The Cruising Sailor's Bookshelf

Essential books for cruising sailors

An armchair cruising sailor’s bookshelf can span an entire room, and e-readers are handy when you have the power and fast WiFi to access the cyber book world. But when you’re out there, way out there on the briny blue, and it’s just you and the printed word in a very small space, what books would you choose? In a 30- or 40-something-foot boat, there might be a three-foot bookshelf. Every inch counts, and every pound too, so choosing carefully which books share your precious square footage is a priority.

Reading is a beloved pastime of many cruising sailors
Reading is a beloved pastime of many cruising sailors

Nuts and bolts and knots

Sailors are always a practical lot, and many of the cruisers I surveyed mentioned their how-to and reference books first. If you’re out there and in a bind, you can’t Google an answer, but you can thumb through the trusty pages of a good knot book. Nigel Calder’s diesel engine, mechanical, and electrical books seem to be at the top of just about everyone’s list. Some even go so far as to refer to him as Saint Nigel or His Lordship of Calder. “Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship” is another must have. “World Cruising Routes” by Jimmy Cornell is a favorite for those going farther afield than home waters. And “Where There Is No Doctor” or other solid medical and first aid books seem to be universal for the prudent sailor. Even though we’re on sailboats, it’s always wise to have a copy of your engine’s manual close at hand. “Weather Predicting Simplified” by Michael Carr or some other marine weather text will make all those funny arrows and lines come alive and give you the power to pick your passages with care. Cruising guides for whatever waters you’re exploring are also worth having around for local knowledge and quick tips.

The cool kids

There’s something about reading the true tales of other sailors that only people with salt in their veins can understand. There are some sages in the cruising community that are universally looked up to and read, such as Lin and Larry Pardey, Tom Neale, Tania Aebi, and Beth Leonard. Some sailing authors are favored for blending entertainment and information like a good rum drink, such as John Kretschmer, Hal Roth, and Fatty Goodlander. Some have been around as long as anyone can remember such as Joshua Slocum and Bernard Moitessier. There are loads of fun reads that are more recent than the old salts everyone knows. “Love With A Chance of Drowning” by Torre DeRoche, “An Embarrassment of Mangoes” by Ann Vanderhoof, and “The Motion of the Ocean” by Janna Cawrse Esarey are all refreshing, updated takes on crossing oceans, voyaging with a loved one, and exploring new places while discovering yourself.

Passing time

Sometimes you need a paper book onboard to help make your other hobbies afloat more enjoyable. A few good cookbooks are usually considered a priority for shelf space onboard any boat going anywhere for more than a few hours. “The Boat Galley Cookbook” by Carolyn Shearlock is a hands-down favorite. If your crew has certain dietary restrictions, it’s smart to keep a paper version of favorite recipe books. Fishing, diving, and snorkeling are all made better with a good fish ID book in hand. Traditional nature guides are fun for identifying sea life. Guides to bird life and other animals ashore will help keep you busy with the binoculars. And of course good plant, flower, and tree identification books are always helpful for hiking and exploring ashore. Many cruisers like to have a Scrabble dictionary onboard to keep the peace on game night. Some song books, for those with instruments on their boats, are great for jam sessions. Anything that supports a good onboard hobby is worth saving a little shelf space for.

cruising books
Many of the cruisers the author surveyed mentioned their how-to and reference books first. If you’re out there and in a bind, you can’t Google an answer, but you can thumb through the trusty pages of a good knot book.


Everyone has a book or three that captures the heart. The book is already dog eared and softened by salty kisses, but not yet (or maybe ever) ready for the giveaway pile. For many, these books have nothing to do with sailing: Shakespeare or the Bible or a stack of sultry crime novels. Most often books about lost souls and free spirits and far-flung adventures gain a permanent spot on boat bookshelves bobbing around in every sea: the Horatio Hornblower series, all things Patrick O’Brian, “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome, “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson, “West With The Night” by Beryl Markham, “Kon Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl, “Treasure Island,” “The African Queen,” a good Rudyard Kipling tale, and some Bill Bryson, Tim Cahill, or J. Maarten Troost to keep you alert and laughing on a long night watch.

We have lived aboard our boat for 17 years now. We often joke that we are pros at simple living and de-cluttering, except when it comes to our books. One day, we may sink under the weight of books, even with our e-readers pulling their weight. I asked my 10-year-old son which books he thought were good ones to have aboard, and without hesitation he said. “The best book is a long book. Especially while sailing.” The trouble with a really good book is often, as you start to really get into it and feel at home, you realize it must eventually end. Just like a voyage under sail.

by Cindy Wallach; this article was written by Cindy in 2015.

About the author: Annapolis cruiser Cindy Wallach and her husband, two kids, and little dog Choo Choo left Back Creek in the fall of 2021 for some extended cruising. Capture a glimpse here.

For more articles about cruising, click here!