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Winter reading that serves up a history lesson

This has been an interesting year (in the sense of the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times"), so I haven't read as many books as I usually do. But I have read and reread some, and I submit them for your consideration.

Mike Saylor

1. Boating nonfiction

  • "Total Loss," edited by Jack Coote, is a collection of 45 firsthand accounts by people who lost their boats. It includes losses due to weather, gear failure, poor navigation and more. Of course, with the advent of GPS, plotters, radar and the integration of all these with autopilot we needn't worry about navigation - not! The book then describes the failure of ground tackle and mooring lines (I know about that firsthand), collisions (more of that going around than ever before), fires and explosions, and two other causes that are really interesting: losses while being towed and those due to exhaustion or illness. The editor discusses lessons and conclusions at the end. The book is worth reading because it is always better to learn from the experiences of others. It's a concomitant of the old saw about how those who don't study the lessons of history can repeat them.
  • "You Are First," by Francis Kinney, is about the great sailboat designer Olin Stephens and his brother, Rod. Olin shares the record (with Nathanael Herreshoff) for designing more America's Cup winners than any other designer. The book harkens back to the days when Cup sailors, designers, builders and sailmakers were from the country they represented. And the races were decided on the water, not in court. Olin and Rod were part of the venerable design firm Sparkman & Stephens, which in addition to America's Cup boats, designed a range of other vessels including amphibious assault vehicles and patrol craft for World War II. Their thoughts on design and construction are well worth reading and are relevant today. Olin headed the committee that developed the International Offshore Rule, the racing rule that guaranteed employment for loads of designers who primarily concentrated on ways to cheat it and ultimately produced boats that were, in my humble opinion, unseaworthy offshore.
  • You might also want to read, or reread, "Fastnet, Force 10," by John Rousmaniere, about the sailing calamity that occurred in the 1979 Fastnet Race. In August 1979, 303 yachts began the 600-mile race. A Force 10 storm slammed the fleet with 40-foot breaking waves, and by the time the race was over, 15 people had died, five yachts had sunk and 136 sailors had been rescued, with only 85 boats finishing. The writing is every bit as gripping as "The Perfect Storm," and it's firsthand. It also gives insight on seamanship and boat handling in heavy weather. It should raise your awareness of the design of the boat you are sailing and how it might handle in heavy weather. The Fastnet disaster brought about the demise of the IOR. I believe rules that were formulated to correct IOR flaws have, to some extent, allowed those flaws to creep back into boat design.

2. Seagoing fiction

  • I happened to pick up an old book, "Folklore and the Sea," by Horace Beck. I think I bought it quite a few years ago, but did not read it until last year. Beck's book goes from soup to nuts about everything from historical fact to sea monsters, enchanted isles, pirates, smugglers and navigation. It is a terrific book to curl up with during a nasty winter's night. Just plain fun.
  • I'm also reading C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels and short stories. The thing I like about Hornblower is that he's not a superhero or a natural-born seaman. Heck, he was seasick on his first night aboard his first ship, a ship of the line in port. He's not too fond of heights, and on a sailing ship during the Napoleonic Wars there was no avoiding heights. I suffered from acrophobia when I went to the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga. He overcame his fears and so did I. So for this and other things in his and my life, I can relate. My personal problems notwithstanding, Hornblower is just a great read.

3. World War II

  • I've been reading "The Liberation Trilogy," by Rick Atkinson. For anyone who has an interest in World War II, these are remarkable books on the liberation of Europe. Volume I, "An Army at Dawn," won the Pulitzer Prize. It is an authoritative history of the Allies, particularly the U.S. Army in North Africa. It sounds dry, but it is anything but. It brings to life not only the generals but also the small unit commanders - their blunders and their acts of heroism. When we went into North Africa, Army theoreticians had decided tanks would not battle tanks; that was the job of tank destroyers. So they equipped our tanks, initially, with a 37mm gun that couldn't penetrate the armor of German Panzer IV tanks. I remember an uncle describing how a single Panzer chased five American Stuart tanks as our troops threw anti-tank mines at the German vehicle, hoping to blow a tread off. Read Volume I and its sequel, "The Day of Battle," covering Sicily and Italy. The third volume, on the Normandy invasion and the war in western Europe, is due out in 2013.

We learn from history or repeat its lessons. Enjoy reading.

This article originally appeared in the February 20-11 issue