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.

Why I Think You Should Travel

I’m often asked why I feel the need to travel so often, so extensively, and to places that don’t really feature on the radar for many people as they plan their holidays (Hello Mam!). Often I can’t explain exactly why somewhere appeals to me, just that it does, and I can get there. So this is an attempt to draw together my thoughts, and give a bit of justification for developing this blog.

Travelling is the very soul of These Vagabond Shoes (pun totally intended!), and it’s my belief that the opportunities travel provides for new experiences, exposure to new ideas, and feeling that flux state of being on the move is a good thing for everyone.

Meeting other people, particularly people from a different culture or background to yourself, talking with them, listening to their stories, and sharing their food goes a long way to extending our understanding of each other, and diminishing that deep fear of the different and unknown. It also challenges our tightly-held perceptions, provokes questions, and tests our own resilience. It’s the first tentative steps towards changing the world for the better.

My hope, idealistic as it may be, is that you, dear readers of this blog, might start to think of opportunities available to you, to travel widely and openly, and embrace chances to step outside their comfort zone now and again. And for my friends that perhaps face greater barriers than most, the chance to join me vicariously on my way to some places they may be unlikely to ever visit.

So to that end, I’ve compiled an epic list of reasons I think that travel is a winner, inspired by my own experiences and those of other writers, bloggers, and people that I’ve met along the way. I might dip into it now and again, to take a deeper look at an idea, and it’s not a definitive list by any means, so expect it to grow over time too.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or get in touch on social media.

 

Why should you travel?

Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.

Michael Palin

  • To break out of your comfort zone
  • To find the time to think
  • To escape from the everyday routine
  • To learn how to really relax

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Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.

Mark Twain

  • To break down boundaries
  • To meet people from a different culture
  • To improve foreign language skills
  • To smash the stereotypes in your thinking

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

Anita Desai

  • To heal, and rebuild what’s broken
  • To grow, exponentially, in confidence
  • To become a more flexible and adaptable person
  • To do something you’d never normally do, and be proud of that

Travel brings power and love back into your life.

Rumi

  • To light a fire of creativity
  • To inspire new passions
  • To make the wine taste better (or whatever your poison is)
  • To sample new food tastes

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If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.

Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.

Anthony Bourdain

  • To speak to new people and make new friends
  • To find the kindness of strangers
  • To meet face-to-face the things you’ve read about or seen on screen
  • To collect mementos and images to colour your everyday life

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There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.

John Steinbeck

  • To learn to appreciate the small things in life
  • To hear birdsong
  • To feel sheer, unrestrained joy
  • To embrace the feeling of being lost
  • To find yourself again

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.

Christopher McCandless

  • To get up close and personal with the natural world
  • To watch the sun rise, and set, on a different horizon
  • To be totally and completely awestruck
  • To follow in someone’s footsteps
  • To blaze your own trails

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The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.

John Muir

  • To fill the blank spaces in your geography knowledge
  • To give global politics a relatable backdrop
  • To make history live
  • To share stories about your home and your experience

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.

Gustave Flaubert

  • To get more comfortable in your own company
  • To become more mature
  • To create stories to tell your children, and grandchildren
  • To remain young at heart, whatever your age

And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

Pico Iyer

  • To trace your roots, and shake your branches
  • To be thankful for what you currently have
  • To remember just how lucky you are
  • To appreciate what waits for you at home

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Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

  • To change the path of your career, or your whole life
  • To overcome the fear
  • To be yourself
  • To live your best life, no regrets

… because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars…

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What would you add to the list?