Christmas books: On the planks and boards

An extra helping of festive treats, with the pick of the year for tars (real, or armchair), bards and thesps
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Sailing Yarns

Christina Hardyment

Europe has a tradition of fine maritime literature, but recently there has been a lull in great sailing yarns. Then along came the 1996 Vendee Globe, and we recovered our old heroic form. Pete Goss's Close to the Wind (just out in paperback, Headline, pounds 6.99) is much more than the story of his rescue of fellow round-the-world race competitor Rafael Dinelli; it tells of the self-sacrifice behind his own entry to the race. Now we can read Dinelli's hair-raising but insouciant account of the affair, Rescue From Beyond the Roaring Forties (Adlard Coles, 14.99). He emerges as a daring maverick ( in France the book was called Dinelli, Pirate du Tour de Monde). The hopefully fruitful outcome is that the two men are now firm friends, determined to further Anglo-French co-operation at the cutting edge of sailing.

In the age of universal tourism and global satellite positioning systems, it's unusual to endure such severe hardship. Instead, literary mariners have turned to tracing historic routes or hunting treasure. Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau (Picador, pounds 16.99) is a journey through the "Inside Passage", the intricate maze of headlands and islands that protects north-western America from the ocean. With his cabin bookshelves stuffed with accounts of earlier explorers and ethnographers, Raban sails from Seattle to Alaska in his mahogany ketch, "a comfortably down-at-heel floating cottage... my asylum, my ark".

The book is at first dense with evocative impressions. But hints of personal confusion grow stronger, and after his much-missed daughter and perhaps less missed, certainly aggrieved, wife visit him briefly, Raban switches from escape in search of history into a self-reflective elegy. The effect is discomforting, but haunting and memorable.

Don't expect a tour of Nantucket or a pint of porter at the Coffin Inn from Tim Severin's In Search of Moby Dick: quest for the white whale (Little, Brown, pounds 18.99). Severin is more interested in monsters of the deep than in Herman Melville. He concentrates on the Pacific, making his first port of call the Marquesas, where Melville jumped ship in 1842.

After some desultory explorations in his footsteps, Severin gets down to the true nature of whales, and primitive techniques of fishing for the vastest creatures of the deep. Touring island cultures, he discovers that their ancient legends about the magical nature of great white whales, rays and squids are eerily accurate when compared to modern research. He also finds that the skills of such men as the daring hook-jumpers of Pamilcan equal and excel those of Queequeg and his fellow harpooners. Full of fascinating but gory details, this is not a book for the squeamish.

The most fabulous cargo imaginable is the subject of Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (Little, Brown, pounds 16.99; also strongly recommended is the pounds 8.99 HarperCollins audiobook, read with infectious enthusiasm by Kerry Shale). In 1857, loaded to the gunnels with gold, the Central America was hit by a hurricane off the Carolinas on its way from California to New York. It sank in impossibly deep water, and was never found. In the early 1980s a polymath inventor called Tommy Thompson focused on the challenge of deep-sea exploration in general and lucrative wrecks in particular. He developed deep-sea robots which, after many false alarms, revealed - on camera and in colour - mint-bright bars of gold "stacked on the bottom of the sea like loaves of bread"; and towers of coins "heaped like poker chips". Much more than a treasure hunt, this is a classic of endeavour and ingenuity.

Finally, an adventure we could all dream about. Bill and Laurel Cooper's Sell Up and Sail (Adlard Coles, pounds 15.99) has changed the lives of innumerable wistful armchair sailors. Their latest book is Back Door to Byzantium (Adlard Coles, pounds 12.99): a trip, in a Thames barge with a Mini on top, along the canals and great rivers of Europe, past war-torn Yugoslavia, and on to the Black Sea and Istanbul. Progress is beset by floods, a casting- off, cavernous locks full of gigantic barge convoys, and petty bureaucrats ashore. But the Coopers triumph over all. Full of unexpected insights, humorous, perceptive and practical, this is a model account of a voyage.