A good read…

Is hard to find…….at least when it comes to story’s with sailing in them and by that i mean novels rather than factual accounts.  Sailing does seem to be a genre that translates very well into stories about ‘stuff that actually happened’ rather than the world of pure fiction.  As a sailor i sometimes think that’s because enough stuff goes wrong and enough weird shit happens when it comes to boats and the sea that anything beyond that is just over-icing the cake.   Either that or that for most of the time not much actually happens so raging storms, ravenous sharks and nubile, bikini-clad crew have to fill in for the lack of excitement .    It’s even worse when it comes to films about sailing or films with sailing in them, there are the usual suspects of course with the easy subjects such as ‘storm happens’ : does  anyone remember ‘White Squall ? or the obligatory ‘shark happens’ (Open water ??) and so on.   I find it hard to recollect a really good film about sailing except perhaps the recent film about Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe race. Today i think that the many youtubers out there do the job much better than mainstream film makers……even if there are lots of gales, sharks and bikinis.

I have had a lot of spare time recently so i have spent some of that reading so i thought i would run an occasional series in the blog about some of the better reads in sailing , or just boats based books, both factual based and fictional ones.  I have honestly been trying to do some serious reading every day with at least one book always on the go from Dr Petersen’s list of recommended reading.  Now i have to say that a lot of that is on the heavyweight side, i don’t mind that but there is only so much heavy Russian literature i can swallow in a day.  My actual favoured reading in ‘heavy’ subjects tends to be history anyway, as it is i have just finished a study of Josef  Stalin and entertained myself with the excellent film ‘The Death of Stalin’ and yes it was useful to know about the characters first……just about the only one i ended up with any respect for was Marshal Zhukov.  Funnily enough although i knew the history of one tyranny quite well ie Nazi Germany i was less well up on Stalinist Russia.  I knew a bit about some of the characters : Nikita Kruschev for example and of course Marshal Zhukov but the rest of the political classs kind of fade into a grey blur.

So i also needed some ‘light relief’ so i had to revert to the dusty end of the bookshelf to see what i hadn’t read for some time.  Last week the one that popped out at me was the classic ‘Riddle of the sands’ written in 1903 by Erskine Childers.  The book isn’t strictly a sailing novel but based on spying and espionage but does have an English yacht,  a German sailing barge and a German warship at it’s heart and is very much about a small area of difficult navigation around the Frisian islands just off the coast of lowland northern europe.   I have only sailed through that area once during a delivery trip to get a boat to and through the Kiel canal.  It’s mainly all shallow, muddy and fiercely tidal much like the Thames estuary and the Essex coast.  I think the last time i read the book before my time off work was while i was stuck at anchor a couple of years ago with a gale roaring overhead……although there was a distinct lack of sharks !

Panzerschiffe Graf Spee in the Kiel Canal.

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If i mention history it’s because the events of the author’s life, the basis of the story and the whole low countries coast are steeped in it.  Author Erskine Childers was himself running guns into the Irish republic aboard his yacht Asgard during the Irish civil war…and was executed for being an Irish nationalist.   The basis of the novel is that of increasing German naval power in the pre first world war period and a dastardly plan to transport thousands of German troops across the north sea in an invasion attempt.           I didn’t know at the time but the Kiel canal…technically the Nord-Ostseee-Kanal was finished in 1895 but widened just before 1914 to allow the passage of a dreadnought sized battleship….and even later the infamous ‘Graf Spee’ transited the same canal and locks just as we did in our pipsqueak boat.   That was my first and only trip to the Baltic sea so far….we even passed by Elsinor castle (Helsingborg) as in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.

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Even after a hundred and fifteen years….. it’s seriously that old a story, it’s still a great read especially for a sailor and one who understands the world of sailing in shallow and tidal water pre-GPS.                   In the novel, the English yacht, a converted lifeboat, there are no navigational aids except old, out of date charts, a compass, clock and lead-line…..not even so much as an early generation depth-sounder.  The film version is good too and i believe there is also an audio book as well.

The story was  made into a film in 1979 and had the lovely Jenny Agutter playing the role of the arch-villains daughter and herein lies a small local story.    Jenny Agutter now lives on the coast nearby in west Cornwall.               If you haven’t heard of her then i can only sigh….but, from the ‘Railway children’ the hallucinatory ‘Walkabout’ the  Sci-fi ‘Logans Run’,  horror….American werewolf in London and so on… she was and still is quite the actress.  Anyway the lovely Ms Agutter hosted a film night at the local arts theater a couple of years ago and they showed the film……and yes i missed it.               I would post a clip from the film, there is a lovely clip that i used to have as a download when she sails a neat little lugs’l dinghy out to the English yacht and says “may i come aboard”…..delightful.  I once had a link to the clip too but sadly lost or taken down off the net.

So, my first recommendation for a good sailing novel, or at least an early espionage novel with lots of mud and sailing i would like to put forward the Riddle of the sands as a definite one for the onboard bookshelf and a copy of the DVD or a film download for some good entertainment too.

3 Comments

  1. Steve, the scene with the lovely Jenny Agutter sailing out to the English yacht is right in the opening credits here at about 4′ 20” — poor quality unfortunately but you have to take what you can get eh 😉

    You might want to read “The Shadow in the Sands” by Sam Llewellyn, a sequel of sorts to Childer’s work.

    As for sailing films, “All is lost” from 2013, starring Robert Redford, is pretty good. It is about an ageing solo sailor fighting for survival at sea and has very little dialogue. You might take issue with some aspects of his seamanship but no one is perfect eh, especially when fatigued and facing a one way trip to Davy Jones’ Locker :

    Thanks for an interesting read.

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      1. I’m not a Facebook member and never will be but that doesn’t stop me at least reading some of the great posts there — an eclectic bunch that’s for sure. Thanks Steve.

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