Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

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I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

  • Seven Tenths: the Sea and its Thresholds – James Hamilton Paterson

A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea.  Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.

  • The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera

Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend.  Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whalerider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.

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The seashell I hatched out of. FACT
  • Under the Sea Wind – Rachel Carson

Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment.  This is a beautiful book to share with young people.

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

Rachel Carson

  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago.  I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential its been in my life.  I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography.  I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.

  • The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch

A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14 year old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult.  A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.

  • RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – Philip Hoare

Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness.  Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf.  I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.

  • The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau

A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration.  This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”.  It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.

*goood moaning.  I didn’t say it was a good one.

  • The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson

There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two.  In this she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having.  The dawning of the Anthropocene.  It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just a fresh and relevant today.

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Hanging out with bowriding dolphins.
  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore.  A masterclass in the art of observation.

Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

Kathleen Jamie

  • The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One – Sylvia Earle

A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter.  The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans.  But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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What I loved this autumn

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Making repairs to the mainsail on Blue Clipper  while alongside in Molde, Norway

Where I’ve been:

I’ve just returned to the UK after several weeks at sea on Blue Clipper, crossing from Norway to England, and on to Portugal, followed up by a few weeks of maintenance work based on the Algarve coast.

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Preparing to leave Ålesund, Norway, as dusk falls

Norway is my favourite country and I loved visiting new places on this trip, starting with Bodø, and crossing the Arctic circle as we headed south to Ålesund.  I also revisited familiar ground around Haugesund and Karmøy, when we ended up storm-bound in Skudeneshavn for a week longer than expected.

The voyage was amazing for wildlife encounters; migrating barnacle geese, eider ducks and other birds heading southwards, enormous sea eagles on every island, sharks cruising by on the surface, basking seals, pods of porpoises, dolphins, pilot whales.  Sparking bioluminescence mirroring the night’s stars.  And as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, a day or so north of Camariñas, two magnificent fin whales broke the surface on our starboard side.

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Fin whale blowing and surfacing in the Bay of Biscay. Picture courtesy of Mario Branco.

I’ve never really been one for sunshine holidays, so the Algarve has never really been on my travel radar until now.  I was really pleased to find that away from resorts (and in the shoulder season) there’s some really beautiful and wild parts of the coast, near Alvor and Sagres, estuaries and saltmarshes filled with birdlife, and even storks roosting on every tower in town.  And Portuguese food is pretty good too.

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Leaving the resorts behind to discover the wilder side of the Algarve coast
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There’s much more to the Algarve than golf courses and beach bars

Back in the UK I’ve been fortunate to get a couple of short trips in the time I’ve been back, with a couple of days in the Peak District near Leek, and a few more in Church Stretton to hike in the Shropshire Hills, brush up on my navigation skills, and appreciate the stunning autumn colours.

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Autumn in the English countryside

What I’ve done:

Since returning to Bedfordshire, I’ve joined the weekly parkrun at my nearby country park.  It’s been so long since I’ve been running, and I’m still getting over a knee injury, so I’m starting from the beginning again, but I really enjoy the sociability of the runs.

I’ve been developing an idea for a podcast, which I hope to launch next month.  So when I get a moment, it’s filled up with working: reading, researching, and writing.  Watch this space for more news.

I’ve also pulled out all my hiking gear, waterproof clothing, and sailing oilskins to give them all a proper deep clean, and coating with Nikwax waterproofing treatment ready for winter.  I hope the effort will pay off and keep me dry and warm through the months ahead.

My autumn love list:

Book: I’ve been remotely discovering the Scottish islands over the last couple of months, with several of the books I’ve read.  But When I Heard the Bell: The Loss of the Iolaire by John MacLeod has been the one that’s lingered longest in my mind.  An account of the tragic loss of the ship returning demobbed WWI soldiers and seamen home to the islands for Hogmanay, and the long shadow cast by the worst peacetime maritime loss in British waters.

Podcast: Dan Snow’s History Hit, which does exactly what is says on the tin.  Each is a short but deep dive into a specific event or idea from history.  With the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI in November, my recent interest has been mainly in the episodes covering that period.  Which brings me on to…

Film: They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary film by Peter Jackson that tells the story of WWI from the British point of view, using old film archives and recorded interviews.  The moment that the images on screen transition from black and white to colourised 3D footage is simply spine-tingling.

Clothing: Since returning from the Algarve to Bedfordshire, I’ve embraced the chill to get out and make the most of my favourite season.  That means warm woollen sweaters, including my favourite knit from Finnisterre, cosy socks, and a new pair of gloves from Rab.  I’ve also been able to dig out my flannel pyjamas for enjoying toasty evenings in.

Equipment: With the clock change last month and nights drawing in, I’ve found myself out in the dark often, and my Petzl Tikka+ headtorch has become one of the things I use most.  As a lightweight lamp, with a red light, it’s great for moving around a ship at night or going on evening runs, however I think I might look into upgrading to something more powerful for hiking in the dark, like one from LED Lenser.

I’ve also found my Thermos food flask, which is perfect for packing a warming lunch of soup, stew or pasta while I’m out and about.  It’s one of my cold weather essentials.

Treats: Autumn always means mince pies.  They’re usually available from around the time of my birthday in September, and I buy a selection from the different stores to work out which is my preferred mince pie for the season.  I’m still in the testing stage this year, as I’ve been scoffing pastéis de nata in Portugal until recently.

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Blogging in Blue Clipper’s saloon with good coffee and a few pastéis de nata

What’s next:

I’m planning on a much quieter few months over the winter, spending time back up in northeast Scotland visiting friends and family.  I’m hoping that there will be plenty of time to walk along the coast, and take a few trips into the mountains, around the projects I’ll be working on.

I’m also going to get stuck into the planning for my next big adventure, looking at maps, blog posts, and guides.  In May 2019, I’m going to be taking part in the TGO Challenge, a self-supported crossing of Scotland from west to east.  Participants choose their own start and finish points, and plan their route between the two.  This will be my second attempt at the TGO, so I’ve some unfinished business to deal with, plus it’s the 40th Anniversary of the challenge.

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures (and vague rambling ideas) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds.

 I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead.  Let me know in the comments below.