The best books about the sea and navigation

David Barrie Author Of Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way
By David Barrie

Who am I?

I've been a sailor all my life and fell in love with the art of navigation when I was crossing the Atlantic in a 35-foot yacht at the age of 19. Learning how to fix my position in the middle of a vast, featureless ocean by the light of the sun and stars was a life-changing experience. Since then I have sailed all over the world and made many long ocean passages. My book Sextant describes the crucial role that celestial navigation played in the exploration and charting of the world's oceans, and how the development of GPS is profoundly changing our relationship with the natural world.


I wrote...

Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way

By David Barrie,

Book cover of Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way

What is my book about?

Supernavigators (Incredible Journeys in the UK) is an exploration of the wonders of animal navigation, which critics have described as ‘astounding’, ‘delightful’ and ‘brimful of wayfinding wonders’. Animals of all kinds - including us humans - face many different challenges in finding their way. We now know that some of the tiniest animals navigate by the light of the sun, moon and stars, the earth’s magnetism, sounds, smells and even electric fields, though many fascinating mysteries remain. 

While some indigenous peoples can navigate over huge distances without so much as a map or compass, most of us city-dwellers can barely travel a few miles without the help of GPS. By abandoning traditional navigational methods, we’re not just losing touch with the natural world. We’re also jeopardising our physical and mental health, and undermining our spiritual well-being. 
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage

Why did I love this book?

South is a truly epic account of endurance and survival in the Antarctic. It describes how Shackleton and his crew stayed alive after their ship was crushed in pack ice, and how he and a handful of men crossed the wild Southern Ocean in mid-winter in a 20-foot sailing boat to bring help to those left behind. Not only did they have to cope with hurricanes and mountainous seas in freezing temperatures, but they also had to make an accurate landfall on a small island more than 800 miles away.

Even then their troubles weren't over, as they had to climb a range of high, unexplored mountains to reach help on the other side. As a sailor myself I'm awe-struck by Shackleton's voyage, and the extraordinary navigational feats it involved. If I ever think I'm having a bad day, I remember the terrible hardships that he and his men faced - and survived!

By Ernest Shackleton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

His destination Antarctica, his expectations high, veteran explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out, on the eve of the First World War, in pursuit of his goal to lead the first expedition across the last unknown continent. Instead, his ship, the Endurance, became locked in sea ice, and for nine months Shackleton fought a losing battle with the elements before the drifting ship was crushed and his crew marooned. Shackleton's gripping account of his incredible voyage follows him and his men across 600 miles of unstable ice floes to a barren rock called Elephant Island. It records how, with a crew…


Book cover of Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass

Why did I love this book?

Gatty was a remarkable, pioneering aviator from Tasmania and the first person to bring the art of natural navigation to a wide audience. During the Second World War, he taught navigation to US military airmen, and wrote a guide to survival at sea that was standard issue and probably saved quite a few lives: The Raft Book. Finding Your Way (which first came out in the 1950s under the title Nature Is Your Guide), builds on that earlier work and is a mine of fascinating information and anecdotes on which I drew extensively in writing Incredible Journeys.

Gatty was a real expert and discusses how all our senses can help us find our way, even in very difficult circumstances. For example, he tells of an Inuit hunter who, paddling his kayak in thick fog, was able to find the entrance of his home fjord by listening out for the song of a snow bunting! Gatty was an extraordinary man and deserves to be much better known.

By Harold Gatty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


During his remarkable lifetime, Harold Gatty became one of the world's great navigators (in 1931, he and Wiley Post flew around the world in a record-breaking eight days) and, to the benefit of posterity, recorded in this book much of his accumulated knowledge about pathfinding both on land and at sea.
Applying methods used by primitive peoples and early explorers, the author shows how to determine location, study wind directions and reflections in the sky, even how to use the senses of smell and hearing to find your way in the wilderness, in a desert, in snow-covered areas, and on…


Book cover of East Is a Big Bird: Navigation and Logic on Puluwat Atoll

Why did I love this book?

East Is a Big Bird is a beautiful and inspiring first-hand account of the indigenous navigators of Micronesia. Their long training enabled them to make accurate landfalls after voyages of hundreds or even thousands of miles in outrigger sailing canoes, without maps or instruments, relying only on their observational skills and wits. These skills were on the point of dying out when Gladwin studied them, and had already been lost throughout Polynesia. Gladwin played an important role in helping ensure their survival as well as their revival in places like Hawai’i and Samoa. East Is a Big Bird is both an adventure story and a moving record of Gladwin’s research.

By Thomas Gladwin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked East Is a Big Bird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Puluwat Atoll in Micronesia, with a population of only a few hundred proud seafaring people, can fulfill anyone's romantic daydream of the South Seas. Thomas Gladwin has written a beautiful and perceptive book which describes the complex navigational systems of the Puluwat natives, yet has done so principally to provide new insights into the effects of poverty in Western cultures.

The cognitive system which enables the Puluwatans to sail their canoes without instruments over trackless expanses of the Pacific Ocean is sophisticated and complex, yet the Puluwat native would score low on a standardized intelligence test. The author relates this…


Book cover of Sailing Alone Around the World

Why did I love this book?

Slocum (1844-1908) was the first person to sail around the world single-handed, and his account of that three-year voyage is one of the classics of sailing literature. He built his 35-foot yacht ‘Spray’ with his own hands, having earlier served as master of several sailing ships, and set off from Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1895. Slocum was a great showman and storyteller, and was perhaps occasionally guilty of exaggeration, but there is no doubt about the scale of his achievement, and his book is a really wonderful read. It includes storms, narrow escapes from shipwreck, and some of the best descriptions of sailing - with all its ups and downs - ever written.

By Joshua Slocum,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Sailing Alone Around the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The classic of its kind." —Travel World
"One of the most readable books in the whole library of adventure." —Sports Illustrated
"The finest single-handed adventure story yet written." —Seafarer
Challenged by an expert who said it couldn't be done, Joshua Slocum, an indomitable New England sea captain, set out in April of 1895 to prove that a man could sail alone around the world. 46,000 miles and a little over 3 years later, the proof was complete: Captain Slocum had performed the epic "first" single-handedly in a trusty 34-foot sloop called the "Spray." This is Slocum's own account of his…


Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson,

Book cover of Treasure Island

Why did I love this book?

Treasure Island is sometimes dismissed as a children’s book (as if that were a fault!) but it is in fact a perfect marine adventure story, which happens to have a young boy as its hero. Stevenson is a writer I much admire. His father was a famous lighthouse-builder and Stevenson had plenty of experience of the sea and ships, and passed his last years in Samoa (where I have visited his grave). He brilliantly evokes what life on board a sailing ship is like, and in the pirate, Long John Silver, created one of the most fascinating villains in English literature. I also admire Stevenson as a courageous, early campaigner against the abuses of colonial power.

By Robert Louis Stevenson,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked Treasure Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Penguin presents the audio CD edition of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Following the demise of bloodthirsty buccaneer Captain Flint, young Jim Hawkins finds himself with the key to a fortune. For he has discovered a map that will lead him to the fabled Treasure Island. But a host of villains, wild beasts and deadly savages stand between him and the stash of gold. Not to mention the most infamous pirate ever to sail the high seas . . .


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