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. 

The books I picked & why

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South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage

By Ernest Shackleton,

Book cover of South: A Memoir of the Endurance Voyage

Why 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!

Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass

By Harold Gatty,

Book cover of Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass

Why 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.

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

By Thomas Gladwin,

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

Why 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.

Sailing Alone Around the World

By Joshua Slocum,

Book cover of Sailing Alone Around the World

Why 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.

Treasure Island

By Robert Louis Stevenson,

Book cover of Treasure Island

Why 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.

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