To walk one thousand miles is better than to read ten thousand books.
- Chinese proverb

It could also be said: you learn more by sailing a thousand miles than by reading a thousand sailing books. Even so, there’s much to be learned from the reference and narrative books listed below. You can often find these titles listed new or used on Amazon. This is far from a complete list of worthwhile books, just a sampling of some of the best books I’ve had aboard Atom over the years or that I had a chance to borrow.

General Reference:

Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach, by Don Casey & Lew Hackler. This book is full of insight and advice on choosing what’s practical and essential to get you cruising with reasonable expectations and on a reasonable budget. Weaving the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau’s contemplative and austere life in the mid-1800’s at Walden Pond into the book is a brilliant concept, but is quite a stretch for those who have studied Thoreau. My guess is Thoreau would view many of the author’s choices and recommendations as outrageously extravagant living. Thoreau would no more live on a boat with an engine and all the other electronics and equipment recommended by the authors than he would have built a palace and amusement park at Walden Pond. That aside, it’s a pleasure to read and does trend towards a refreshing minimalist approach to cruising, at least by today’s standards.

Self-Sufficient Sailor, Cost-Conscious Cruiser, The Capable Cruiser as well as several entertaining cruising narratives by Lin and Larry Pardey. Some of the best books on cruising by the best known of engineless sailors.

Voyaging on a Small Income, by Annie Hill. Meeting Pete and Annie Hill aboard their 34-foot, flat bottomed, junk-rigged dory in Brazil reconfirmed my belief that one of the greatest pleasures of cruising, besides the people you meet, is your independence, and an uncomplicated boat and matching lifestyle is the best guarantee of that independence. Pete and Annie turn their dreams into reality by making the kind of practical choices that give the maximum freedom. Or as Annie summed it up: “We prefer to live poor and free.”

Cruising Under Sail, by Eric Hiscock. I have four of Hiscock's books on my shelf and though some of the information is dated (pre-GPS, etc) it remains a classic with practical information on techniques and equipment for the offshore voyaging sailboat.

How to Sail Around the World: Advice and Ideas for Voyaging under Sail, by Hall Roth. Like an updated version of Hiscock's Cruising Under Sail, this experienced sailor has excellent advice for choosing and fitting out your boat, storm management, cooking and just about everything else you wondered about.

Self-Taught Navigation, Ten Easy Steps to Master Celestial Navigation, by Robert Kittredge. After struggling with other books on celestial navigation, this little (78 pages) no-nonsense guide finally cleared away the fog of confusion. My advice: as a back-up to GPS, pack aboard this book, a plastic Davis MK25 sextant, current Nautical Almanac, and HO-249 Air Navigation Tables. And don't forget your small Sony SSB receiver for accurate time signal checks.

Hand, Reef and Steer - Traditional Sailing Skills for Classic Boats, by Tom Cunliffe. This book is most useful for those who desire to learn the skills of traditional gaff-rigged design. You won't need this book to cruise your fiberglass sloop but some elements of the book overlap to these modern designs as well.

Sailing with Purpose: The Pursuit of the Dream, and Wind and Tide: An Introduction to Cruising in Pure Sailing Craft, and Sea-Steading, all by Jerome Fitzgerald. “The Thoreau Approach” subtitle would be better suited to the works of this author than Don Casey’s Sensible Cruising. The author puts forward a strong case for the engineless sailboat and gives you sound advice on how to get started. Lack of final editing may put off some readers, but the message comes across clear.

Desireable and Undesireable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts, by John Rousmaniere.

The Voyager’s Handbook, by Beth Leonard.

Nigel Calder’s Cruising Handbook, by Nigel Calder. Contains chapters on boat design elements, equipping and handling. Its huge size is more encyclopedic than the title suggests, and is geared toward the 40-foot plus yacht range, but if you can find the space and are inclined toward a large gadget-laden yacht, this will be worth its space on your bookshelf.

Twenty Small Sailboats to Take you Anywhere and The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat, by John Vigor. These are the books to read before you buy your first boat.

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Knots and Ropework, by Geoffrey Budworth.

The Finely Fitted Yacht – The Boat Improvement Manual, Volumes I and II, and Shipshape – The Art of Sailboat Maintenance, by Ferenc Mate.

Why Didn’t I think of Think of That, by John and Susan Roberts.

Spanish for Cruisers: The Boater's Complete Language Guide for Spanish-speaking Destinations, 2nd Edition, and French for Cruisers: The Boater’s Complete Language Guide for French Waters, by Kathy Parsons. These two cruiser’s phrase books are at the top of my list of books I wish I’d had when I began my first circumnavigation. Too bad I had to wait for them until I met the author in Trinidad. You may have heard cruising defined as “doing boat maintenance in exotic places.” If you’re planning to sail to French and Spanish-speaking countries these books by author and veteran cruiser Kathy Parsons will make the inevitable boat maintenance part of your cruise considerably less frustrating.

Spanish for Cruisers 2nd Edition provides essential boating, hardware and mechanical vocabulary and phrases that are impossible to find in any other single source. The 2nd edition is expanded and the layout improved to include ten new topics to assist sailors in port dealing with everything from provisioning and banking to transportation and medical care. Numerous diagrams and photos allow you to point to the hardware or boat part needed. One topic per page and a plastic spiral binding allows the book to lie flat so you don’t lose your place. Each English word and phrase is followed by the equivalent in Spanish and - so that you can be sure of being understood - the Spanish pronunciation of every word is repeated. The book is divided into 28 sections such as Boat Communications, Provisioning, Materials & Hardware, Electrical, Refrigeration, Sails and Tools. There are also sections on Basic Conversation, Pronunciation and Getting Directions. The Emergencies section leads you through the steps on how to describe your boat, your position and the type of assistance you need over the radio. A quick Navigator page inside the wrap-around back cover helps you find the topic you need fast.

French for Cruisers is Kathy’s follow-up to Spanish for Cruisers. French is bedeviled with complicated rules of grammar, pronunciation, and bizarre spelling that all but silences the average English-speaking sailor. Whether you’re sailing for the Caribbean, French Polynesia, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean, the Med, or canals of France, this book will quickly enable you to communicate with the locals and find everything from baguettes to boat parts.

As she did in Spanish for Cruisers, Kathy tackles French in a similar way that’s geared specifically to boater’s needs. This book is also spiral-bound and compact enough to carry with you ashore and covers everything from basic conversation to shopping to needs specific to boaters such as emergency radio communications, weather, marine hardware, boat repair, and fishing and diving. The similar format has a quick reference guide inside the cover flap and illustrations and detailed diagrams allow you to point to the hardware or boat materials needed when words alone don’t quite do it. The numerous silent letters in French words makes their pronunciation exasperatingly difficult for English speakers. Kathy solved this problem better than other phrase books I’ve used, by arranging columns with the English subject on the left, French spelling in the center with silent letters in light gray color, and a easy to understand phonetic pronunciation column on the right.

Maintaining a sailboat:

This Old Boat, by Don Casey. This is a fine reference for anyone refitting their classic fiberglass sailboat. Casey has written numerous books and articles on all sorts of practical projects to upgrade the cruising boat. Casey is a kind of Carl Sagan of the cruising world, bringing the universe of the boat refit into the world of the average neophyte sailor. Any of his books are worth a read. Supposedly his recently published Sailboat Maintenance Manual is a compilation of This Old Boat and five other how-to manuals and would be the best of his books to get.

Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual 3rd Edition, by Nigel Calder. Damn near essential reference for the overly gadget-laden yacht, and occasionally useful to have aboard a boat with minimal machinery as well.

The Complete Rigger’s Apprentice, by Brian Toss.

The Sailmaker’s Apprentice, by Emiliano Marino.

Upgrading the Cruising Sailboat 2nd Edition, by Dan Spurr. Details on refitting and upgrading from a former editor of Cruising World magazine and Practical Sailor. Many of the practical tips here were based on rebuilding and cruising his Pearson Triton. A third edition came out in 2006 with an updated electronics section. He also added pages of drawings and comments on 70 boats that may be of interest to someone looking for their first offshore cruising boat.

Upgrading Your Small Sailboat for Cruising, by Paul and Marya Butler.

Seamanship Skills:

Heavy Weather Sailing, 30th Anniversary Edition, by Peter Bruce. This updated and expanded 1999 edition of the old classic by Adlard Coles is full of the original horrifying stories of sailors in storms mostly on the North Atlantic and a wealth of information on seamanship techniques for “heavy weather”.

Yachtsman’s Emergency Handbook: The Complete Survival Manual, by Hollander & Mertes. Hundreds of tips and ideas that could save your butt when things go wrong.

One Hand for Yourself One for the Ship - the essentials of single-handed sailing, by Tristan Jones. Most sailors have heard of this legendary Welsh sailor, adventurer and story teller. All of his books are entertaining, if not entirely factual. Even after I sift out the outdated, impractical, and all the opinions I don't agree with, this book remains packed with good advise and techniques for the singlehander. As Tristan would say: "Different ships, different longsplices."

Offshore Sailing - 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips, by Bill Seifert with Dan Spurr.

The Annapolis Book of Seamanship

Handling Storms at Sea and How to Sail Around the World, by Hal Roth.

Voyaging  Narratives:

Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum. Classic account of the first ever solo circumnavigation. Click here for online version.

The Long Way, Sailing to the Reefs, Tamata and the Alliance, and any other books by Bernard Moitessier. A poetic romantic sea gypsy describes a rich lifetime at sea.

Ice Bird: The First Singlehanded Voyage to Antarctica, by Dr. David Lewis. A heroic attempt to circumnavigate Antarctica without most of the modern equipment and conveniences of today’s yachts. Hell, he didn't even have a cabin heater! A story of incredible suffering and courage – high adventure!

The Gods Were Kind, Whom the Sea Has Taken, An Angel On Each Shoulder, all by William Willis. Incredible raft voyages across the Pacific. The more available book Seaworthy, by T.R. Pearson is a biography of Willis adventurous life.

Two Girls, Two Catamarans, by James Wharram. Story of the first two-way crossing of the Atlantic by small catamaran. This was the beginning of the Wharram catamaran designs. The same author later wrote The Wharram Design Book - Build Yourself a Modern Sea-Going Polynesian Catamaran.

To Challenge a Distant Sea, by Tazelaar & Bussiere. The biography of Jean Gau owner of the original Atom, a 29-foot Tahiti ketch, in which he twice solo circumnavigated and whose writings of adventure inspired me to challenge my own distant sea. Click here for brief online biography of Gau.

Cruising Guides:

World Cruising Routes, by Jimmy Cornell. Before this book came out, voyagers used the British Admiralty publication, Ocean Passages for the World for their passage planning. Cornell’s book puts all the routing information together in a more user-friendly format. Though it covers most routes adequately, there are gaps that you’ll have to fill in by studying a set of Pilot Charts and the US Sailing Directions for your intended route.

Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South, 8th Edition, by Bruce Van Sant. Best book to remove some of the thorns from your bash along the Thorny Path from Florida to the Caribbean.


The sea is generally a healthy environment. Most illness happens when you’re in port, usually from contact with other people. First Aid books are good as far as they go, but they don’t cover enough subjects in enough detail to diagnose and treat many of the common and not so common ailments that can affect the cruising sailor. You may be anchored off an uninhabited atoll or three weeks until landfall at Hiva Oa or otherwise outside the range of competent medical help and find yourself needing more answers than you’ll get in most mariner’s first aid books.

Keep in mind, a little medical knowledge is dangerous – sailors have convinced themselves they were dying of appendicitis and abandoned their boats to be airlifted to a hospital only to find out it was merely indigestion, perhaps made worse by a case of nerves and an incomplete medical book. Though there is no single volume covering every possible situation, earlier editions of the following books have proven useful aboard Atom.

Where There is No Doctor (a village health care handbook), by David Werner. This is about the best single medical book to have aboard. It provides simple, clear information to allow ordinary people to practice informed self-care. Instead of telling you to see a doctor and leaving it at that, this book tells you what to do when a doctor is unavailable. Click here to read online version.

Professional Guide to Diseases, 8th Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Complete reference to over 600 disorders from Mad Cow to Monkeypox. If it’s not covered in Where There is no Doctor, you’ll likely find it in here. You may need The Bantam Medical Dictionary or equivalent for translation of some medical terms.

Free Online Cruising Narratives:

  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. of other worthwhile online cruising titles to add to this list.
  • The Voyage of the Liberdade, by Joshua Slocum (1890)
  • Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum (1900)
  • Jean Gau's Atom from Chapter 23 of The Circumnavigators by Don Holm
  • Webb Chiles Open Boat Voyages and more
  • Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor, by Paul Lutus. Circumnavigation in a 31-footer
  • The Voyage of Squeak - Three years in a 12-foot boat, by Stephen Ladd

Other Free Online Reference Books: