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.

Photo Journal: Oostende Voor Anker

I’ve always had quite a fondness for working ports and harbours, and how the concrete quays and non-descript marinas are transformed for a few days every year when the port hosts a maritime festival, lifeboat gala day, or traditional boat show.

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A view of the harbour from alongside the Spanish tall ship Atyla.

Railings are decked with bunting; boats cram into the harbour, showing their dressed overall flags; stalls demonstrating traditional maritime crafts, or hawking food and drink line the quaysides; and from somewhere, shanty singers assemble.  The air is filled with the scent of Stockholm tar and smoked seafood, and the sound of fiddles and accordions.

Every May, the Belgian coastal resort and port of Ostend celebrates the maritime heritage of the North Sea, hosting traditional and classic sailing vessels from around Europe at the Oostende Voor Anker maritime festival (Ostend at Anchor in English).

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The Dutch steamship Hydrograaf, a former naval hydrographic survey vessel.
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Hundreds of boats decked in dressed over all flags lining the dock basin.
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Masts and rigging alongside the buildings of the city.
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The Russian square-rigger Shtandart at the heart of the lock basin in Ostend.

The festival takes place each year from a Thursday to a Sunday towards the end of May, depending on the tides, with vessels arriving into port in the preceding days.  From class A square riggers to the traditional barges that plied the coastal and inland waterways of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, over 150 vessels participate in the festival.

 

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Preparing sides of salmon for woodsmoking over an open fire.
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Later, the smoked salmon is ready to eat.
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Natural cord ready to be made into rope.
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A traditional basketmaker making skeps from twisted straw.

A large part of Oostende Voor Anker celebrates  traditional craftsmanship, with a festival village filled with venues to find out more about boat-building and sail making.  A variety of stalls also sell local goods and produce, including what every sailor needs, a vast selection of striped Breton shirts.  I may even have picked up a souvenir or two as I browsed through.

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Blacksmith at work.
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Lines, sheets, halyards, lifts, stays, cables, but no ropes.
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Racks of oilskins for sale.
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With a striped Breton shirt you won’t look out of place wandering around.
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Traditional Flanders smoked herrings prepared during the day.

As well as open ship tours, demonstrations and stalls, the festival also features things like walking theatre performances, musical concerts, food and cookery demonstrations, arts installations, and nautical themed talks.

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An Atyla crewmember on the bagpipes.
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Shanty singers warming up for a performance.
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Fresh Flemish oysters for sale, with a little champagne on the side.
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Flag dancers take over a junction in the city centre.
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Cadets from the Royal Belgian Sea Cadet Corps demonstrate sea survival.
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A sea survival demonstration in the harbour

My festival tips for Oostende Voor Anker

  • Avoid taking a car if you’re travelling from out of town.  Ostend has excellent rail and coach connections to Antwerp, Brussels, and beyond, and the station is close to the festival area.  The Belgian Coastal Tram is another travel alternative.
  • Wear shoes suitable for walking, as it’s likely you’ll do much more than you anticipate!  High heels can cause damage to the decking timbers on ships, and you may be asked to remove unsuitable shoes if you take a deck tour.
  • Pick up a festival guide as soon as you can.  It will have an event map and programme of activities to help you plan your day and find your way around.
  • Bring cash as some vendors won’t accept card payment.
  • Book your local accommodation early, as the festival is very popular.
  • The next Oostende Voor Anker festival takes place on 23-26 May 2019.
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Excelsior of Lowestoft leaving the basin in Ostend for the Parade of Sail. 
Do you enjoy visiting maritime festivals?  Have you ever been to Ostend?
Let me know your stories in the comments below.
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