Book List

Following are books that I have read or heard about that I think would be of particular interest to Quartermasters and those interested in navigation and seafaring generally. I will not include the standard references: we all know Bowditch, Dutton's, and Chapman's, and have our favorites. Comments on the books are strictly my own opinion except as noted. Feel free to recommend your own favorites!




The Stars - A New Way To See Them, by H.A. Rey

This is far and away the most useful book on identifying stars I have seen. The author is more well-known, with his wife Margaret, as the creator of Curious George. The text is simple, the pictures outstanding: for it is the pictures that make this book.

The constellations
The Twins - A Group of Stars
The Twins - A Group Of Stars
are rendered, not as obscure allegorical drawings, or as seemingly random lines connecting stars, but as line drawings that represent what the ancients must have been seeing when they first named the constellations. Gemini (The Twins) look like-- two stick figures holding hands! The Herdsman (Bootes) looks like a man sitting and smoking a pipe! Forget the charts, the 2102-D, the calculations: if you can identify Bootes, you can find Arcturus: it's the top of his leg.

That this
The Twins - Allegorical
The Twins - Allegorical
method really works I can personally attest to: driving through a dark countryside, I spied over the trees just the head and pipe of Bootes-- and recognized it instantly, although I had never before noticed it nor even recognized it as a constellation!

I am including some images
The Twins - Geometrical
The Twins - Geometrical
here to give you the idea: the book uses the English names for the constellations, but gives the traditional ones, too; it tells the myth behind some constellations and makes them live. In the back of the book are more scientific details, including descriptions of the ecliptic and seasons, precession, time, and so on. There are also some traditional hold-over-your-head charts, both with and without the constellations superimposed.

This book is ideal
The Twins - The New Way
The Twins - The New Way
for anyone interested in the stars; who likes to go out at night and point out Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter to the family (as I did tonight), and for Scoutmasters (a ringing endorsment of the book from the BSA is on the back) . And, needless to say, every Quartermaster division should have one. It is a valuable supplement to any navigational bookshelf.

Admiral of the Ocean Sea - A Life of Christopher Columbus, by Samuel Eliot Morison

This is a fascinating, Pulitzer Prize-winning account by one of our foremost naval historians of the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus; the author retraced Columbus's journeys in his own sailing vessel, detailing the stops, the charting, navigation, and seamanship involved.

Columbus was the first to discover variation of the compass, and he did it by using calibrated eyeball, sighting along the compass card at Polaris. Also detailed are his failed efforts at celestial navigation; he knew he was near 21 degrees latitude, but kept getting an answer that would have put him off Cape Cod. He was shooting the wrong star, reveals S.E. Morison. Read again the "Art of Navigation" from Bowditch; this is navigation with only the most rudimentary instruments and (naturally) non-existent charts.

Compass - A Story of Exploration and Innovation, by Alan Gurney

This is the story of the magnetic compass, from its beginnings as lodestone and magnetized needle on a thread, to the discovery of variation and deviation and the efforts to understand and correct for them.

It is written in an easy-to-read style, with many interesting anecdotes, details, and asides to liven what could otherwise be a dry topic. The genesis of the book was the author's learning of a brand-new yacht on her sailing trials (in 1998) with all the latest navigation tools-- GPS, Loran, fluxgate compass, radar: and then she lost all power. They didn't have a magnetic compass, and had to feel their way back to port by the stars and the use of a ribbon tied to a shroud as a crude wind-indicator.

As a submariner, I never actually used a magnetic compass in the heat of battle, but I had to learn the ins and outs in order to advance; I found this book to be fascinating, and polished it off in several short sittings.

Stellarium - A Planetarium For Your Computer (opens in new page)

Okay, so not technically a book, but I didn't know where else to put it. Stellarium shows the stars, planets, and other celestial objects in real-time at any location, or at any selected time. Label the stars; label the constellations. Display various projections.

The view can be with several different landscapes, including open ocean, or with no landscape at all. Sunrise/set, sun glare, moonrise/set: all configurable. Here's a screenshot for 20:12 EDT, 15APR08, from Groton, CT using an ocean landscape.

Stellarium Screenshot
Orion from Groton, CT
- Rey constellation

Note that the screenshot is using the Rey constellations, from his book The Stars, reviewed above. Stellarium is open-source, and the developers are wonderfully helpful: I requested this constellation set, and they provided it in only two days. It is not perfect, but it's close. I don't know where they got the data for it.

One thing I would like to see: this is an astronomy-based program, by and for astronomers (it includes drivers for telescopes). Star positions are by declination and Right Ascension, rather than Sidereal Hour Angle. A minor quibble, but I have a request in for an SHA option in a future version.

Other than that, this is a marvelous program, with detailed, high-resolution graphics, plenty of options, and enough features to keep you playing with it for a long time. And it's free!



Master and Commander -- the Aubrey-Maturin series, by Patrick O'Brian

This series details life in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars; a period already covered by C.S. Forester in his Horatio Hornblower series. If you liked that series, you will love this: O'Brian is a wonderful writer, that breathes life into each character: you would swear he was there taking notes of each conversation. The action is authentic, taken from the logs and letters of the ships and the men that fought them, and the style is superb: a touch for comedy that Forester never had, and a depth of storytelling that marks these novels as classics of literature.

A problem with novels of this type are the telling with the wealth of technical, accurate detail, while not leaving the layman baffled. Jack Aubrey, R.N., travels with his close friend and ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin; an old trick, explaining the maneuvers to a landsman, but one that is handled effortlessly; indeed, invisibly, to the reader.

I really can't praise these too highly. I first read one in high school, in 1980: HMS Surprise. While in Holy Loch, Scotland, in my several submarines, I came across and bought several Penguin paperbacks from the series (without realizing at first that I had rediscovered one I had enjoyed years ago). These are now tattered and I have been replacing them with the excellent Norton paperbacks published in America; and now, as I come across the odd bit of ready cash, I have been replacing them with the hardcover editions: I will be re-reading these for years to come. I even have a print by cover artist Geoff Hunt (278K JPEG image, opens in a new window).

Patrick O'Brian recently passed away; he will be missed, but his work lives on. So certain are the publishers of the appeal of these books, that included in some volumes are cards you can use to send a free copy of the first in the series, Master and Commander, to a friend.

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

This book was recommended by Bill Whalen.
It is online at
I found a review of it at
It was rated 5 (superb). The story is an espionage/mystery, and the following quote from the review shows why it would interest QMs:

The result is the two sailors exploring the Friesland islands, while playing cat and mouse with the German authorities and a mysterious gentleman named Dollman, whose daughter Davies has fallen for. The sailing experiences alone are worth the price of the book. Childers, the author, had to spend his early life in just such an environment to be able to speak with such authority and to demonstrate such realism. Davies's use of tides, currents, winds, and lee shores in a real setting speaks authentically. The book stands alone as an excellent sailing adventure.
...I think that the sailing details and descriptions are the best part of the book, but it is a success on many levels.

I began reading the first chapter, and it is well-written and interesting. I may get it from the library, though: reading a whole book online can be tiring.


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