Boatstruck: Details, delights, wood

Books On The Water

May 27, 2001|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Special to the Sun

For those of us busy proving once again that Kenneth Grahame got it right when he had Water Rat declare in "Wind In The Willows" that there is nothing more worth doing than messing about in boats, there is cause to lay aside, albeit briefly, our sandpaper, brushes and bottom paint. Publishers, aware of the atavistic urge that drives so many of us to get shipshape as the weather warms, never tire of trying to distract us from our seasonal labors.

We are faced this year with a shelfful of maritime books that take us as far back as Jason and the Argonauts, through the great sea battles under sail, to the dwindling craft of wooden boat-building today.

The compact "Encyclopedia of The Sea" (Alfred A. Knopf, 380 pages, $35) offers the most comprehensive diversion. Here is all the information we never knew we needed.

Richard Ellis informs us that the ichthyosaur, extinct for 65 million years, might have been the fore-fish of the shark, and reminds that the Amoco Cadiz earned early environmental infamy by spilling 68.7 million gallons of crude oil onto the French coast in 1978.

He offers a thumbnail definition of El Nino, the meteorological phenomenon that caused so much recent aggravation, and a potted history of the San Blas islands, where the Cuna Indians, descendants of the eponymous Caribs of the Caribbean, still live.

The entries are well cross-referenced. A glance at "global positioning system (GPS)," suggests a look also at astrolabe, backstaff, compass, quadrant and sextant, navigating us through the instruments that have enabled seafarers, ancient and modern, to plot their course.

Just occasionally you come across a book that is so different and delightful, you wonder why no one published its like earlier. Such a book is Tony Meisel's "To The Sea" (Black Dog and Leventhal, 288 pages, $39.98). If a coffee-table book is meant to be picked up occasionally and perused at whim, this is the ideal. It is a compendium of classic sea stories, a comprehensive sailing manual, a poet's corner, a photographic gallery.

One minute you're reading how Joshua Slocum tied himself to the rigging of his boat Spray to survive a giant wave off the coast of Patagonia, the next you are trying to unravel illustrations of knots, before reciting "Ghosts of Cape Horn."

Suddenly, you come upon a four-page foldout photograph of Cape Enrage Lighthouse, glowing red against a threatening sky over Canada's Bay of Fundy, then a full-page black and white shot of Thor Heyerdahl preparing his second papyrus boat, Ra-2, for his vain attempt to prove that the Egyptians could have discovered North America. This is a book you will keep picking up.

Retracing voyages of discovery has always been a seafaring lure. In "Viking Voyage" (Pocket Books, 147 pages, $34.95), W. Hodding Carter recounts sailing an square-sailed Viking knarr in the wake of Leif Ericson's epic journey from Greenland to Newfoundland a thousand years ago. Russell Kaye's photographs capture the adventure.

Colombian diplomat Mauricio Obregon delves even further into the mists of history for his intriguing "Beyond the Edge of the Sea: Sailing with Jason and the Argonauts, Ulysses, the Vikings, and Other Explorers of the Ancient World" (Random House, 132 pages, $21.95).

Inevitably, there is less deduction and more documentation in Bernard Ireland's "Naval Warfare in the Age Of Sail -- War at Sea 1756-1815" (W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $49.95), which gives a glossy account of the greatest years of the Royal Navy, when the likes of Nelson strode the decks during an era of almost unending high seas conflict in Europe and across the Atlantic.

A wider view of naval conflict, stretching back to the 17th century, can be gleaned from Andrew Lambert's equally well-researched and lavishly illustrated "War At Sea In the Age of Sail" (Cassell, 224 pages, $29.95). Lambert explains the links between conflict and policy, between ambition and commerce as he traces the sea battles that helped form nations and create empires.

Classic wooden boats are, of course, always a pleasure to behold. They are usually less fun to own -- unless, that is, you are a maritime masochist, bent on spending almost as much time trying keep your boat afloat as sailing it.

You will better understand why purists go to such trouble if you look through "The Book of Wooden Boats: Volume II" (W.W. Norton, 192 pages, $49.95). Photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz captures the stunning elegance of traditionally built cruisers, and writer Maynard Bray, a yacht restorer, describes their allure.

In his "Wooden Boats -- In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard" (Viking, 325 pages, $24.95), author Michael Ruhlman introduced me to a new word -- "boatstruck." It defines that state of delightful delusion when a sailor first sees the boat of his dreams. For many, it is a befuddlement brought on only by a wooden boat.

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