Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart

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Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Now in paperback, popular Chris Stewart recounts his experiences as a small boat sailor with his customary light touch. A lovely little book about what it's really like to sail across an ocean.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0956003843

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Books about sailing fall into two sorts: those written by authors who know what they are talking about, (though sometimes they don't convey it too well) and those who don't have a clue, but like to think they do. Well, Chris Stewart may have started the book with a light and frothy touch as a novice sailor, but he ends up with the credentials of an Ancient Mariner.

Chris Stewart is already well-known for Driving Over Lemons, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society and A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, best-selling tales of self-sufficiency in rural Spain. It turns out he is also a born sailor, who tells the tale of an exciting, earlier period in his life. Even if you're not a yachtie, I think you'll enjoy this book.

His early experiences on boats aren't very promising. Invited by a friend to learn to sail as crew on a tiny twenty-one foot yacht, the pair make some elementary mistakes which Chris Stewart details with a deprecating and humorous tone. The pair miss being casualties for rescue by the local lifeboat by a whisker, such is their lack of experience.

Fortunately Chris' fortunes turn when he meets Tom Cunliffe and from there onwards he is hooked on the sea. A towering figure on Britain's yachting scene, Tom is rumbustious mariner, journalist and instructor. His fondness for high latitude sailing in his Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, Hirta, ranks him alongside the legendary HW Tilman. In a week, Tom teaches Chris enough for him to pass muster as skipper on a Cornish Crabber for a summer season in the Greek Islands. Unfortunately, when Chris arrives in Greece to find the boat, all is not plain sailing …

Tom invites Chris to join Hirta's voyage to North America, following the Viking route of the Vinland Sagas. Now this is not the relatively easy Atlantic tradewind route you might expect a well-found cruising yacht to make, via the Azores or the Canaries maybe. Hirta leaves Norway when the ice has melted sufficiently to make a northabout Great Circle passage, skirting Iceland and Greenland on the way to Newfoundland. It is a much more hazardous undertaking, what with gales, icebergs and fog. Very few sailors cruise the Labrador Sea!

It's worth saying that it was a bit warmer in Viking times (Actually it's a bit warmer these days than in the 1980's, as well). Twenty-five years ago, without thermal clothing, Gortex or survival suits, ocean voyaging was far less comfortable anyway. With no GPS or radar, there was a lot less certainty to the navigation, compared with, say, a round the world race today. For a young man, this ruffty-tuffty voyage was clearly a life-changing experience.

The author's memories remain vivid recollections of being fully alive (or nearly dead occasionally, come to that). Time after time, a deft turn of phrase distills the essence of the sea's appeal, even as we smile at his humour. His description of running, for example: … gliding across the shining swell with the wind behind us. This was a lovely motion that tended, with its feeling of being lifted and gently hurled forwards to where we wanted to go, to induce in us all a mild euphoria.

In a relatively short book, Chris absolutely nails how it feels to live on a small boat at sea. In minutely detailed accounts, he reveals exactly why it takes so long to get up in the night for a pee; what it's like to heave-to in a gale; how insidious fear creeps up while standing watch in fog, and the awesome, smelly experience of an enormous fin whale surfacing and keeping pace. I've seldom read a book which so exactly captures the emotions, isolation and exhilaration of sailing a small boat across an ocean.

I think that this writing is unusually authentic and successful because Chris is not afraid to show his vulnerability. From the few sailing books that we've reviewed here at The Bookbag, I'd pick out Ellen MacArthur's Taking on the World to recommend. It would make a great book to read by way of comparison with Chris Stewart's story. I'd also like to celebrate the fact that when she cried on camera during the Vendée Globe race, Ellen was the first successful sailor ever to show emotion in public. Whatever would Tilman have said?

The Bookbag would like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Buy Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart at

Buy Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat by Chris Stewart at


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