Books to read before you Swallow the Anchor

Find out of print classics on Ebay, Amazon,second hand book shops and car boot sales. Every one a gem.



By Dick Durham

In Broken Water,

by Adlard Coles, first published by Harrap 1925, second edition 1956

     Adlard Coles was to become one of the gurus of handling boats at sea with his tome Heavy Weather Sailing which is still in print today. But this little book describes his first foray into small boat cruising in 1923 and is a relatively unknown gem. The 26ft gaff-rigged sloop, Annette, in which he sailed from the Solent to the Baltic via the Frisian Islands and back had no engine.While taking too much shore leave at Norderney in the German Frisians his boat was stolen. After she was recovered by police, Coles describes the felons: ‘ The thieves – two of them – left in their haste a lot of propaganda papers of the Militarist party, a hat, a German flag and eagle, a dagger and a book of addresses. They stole some clothes, and above all, two cameras, the loss of which we felt particularly.

‘It appeared that when Annette ran aground the thieves waited until low water and then waded over the flats to the shore in full view of the land. One of them was wearing an English suit (Dunsterville’s) and carrying on his back a large kitbag full of booty. Apparently they strolled like that through the little town of Norddeich, where the police were supposed to be on the lookout for them, and waited at the station for the next train. The papers identified them as being members of the Ludendorff party, which was nearly as strong in Germany as the Government.’ 


The Voyage Alone in The Yawl ‘Rob Roy’,

By John MacGregor, first published 1867, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies 1954

 In his 21ft, engineless yawl MacGregor sailed solo from Gravesend on the River Thames to Paris to promote the design of his Rob Roy canoe at the British Regatta during the Paris Exhibition of 1867.

Upon his return he received a tow from a steamer back down the Seine towards the English Channel. The steamer anchored for the night during a gale and started to drag down tide towards another anchored ship. When MacGregor realised his boat was about to be crushed between the two he leapt onto the deck of Rob Roy: ‘If she could be swerved to the stern she might possibly escape destruction, but if to the other side, then the strong rope at her bow would entirely prevent her escape. With a loud shout to arouse the crews I put every atom of bodily force into one strenuous shove, straining nerve and muscle in the desperate effort until I could not see. She trembled and surged – it was successful, and I fell into the water, but my yawl was saved.

      ‘Crash came the two steamers together. I heeded nothing of their din and smashing, and the uproar of the men, but I had scrambled all wet into my cabin, nervously shaking with excitement and a chattering of teeth. Then I sat down to sum up my bruises – a barked shin, sprained thigh, and bleeding cheekbone; and a hapless object I must have seemed, bathing by turns my leg, and shin, and face from a brandy bottle, and then a gulp inside.’  


by Patrick Ellam & Colin Mudie, first published in 1954, this edition 1958 by Rupert Hart-Davies

 She was four inches short of 20ft, a clinker-built dayboat with a cabin and in her two men, Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie sailed from Falmouth to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and from there across the Atlantic to Barbados. They then cruised her up through the Caribbean to Florida and eventually New York.

Here they are halfway across the Atlantic:

‘Obviously we must have a swim a thousand miles from anywhere, so down came the sails as we stopped the ship…

‘Next we joined together all the spare ropes that we could lay our hands on to make one long line, tied an inflated fender to the end of it, and let it out behind us. Something to grab onto if the ship should move off and leave us behind.

       ‘Then we took it in turns to stand guard, keeping a wary eye out for sharks, while the other had his swim. It was nice to splash around free in the water, knowing that there was an awful lot of it around, and to see our boat as the fishes saw it, drifting silently overhead…

      ‘It was worth going for a swim, if only to have a look at Sopranino. It is perhaps the greatest pity in sailing that you so seldom see your own boat at sea. One day I am going to have two boats exactly the same. I shall sail in one and look at the other.’ 


The Cruise Of The Alerte

By E. F. Knight, first published 1890, this edition Rupert Hart-Davies 1952

 Edward Frederick Knight was a burly, be-whiskered barrister who turned his back on the bar for a life of adventure one of which was a bid to find the lost treasure of a robbed Spanish gold flotilla which was believed to be buried on the inhospitable and uninhabited island of Trinidad in the South Atlantic, not to be confused with the island of the same name in the Caribbean.

He fitted out the 64ft gaff cutter Alerte and in 1889 sailed south with 12 men and shovels to dig for gold.

Trinidad offered no harbours or safe anchorages and the ship had to be sailed or at least driven hove-to continuously for most of the three month expedition by a crew while a digging party landed in the ship’s boat.They lived on fish, skinned birds, and turtles, but were plagued by hideous land crabs:

‘It was the custom for the men to sally forth every evening, just before dark, and kill, with sticks, every land-crab they could find in the immediate neighbourhood of the camp, each man slaying his sixty or seventy. This afforded an abundance of food for the others during the night, so that they had no need to stray into the tents. The crabs, I was informed, were excellent scavengers, and consumed all the cook’s refuse.’

        The excavations through volcanic rock and earth did not reveal any treasure. The Alerte sailed home and upon reflection later Knight said he was certain his research was correct: that the treasure had been landed there, but that it was either taken away later or he had simply failed to locate it. 


In Quest Of The Sun

By Alain Gerbault, first published in 1929, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies in 1955

The Frenchman, Alain Gerbault, a champion lawn tennis player, abandoned his profession as a civil engineer in 1923, to sail Firecrest, a 39ft gaffer solo around the world.

We join him aboard Firecrest two days out of New York bound for Bermuda:

‘Wednesday, November 5 th – About 1 a.m. I notice that my red port light is out. I carry the lamp below to light it, but I take my time, for I have not sighted another boat for forty-eight hours. I seize the opportunity of being below to prepare a meal. I am filling the lamp and lighting it when suddenly the Firecrest reels under a terrific blow. I rush on deck and in the blackness of the night see the innumerable lights of a steamer fast receding into the gloom. It is my bowsprit that has received the shock. The bronze bobstay is twisted; the bits have been shorn clean away from the deck, and have wrenched it up, leaving a great hole. The forestay and jibstays are adrift and the mast, having no support forward, is bending in a very threatening way.

       ‘There is no use whatever in trying to attract the attention of the steamer, which probably never saw me in the darkness of the night; there is no time to be lost if I am going to save the mast. By means of block and tackle I hal the stays taut and lash the bowsprit as firmly as possible to the splintered deck forward. Not until my mast stands firm can I congratulate myself on my escape.’ 

Rough Passage

By Commander R.D. Graham, first published 1936, the edition by Rupert Hart-Davies in 1950

 R.D. Graham sailed his 30ft gaffer, Emanuel, solo from Falmouth to Newfoundland in 1934. His daughter Helen, never forgave him for not taking her with him. The pair had made long-distance voyages in the boat around Britain and to the Faeroes. She eventually managed her own Atlantic crossing in her 80s, with one of her five sons!

Graham hit dense fog as he approached land:

‘During the morning my sense of isolation was suddenly broken by the sound of a steamer’s siren. I jumped below to get my fog-horn, and replied with three short blasts, the signal for a ship running before the wind, though, in fact, the yacht had barely steerage way. It is not likely that the puny squeak of my instrument was heard on board the steamer. For a time the noise of her siren increased; then it gradually died away, and my world contracted to its original isolation. The steamer never came into view.

‘The damp fog was penetrating every corner of the ship, and even the blankets were getting damp. I rigged clothes lines across the cabin and kept a stove burning continually. Only about half the stock of paraffin had been expended, so that no economy was needed. During the afternoon there was sufficient wind to sail, and I kept watch till midnight. The ship was then hove-to so that I could rest, as it seemed wise that I should husband my strength. If field ice should be encountered, it might be necessary to sail the ship and to keep on the alert for a prolonged period.

‘After four hours below I was eager to be getting on. The wind continued from the ENE with the weather still thick and bitterly cold. I was quite unable to bear sitting in the cockpit and steered from below, taking a look round the horizon every few minutes…

         ‘At 9.20 a.m. the fog lifted suddenly. Fine on the weather bow and four or five miles distant was a white shape. It gave me a great start, and I stood up every muscle taut. So icebergs really do exist.’ 



Down Channel

By R.T. McMullen, first published 1869, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies 1949

 Richard McMullen a London stockbroker, was found dead at the helm of his 27ft lugger Perseus as the vessel made her way along the coast of Normandy one June evening in 1891. And so the pioneer of keeping offshore in a blow instead of trying to make for harbour had gone. But many hundreds of small boat sailors would follow in his wake encouraged by his objective accounts of sailing solo in heavy weather around the coasts of Britain.

An early example of his stiff upper gunwale is made during a cruise with two paid hands aboard his 29ft gaff cutter Sirius, from Gravesend on the River Thames to the east coast of Scotland:


‘Opening Girdleness the Sirius was borne over by a succession of terrific gusts from the south-east and encountered such a high breaking sea that I dared not put her on the course and bring the sea abeam. Though greatly overpowered, there was no alternative but to face it, until sufficient offing could be gained to enable the vessel to be hove-to and canvas reduced. Struck by one sea after another, the lads had to sling themselves into the rigging, and I had to let go the helm and cling with determination to the weather bulwark to escape being washed overboard.’ 


Sailing Alone Around the World,

By Joshua Slocum, first published 1900, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies 1948

 Slocum is generally accepted to be the grand-daddy of them all, being the first to sail solo around the world, or at least the first one to write about it. What was left after that? Non-stop – claimed by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston; the wrong-way claimed by Sir Chay Blyth, then came ever more tortuous variations: vertically, the first woman, the youngest, the smallest boat, in 2016 another non-stop race is being prepared.

But Slocum got there first with the simplest record and therefore his account is the one which continues to appeal to nautician and novice alike.

The retired master mariner set off from Boston in 1895 aboard the converted 37ft smack Spray finally returning to that port in 1898. The boat sparked many imitations and rusting steel versions can be seen in many boatyards on both sides of the Atlantic as wannabee Slocums beaver away on their projects.

It was in the Strait of Magellan that Slocum’s most famous incident took place.

‘Canoes manned by savages from Fortescue now came in pursuit. The wind falling light they gained on me rapidly till coming within hail, when they ceased paddling, and a bow-legged savage stood up and called to me, ‘Yammerschooner! Yammerschooner!’ which is their begging term. I said, ‘No!’ Now, I was not for letting on that I was alone, and so I stepped into the cabin, and passing through the hold, came out at the forescuttle, changing my clothes as I went along.’

Slocum also rigged up a piece of broken spar rigged with lines to make it ‘move’ to show he had ‘three hands’ aboard.

But later he was reduced to sprinkling carpet tacks on deck at night. 

‘Now it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it. A pretty good Christian will whistle when he steps on the “commercial end” of a carpet tack; a savage  will howl and claw the air, and that was just what happened that night about twelve o’clock…’



The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss

By John Voss, first published in 1913, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies 1949

 A dug-out Indian canoe may seem like a child’s idea of a vessel suitable to go offshore and yet it was in such a craft, Tilikum, albeit decked in and rigged as a three-masted schooner, in which Captain Voss sailed, with crew, around the world.

He was the man who showed the world the importance of the sea anchor and it was in a Pacific gale he explained the technique to his novice crew:

‘When a vessel runs before a breaking sea her stern gets sucked down and the breaker will go over her with tremendous force. One breaking sea of that kind may send a large vessel to the bottom; on the other hand, if the broken sea runs under her stern then the bow will be way down and the stern high up, and the rudder will have no control over the vessel. She will then come round sideways, and the same breaker will most likely turn her bottom upwards. But if a boat in a heavy gale is stopped from going ahead through the water, she is free from suction and consequently will rise even to a breaking sea.

‘When the boat got head to sea a breaker came up in front of her which for a few moments looked very much like a brick wall.’

Voss ordered his crew to deploy the sea-anchor but instead, out of fear, he clambered up the foremast threatening to capsize the boat! However they eventually rode to the sea-anchor and Tilikum ‘lay about five points from the wind,and, considering the sea which was running at the time, was fairly comfortable and apparently out of danger.’

         On his way home in 1905 the Daily Mail sent a photographer aboard a steamer to picture Voss off Dover, but Tilikum was so small the snapper completely missed the story! 

Once is Enough

By Miles Smeeton, first published 1959, this edition by Rupert Hart-Davies 1960

In 1955 seven weeks out of Melbourne with 1,000 miles to go to Cape Horn the 46ft ketch Tsu Hang sailed by Miles Smeeton, his wife Beryl and crewman John Guzzwell, was running through a gale under bare poles and towing a three inch thick hawser to slow her down. But she was pitch-poled nevertheless and lost both masts, the dinghy, the sky-lights, the rudder and the doghouse. The wrecked yacht, half full of water lay helplessly in the maelstrom.

‘As I reached the deck, I saw Beryl. She was thirty yards away on the port quarter on the back of a wave, and for the moment, above us, and she was swimming with her head well out of the water. She looked unafraid, and I believe that she was smiling.

“I’m all right, I’m all right,’ she shouted.

‘I understood her although I could not hear the words, which were taken by the wind.

‘The mizzenmast was in several pieces, and was floating between her and the ship, still attached to its rigging, and I saw that she would soon have hold of it. When she got there, she pulled herself in on the shrouds, and I got hold of her hand. I saw that he head was bleeding.’

Miles and John helped pull Beryl back aboard before the next sea swamped the stricken craft.

They then baled for their lives and thanks to John’s carpentry skills were able to construct makeshift covers for the holes where the deckhouses had been with sails and broken timbers as battens and under jury rig managed to fetch Arauco Bay, Chile.

Having rebuilt the boat they tried once more to round Cape Horn. This time they were capsized.


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