveal the new look for These Vagabond Shoes, and to share some of my plans and goals for the year.

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I known it’s fairly standard fare for bloggers to create a post like this in early January, but I’ve found it’s been really helpful in laying out my thoughts and identifying my priorities for the year ahead. A kind of roadmap for the year ahead, albeit a vague one sketched in pencil. Whether or not I’ll stick to these plans remains to be seen, but hopefully there’s a few of the goals I’ll be able to say I’ve achieved by the end of the year.

These Vagabond Shoes

So, we’re starting the new year with a clean slate on the blog, ready for a new focus on telling travel stories, sharing inspiration and ideas for adventures, and passing on some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.  Expect things to build up slowly over the year, as I’m just a one woman band behind the scenes, but there are plans in place.

And I promise more regular posts through the year.

Travels and Adventures

  • Explore more of the UK, especially Scotland. I want to spend more time getting to know my own country better, especially as its been a few years since I’ve had the opportunity. I want to visit the Western Isles, Northumberland and North Wales, but I’ll start off with my adopted home of the Isle of Wight and the surrounding area, where I’m working until the end of March.
Seilebost Beach
Photo Credit: ecololo on  cc 
  • Do a long distance walk. I’m really taken with the idea of backpacking and camping for several days at a time. And you discover so much more about a place when you travel through it at walking pace. The walks I’m most excited about are the Cape Wrath Trail and the Hebridean Way.
  • Mess around in boats. I have been hooked on sailing since I took my first steps aboard Draken Harald Hårfagre in August 2013. I want to do more sailing voyages, on lots of different boats and ships, and work on building up my sailing skills. And I’m planning on taking the Day Skipper course soon.
  • Do a course in expedition leadership. Talking about skills, this is an area I want to work on. I’ve got some ideas for bigger adventures and more challenging trips, and I think that this might be a useful thing to have under my belt.
  • Go to a blogging conference. I went to TBEX Europe conference held in Athens in 2014, which really opened my eyes to the whole travel blogging scene. Not just the workshops and talks, it was the people that I met that made it an unforgettable experience. I quite fancy Traverse in Rotterdam, or TBEX in Ostrava.
Atyla in Greenwich
Photo Credit: Robert Pittman on cc

My Goals for 2018

Talk to more people. Something I think really makes travel into something that enhances and enriches my experience is the people I meet along the way. Sharing time with people that don’t share your background opens your eyes to new ideas, outlooks and discoveries.

Be more environmentally aware. As my job is all about encouraging people to consider their own impacts, I think I should be leading by example.  I’ve taken steps to cut the amount of waste I produce, especially plastics, but there’s always more work to be done. I plan on shopping more ethically, organising beach cleans and getting more people into conservation volunteering.  And I’ll keep on sharing my passion for the marine environment.

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Draken at sunset, Faroe Islands. Photo credit: Viking Nilsen, Viking Kings Expedition America.

Finish the damn book. I’ve been working on this project on and off (mostly off) the past year. It will get done. There will be Vikings.

Watch the sunrise more. Especially from a wild campsite or the deck of a ship.

So for now, that’s my 2018. And it seems there are many more dreams than concrete plans, but if the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that there will always be opportunities just around the corner. Some of my most exciting adventures have been spur-of-the-moment, rather than well planned in advance. Whatever they may be, I’ll be ready!

What are your travel plans for the year ahead? Where would you most like to go?
Let me know in the comments below.