Books for Christmas: Conner steers the simpler course: Stuart Alexander looks at the seasonal material on offer to sailing enthusiasts

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a thin year for new maritime reading matter, especially those books which appeal to the casual as well as committed reader, but I make no excuse for making my top choice a 'how to' book, and broadening the field to include videotape offerings.

Dennis Conner is still the biggest name in the game of sailboat racing, but he can be a difficult man to negotiate with and impatient when what is obvious to him leaves others floundering.

But in a joint work with the American writer Michael Levitt, Sail Like a Champion (Partridge Press, pounds 25), he provides a rich smorgasbord of advice which will satisfy both a full attack and a casual top-up. Do not be put off by the additional proclamation on the jacket of this 392-page book about 'advanced racing and cruising techniques'.

Unlike so many books which make no effort to simplify jargon, this one, because it goes back to basics and cross-refers between sections, answers those niggling questions you never dared voice for fear of seeming less informed than you wished to be perceived. This book should be read during the winter and kept on board throughout the summer.

Definitely falling into the more general category is a softback on what is becoming the world's leading event, The Whitbread Round the World Race. Sir Peter Johnson has chronicled the first 20 years in Whitbread Round the World 1973-93 (Whitbread Centre, Tollbar Way, Hedge End, Hampshire, pounds 9.95) in time for Christmas stockings and the build-up to the start of the next one on 25 September, 1993.

Each of the five races so far is described and the results logged; developments are compared and the book is simply illustrated. Background pieces on the route, weather systems and ports of call provide a comprehensive preparation for the armchair follower. There is also a video of the same name for pounds 14.95.

Apart from some irritations with the commentary, this 50- minute affair, including some up- front advertising, pulls footage together from all five races and successfully illustrates the race's development, the boats, the rugged environment of the more difficult Southern Ocean stretches, and the mixture of joy and relief of arrival in the stopover ports.

In a different category is Sea, Ice and Rock (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 15.99), an account of the joint venture by Robin Knox- Johnston and Chris Bonington to sail to Greenland and go climbing within the Arctic Circle. The double act of describing how a sailor took a mountaineer sailing and a mountaineer took a sailor climbing works easily and smoothly as both have a smooth delivery more reminiscent of an after-dinner anecdotal session in a London club.

For those who wish to dissuade their partners from dreams of the ocean waves, Jack Coote has collected an anthology of disasters, Total Loss (Adlard Coles Nautical, pounds 9.99), which should put them off for a while. For those who follow the Olympics, there is a timely book from Dick Tillman, Laser Sailing for the 1990s (Adlard Coles, pounds 9.99). From the same publisher, at pounds 27.50, is the third edition of the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation's Atlantic Crossing Guide, revised by Anne Hammick. There are so many people now crossing the pond, it can only be a matter of time before there is a midway service marina.

Which leaves the two heavyweights, Reed's Nautical Almanac ( pounds 19.95 with free Companion, normally priced at pounds 15) in two volumes with a European edition, and the MacMillan and Silk Cut Nautical Almanac ( pounds 21.95). Despite a dispute between the two over the use of some charts, the yachting fraternity has benefited during the 10 years in which the Macmillan has pushed the much older Reed's (this is its 62nd year) into a brighter format.

The Reed's handbook contains much timeless information while the Almanac is date specific to the extent that it contains tide timetables for all the major areas around the British, Irish and northern French coasts.

The Macmillan uses a larger page format and the choice is between the more compact Reed's or the easier-to-read Macmillan's. As both contain just about everything you would need to know to pass a yachtmaster's examination, anyone who ventures more than a few hundred yards offshore should certainly have a copy of one of them.

Finally, four more videos. First, I would not recommend, Improve Your Sailing Skills ( pounds 17.99), which seems to be more basic than the intermediate market it claims to serve, while the second, Sailing in Heavy Weather ( pounds 24.99), may be more suitable as a club, rather than an individual, purchase. Both are from The Marine Video Collection (Unit 6, Industrial Estate, Brecon, Powys) as is The Shape of Speed ( pounds 19.99) which offers some clear thinking from no- nonsense experts Lowell North, John Marshall and Dick Deaver. As does Peter Bateman in Sail Trimming (Computer TV, London House, 271/273 King Street, London W6, pounds 14.75) which properly addresses the intermediate sailor and, despite a low budget, has by far the sharpest photography and some useful graphics, though even more would have been welcome.