These reviews appeared originally in Living Aboard magazine.
- Lessons From MY Good Old Boat
- Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
- Cruising the Gulags
- Catamarans– the Complete Guide for Cruising Sailors
- Tales of a Sea Gypsy
- The Black Swan
Softcover 258 pages
This well-organized book is packed full of brief but lucid discussions on how to prepare a boat for cruising.
Many such guides to outfitting a cruising boat have appeared over the years. The best of these can help even experienced sailors do a better job with fitting out a boat and with routine maintenance. This one stands out because of the clarity and simplicity of the advice offered by the author, and because of the wide range of subjects covered. No such guide can be exhaustive, but Launer makes a good effort at covering all the essential systems in adequate detail.
As an example, on his chapter on engines and accessories, he writes about alternators, starters, diesel engines, and devotes a lengthy section to repowering an older boat. On repowering, he starts with the decision process owners go through as they realize that their old engine is no longer adequate, and goes on to point out some of the many possible pitfalls and expenses associated with installing a new engine. He discusses the pros and cons of professional versus do-it-yourself installation, and offers good advice should you choose the latter.
Launer also covers subjects not commonly found in books of this sort. For example, he devotes a whole chapter to the club-footed jib, which he promotes as a way to make cruising more pain-free, by making all sails self-tending. Other somewhat obscure information can be found sprinkled throughout the pages of this interesting book. I was startled to discover that the cleaner water resulting from environmental regulations has resulted in a resurgence of boat-destroying organisms like shipworms and gribbles.
Launer is also a schooner enthusiast, and owns one called Delphinus. He makes an eloquent case for this antique rig.
Launer has been sailing for 73 years, and though he’s still sailing his schooner, the final chapter is about dealing with a Good Old Body– what to do when age begins to affect what we can do as sailors. He’s had to adapt his boat and his routines to the realities of advancing age. As with every other subject he tackles in this useful book, he takes an optimistic and realistic approach to coping with age. It’s just another problem to be solved.
I like that.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chappelle
Softcover 242 pages
In the 1880s, a young man named Edwin Tappan Adney went to New Brunswick and watched a native craftsman make a bark canoe. He fell in love with that graceful little boat and spent the rest of his life gathering material for this book. Unfortunately he put it off just a bit too long and at the tender age of 81, expired before actually writing it.
Some years later, the famous marine historian Howard Chappelle organized Adney’s papers into this fine volume. Chappelle is a good writer, and his clear unaffected prose is one of the many pleasures of this book.
He explains a vast number of fascinating details about the canoe and kayak construction practices of a number of native groups. As an example, skin boats had their skins fastened to the framework only at stem, stern, and gunwales, so that if the boat hit ice, the skin would give and slide over the framework and thereby avoid puncture. The text is stuffed full of thought-provoking little factoids like that.
The book is magnificently illustrated with drawings, lines plans, paintings, and black-and-white photographs, many of them very old. The photographs are especially intriguing, in that they give the reader a window on a past that seems very unfamiliar. The boats themselves are beautiful beyond what might be expected from a utilitarian object, and the sheer variety of shapes and materials and techniques used by the native people is astonishing.
One snapshot from 1927 shows an older man in his doorway, clutching a large bundle of bark. The caption indicates that this man was not just a respected canoe builder but was also the oldest man on the reservation… 100 years old. His body is straight and his face is as hard and smooth as polished wood. A child peeps out of the darkness inside the house, and it’s a little sad to realize that the old man was probably unable to pass his knowledge along to succeeding generations– many of the canoes and kayak types shown in the book are now as extinct as the tribes who used them, and they may never be built again.
Fortunately, thanks to Adney’s devotion and Chappelle’s scholarship, we won’t lose the memory of these magnificent boats.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
Hardcover 370 pages
This fine book deals with a very important question: where does food come from? For most of us, it’s a question that never arises. We’ve become so incurious regarding the origins of what we eat that most people don’t know anything about the process by which soil, water, and sunlight combine to produce something edible. We’ve become so estranged from the sources of our food that we cheat ourselves of much of the pleasure food can give.
This, it turns out, is a big problem. Instead of eating an apple from our neighbor’s orchard, we eat a papaya flown in from the other side of the world at great cost in fossil fuel, flavor, and nutrition.
Kingsolver has not only thought about this, she’s changed her family’s whole life in order to explore the matter more intimately. She, her husband, and two daughters moved from Tucson, Arizona, where they’d lived for many years, to a small farm in Virginia, where they undertook to eat from local and identifiable sources. She’s written a fascinating account of their first year on the farm, with occasional sidebars by her husband and her daughter.
Within this narrative, the author investigates a wide range of food issues, but she frames these weighty matters within charming descriptions of daily life in the gardens and kitchen of her new home. She devotes a whole chapter to asparagus, for example, and makes that sturdy perennial a metaphor for her conviction that food and its production are the bedrock of human life. Her writing is wonderfully deft; the reader sees her family’s new life as the inspiring adventure it is, rather than the ordeal it might appear to those of us used to eating whatever we like, no matter the season.
Cruising sailors can’t plant asparagus at every port they visit, but they can still eat sensibly. That papaya, picked from a tree that morning and brought to the village market, is a much better choice than a shrivelled apple sent from New York to Paradise. Eating locally and seasonally will yield the same benefits to liveaboards as it does to the landbound.
This beautifully crafted, highly literate, and convention challenging book should be required reading for everyone who likes to eat well.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
Michael L. Frankel
I’ve always admired Michael Frankel’s easygoing and insightful approach to cruising narratives, and this book exemplifies those virtues.
Frankel participated in a 1992 Atlantic cruising rally that celebrated the first great voyage of Christopher Columbus, 500 years later. He sailed in his own junk-rigged yacht, Sabra, and wrote a fascinating account of the crossing.
He made many friends that year, and those friendships led to further adventures. Cruising the Gulags recounts a 1994 sail from the Netherlands to the Russian port of Archangel, and then back through the realtively unknown inland waterways of Russia to the great city of St. Petersburg, aboard the Dutch yacht Tiota. The Dutch are the premier pragmatists of Europe, and they once again demonstrated this quality by organizing a cruise in company to Archangel, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Dutch explorer Willem Barents’ Arctic discoveries, and the 300th anniversary of the founding by Peter the Great of the Russian Fleet, an act facilitated by Dutch shipwrights.
As is appropriate to a voyage so steeped in history, Frankel makes the always colorful history of the region a charming centerpiece to his account. He began with a visit to a cruising friend in Germany, who took him on a swift tour of the Slovenian and Dalmatian coasts before eventually delivering him to his Dutch friend aboard Tiota. They sailed to Archangel by way of the rugged Norwegian coast, harbor hopping from fjord to fjord, and this was one of the most appealing parts of the trip.
Once in Russia, it became apparent that the crew of the Tiota were in another world. The greatest hazard they encountered was the notorious Russian bureaucracy, but there were many extraordinarily rewarding aspects of Tiota’s expedition into that vast country. From the barren beauty of the Arctic Sea to the cultural crossroads of St. Petersburg, they squeezed as much experience as possible from that brief summer.
Frankel’s books are always well-written and well-researched, but their greatest appeal is the wide-eyed wonder with which Frankel regards the landscapes and people he’s been privileged to visit. There’s none of the cynicism and cultural fastidiousness that mar so many other cruising stories. Frankel knows how lucky he is to have seen what he’s seen and he does a very good job of sharing that bright and optimistic worldview with his readers.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
This is probably the most beautiful wishbook ever composed on the subject of catamarans. It is, however, far more than a coffeetable book filled with mouth-watering photographs. The author is a naval architect, sailor, and yacht broker specializing in multihulls– in other words, a man who knows what he is talking about when it comes to luxury yachts with two hulls.
Tarjan first deals with the accelerating pace of technology as it applies to these fast stable boats. Because of the fiercely competitive nature of offshore multihull racing, the trickle-down effects on cruisers are substantial. New building techniques, stronger lighter materials, and advances in boat systems have all pushed the cruising catamaran to new heights.
However, some considerations are basic, and in the first few chapters Tarjan discusses such issues as hullforms, unsinkability, comfort, speed, leeway prevention, accomodations layout, rigs, engines and all the other aspects that contribute to a good cruising boat.
These design elements are not quickly brought up and then glossed over, as is often the case with manufacturers brochures. Tarjan explores these vital issues in substantial detail, giving many examples. It’s probably good for readers to bear in mind that the author is a yacht broker, and for understandable reasons avoids making highly critical remarks about specific designs.
That said, it’s easy to read between the lines and pick a boat that suits the style of cruising that you personally prefer. Unfortunately, the larger boats now being built are very costly.
The book is lavishly illustrated with drawings as well as photographs, and no expense has been spared to make this book a feast for the eyes. There are color photos on almost every page, and some of them are magnificent examples of the photographer’s art.
Tarjan ends his book with a selection of noteworthy production multihulls and their specifications, any one of which he would be delighted to sell to some fortunate soul. The smallest is the 34 foot Gemini, the largest the 100 foot Blubay. The author includes extensive appendixes, including a very useful bibliography, a glossary, equipment lists, and even maintenance schedules.
If you’re in the market for a new or lightly used upscale catamaran, you would be very foolish to begin shopping without the aid of this invaluable resource.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
Paradise Cay Publications
$14.95 Softcover 170 pgs.
Among the many pleasures of the cruising life are the _stories_. Usually these stories reflect the odd experiences that delight and terrify sailors, but the most interesting ones, I think, are the ones that glow with the personality of the story teller. Ray Jason shines with an unusual light.
Most cruisers and liveaboards live fairly conventional lives, up until the moment they take to the water. There are, after all, more doctors and lawyers sailing around the world than circus acrobats or rock stars. Jason is certainly unconventional– he began his working life as a street juggler in San Francisco. His specialty was juggling such eccentric objects as bowling balls and machetes, a skill that prepared him well for the unpredictable trials of voyaging.
In this little book, Jason presents a series of stories both instructive and entertaining. Some concern his own adventures afloat, others are second-hand, collected from friends, acquaintances, and drinking companions. He’s not a perfect sailor, and he writes about the mistakes he’s made without embarassment or apology. He manages to give even time-worn stories a fresh perspective. For example, in his account of a Panama Canal transit, he has all the familiar elements– incompetent lock workers, bureaucratic irrationality, the dangers of locking through in the company of large vessels, and so on. But he finds his line handlers at the local “granola hotel,” hiring a quartet of young people traveling the world on the cheap, like the hippies of old.
This seems completely appropriate, because the author is a card-carrying Senior Hippie himself, and proud of it. Who else but a Senior Hippie would graduate with a degree in political science and then launch himself into a career as a street performer? Who else would pack his bowling balls and machetes into duffel bags and sail away with no better plan for financing the voyage than juggling and passing the hat? And who else but a very clever Senior Hippie would actually succeed with this zany scheme?
Ray Jason appears to represent the best of his generation’s qualities. He’s enterprising, tolerant, generous, and eager to squeeze all the available delight from life, despite the attendant risks. For both cruising sailors and storytellers, that’s a pretty good way to be.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Hardcover 366 pages
The “black swan” of the title refers to the long-held belief that all swans are white, a belief suddenly and unexpectedly shattered when the first travellers reached Australia. In the larger context in which Taleb uses the term, a “black swan” event is one which no one has predicted and which has a large impact, but which in hindsight seems as though it might have been predictable.
Taleb is from the Levant, that part of present-day Lebanon once known for its civilized tolerance of religious diversity and for its gifted traders, and now known for a war that appears inexplicable. Taleb was himself a trader, and some of his examples come from the world of finance, but this is not a self-help financial book. Instead, Taleb harnesses both science and philosophy to the exploration of a truly frightening idea: that life is far more random and unpredictable than we understand… or are able to understand.
Black swans, he says, exist outside the models devised by philosophers and mathematicians to describe and predict everything from finance to geo-politics. Taleb’s writing is witty and savage; he barbeques a sacred cow on every page of this mind-expanding work.
It would be impossible to describe the scope and diversity of Taleb’s thinking in a short review. An astute reader will discover that the author’s views apply as strongly to sailing the ocean as it does to finance. Black swans may be bad or good, and Taleb’s pragmatic message is that we should minimize exposure to the former, and maximize exposure to the latter. For example, setting out with uninspected rigging is accepting a risk of catastrophic proportions for little reward, whereas entering into the local life of some faraway port carries only a small danger of misfortune, but makes possible the substantial reward of new friends and experiences.
I read this book sitting in an Adirondack chair beside the beautiful St. Lawrence River at the end of summer, in a beloved place where a dozen pleasant pastimes competed for my interest. I could barely stand to put the book down. It is not an overstatement to say that Taleb’s book could be a life-changer, for those who are willing to question their most cherished beliefs about the way the world works.
Reviewed by Ray Aldridge