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A Boat Nut’s Christmas Reading List

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Asking Santa for some reading material this year?
Here are a few suggestions.

Now is the winter of our discontent, at least for many of us living in northern climes: The boat’s out of the water, we don’t ski, and sitting in the car at the marina watching the bubble system keep the pilings ice-free gets old way too soon. But it’s also the holiday season, a time of good cheer and lots of prezzies. Don’t let 2014 be another Yuletide of gaudy neckties, sweaters, and cufflinks you’ll never wear. Send Santa a list of boating books you want to find under the tree. What titles should you ask for? Here are some highly opinionated suggestions.

Capt. Bill Pike reading

Just remember. Most boating books, even the best ones, have a shelf life about as long as a quart of milk, so Santa might have to search the used-book market for some of these titles. Browsing the stacks in person is hit-or-miss; shopping online at or the old standby is more efficient if you can live without the smells and tactility of ancient tomes. I’ve had good luck at both sites.

Self Help

Emergency Action Guide

You might be a seasoned captain who knows exactly what to do in different onboard emergencies, but can you say the same about your crew if you become disabled? If the answer is no, you might want to think about having something like the Emergency Action Guide from SeaWise aboard ($35, Easily taped or velcroed to a common spot on your boat, it has a large index on the sides so you can quickly find out what to do in case of man overboard, collision, engine failure, loss of steering, fire, extreme weather and other situations. —Daniel Harding

Books for Do-It-Yourselfers

If you like taking tools in hand and fixing your boat yourself, or just want to know how things work, boost your expertise with Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual. It covers almost every system aboard a boat: how it works, how to maintain it, how to troubleshoot it, and basic advice on how to fix it. There’s lots and lots and lots of information in more than 800 pages—almost too big to lift, and it’s not exactly fireside reading, but if you need to know the workings of your boat, it’s the first technical boating book you should own.

For engines, I like Practical Boat Mechanics, by Ben L. Evridge, an excellent guide to both gas- and diesel-engine maintenance and repair. For more than 20 years, Evridge was a field mechanic serving the Alaskan fishing fleet, so he knows big diesels and how to keep them happy. He’s also taught diesel mechanics, so he knows how to impart knowledge without putting a reader to sleep.

The Propeller Handbook, by naval architect Dave Gerr, is an invaluable resource for diagnosing performance issues. Not only does Gerr, director of the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology, explain propeller anatomy in detail—it’s more than just diameter and pitch—he also provides graphs and formulae for figuring out how fast your boat ought to go, and then shows you how to determine your ideal propeller.

Electrical issues plague many skippers, and what’s more confusing than boat wiring? Charlie Wing’s Boatowner’s Illustrated Electrical Handbook or Wiring is my prime reference for circuitry problems. Wing covers it all, from how to use an ammeter to installing electronics to choosing solar- and wind-powered generators. If you want to know how your boat’s electrons flow, ask Santa for this book.

Major fiberglass repairs are nasty projects, ones I’d rather pay for than perform. But if you have more guts than I do, start by reading Roger Marshall’s Fiberglass Boat Repairs Illustrated. It’s an excellent do-it-yourself guide to both large projects and small, or to understanding why the yard charged so much for fixing that ding on the starboard side. Marshall is a yacht designer, but he obviously knows his way around fabric and resin, too.

There are lots of good books about painting and varnishing, but try Walter J. Simmon’s Finishing. You can buy it direct from the publisher at Simmons is a boatbuilder in Lincolnville, Maine, and his books reflect the no-nonsense attitude folks up there are famous for. I have the 1984 first edition, which is essentially 72 typewritten pages in a flexible green binder. Nevertheless, between the plastic covers there’s everything you need to know about applying traditional paints, oils, and varnishes. Simmons has since produced a second edition that’s more like a real book, with photos, too.

Books for Dreamers

Doing it yourself is fun, but sometimes you just want to drift off into your ideal world, and for many of us that involves designing and building our ideal boat, or planning the perfect cruise. Here are a few books to help out with such projects.

Voyaging Under Power is the handbook for folks who want to circumnavigate the globe—and who doesn’t? Originally written in 1974 by Capt. Robert P. Beebe, the book has been revised several times over the years—the latest is the Fourth Edition, updated by Denis D. Umstot. (If you find the first edition, grab it.) Voyaging Under Power covers all sorts of subjects from choosing the ideal passagemaking yacht to dealing with foul weather to handling social issues unique to long-distance voyaging. It’s the next best thing to going out there.

When it’s time to actually design your dreamboat, you’ll want to think outside the box, and nobody lives farther away from the box than George Buehler. TheTroller Yacht Book will change the way you think about long-range powerboats. Buehler’s designs are based on the salmon trollers of the Pacific Northwest; sleek, seaworthy, and efficient, these boats make ideal cruisers. Keeping them simple makes them more affordable, too. If you don’t fall in love with his Diesel Duck, and immediately start a fund to build one of your own, you don’t deserve to go cruising.

Maybe you dream of building your own boat. Robert M. Steward’s Boatbuilding Manual and Reuel B. Parker’s The New Cold-Molded Boatbuilding are both excellent guides to building in wood. Steward is more traditional, focusing mostly on plank-on-frame construction—but he does address fiberglass and metal, albeit briefly. Parker’s milieu is wood-and-epoxy-resin cold-molding, a technique that produces a light and strong hull. If you prefer metal, try Boatbuilding With Aluminum, by Stephen F. Pollard, or Gilbert C. Klingel’s classic, Boatbuilding With Steel. (Pollard is more up-to-date.) When you’re ready to start building, you’ll want to invest in a few more books, and maybe make friends with someone who knows what he’s doing, but these will let you dream until then.

Maybe you just want to dock your boat like a pro. Nothing beats hands-on experience, but get a jump on things with Boat Docking (Close Quarters Maneuvering for Small Craft), by Charles T. Low. It’s a favorite of some of us here at Power & Motoryacht. It’s hard to find, so look on the used book market, and, even though it’s only 90 pages, expect to pay: At the time of this writing, the least expensive copy I could find online was $30, used and in “good” condition! Read this book, though, and you’ll be on your way to mastering boathandling.

Books for the Boat-Obsessed

Finally, there are books that don’t teach anything specific, but are just fun to read—and some remind us how lucky we are to be safe and warm at home. Try A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols. It’s about the Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world-nonstop race in 1968. Yeah, the focus is sailing, but even if you don’t know a reef cringle from a running backstay, you’ll enjoy the characters, the drama, and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction outcome. The Ship and the Storm, by Jim Carrier, chronicles the loss of the passenger schooner Fantome and her 31 crewmembers in Hurricane Mitch in 1998. If you believe a ship is safer at sea in a storm, this might make you reconsider.

Finally, there’s From My Old Boat Shop, by Weston Farmer, a designer and boatbuilder from Wayzata, Minnesota. This book is a compilation of 31 of Farmer’s “National Fisherman” articles from the 1960s and 70s, when he was already an opinionated old geezer who’d forgotten more about boats than most of us will ever know. (Farmer died in 1981, aged 77.) Some folks consider this the boating-book equivalent of the Gutenberg Bible. From My Old Boat Shop is now long out of print and brings top dollar on the used-book market. I paid $70 for a near-fine specimen last summer; I already had a copy, but figured I ought to have a spare. That’s how much I like this book. You ought to have a copy, too.

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia—whichever winter-solstice-related celebration you observe, you’ll expect presents, and nothing’s easier for gift givers, or Santa Claus, to find and wrap than a book. And what better way to survive Old Man Winter than by settling near the fire with a warming libation, a loyal dog, and a nice boating book to remind you of summer days to come?

Cheap Tools Are Fine!

Tools also make great Christmas gifts, but don’t ask for top-dollar brands. Cheap tools are just fine for carrying onboard, and you won’t feel so bad when you drop a screwdriver overboard or lose a socket in the bilge. (I speak from experience.) Invest in one of the many inexpensive tool kits on the market—not only will you get most of the wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, etc., that you need, but they’ll come in a handy carrying case, too.

For example, West Marine sells the Shipyard Tool Kit for $80—I have pliers that cost more than that. It includes 133 carbon-steel tools in a molded-plastic carrying case. There are both SAE and metric sockets in 3/8 and  inch drive, with a ratchet handle and extension; 10 combination wrenches; a magnetic bit driver with 50 bits (so maybe the bits won’t fall out and vanish under the engine); SAE and metric hex keys; a couple of screwdrivers (both slotted and Phillips); slip-joint pliers and an adjustable wrench; and a wire stripper/crimper and 40 terminals. Hey, West Marine says there’s a lifetime warranty, too.

Some reviewers say the sockets in such kits aren’t deep enough for all jobs, or the tools rust, or they’re hard to get out of the plastic case, and so on. Come on, folks—you’re spending 80 bucks, less than the cost of an hour of boatyard labor, or 20 gallons of fuel. If the stuff rusts, buy new stuff next year; if you need deep-wall sockets, the hardware store’s full of them. Otherwise, just use those totally inexpensive but totally useful tools and don’t worry if one gets donated to Davy Jones. In my opinion, when it comes to seafaring, cheap tools are fine.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.