Seamanship: A Voyage along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles


From Land's End to Cape Clear, past Roaringwater Bay and Cod's Head, on past Inishvickillane and Inishtooskert, up through the Hebrides, to Orkney and on to the Faeroes stretches the richest and wildest coastline in Europe. Adam Nicolson decided to sail this coast in the Auk, a 42-foot wooden ketch, embarking on a 1,500-mile voyage through what he hoped would be a sequence of revelatory landscapes. He was not disappointed.

Seamanship is more than a travel journal. It describes ...

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From Land's End to Cape Clear, past Roaringwater Bay and Cod's Head, on past Inishvickillane and Inishtooskert, up through the Hebrides, to Orkney and on to the Faeroes stretches the richest and wildest coastline in Europe. Adam Nicolson decided to sail this coast in the Auk, a 42-foot wooden ketch, embarking on a 1,500-mile voyage through what he hoped would be a sequence of revelatory landscapes. He was not disappointed.

Seamanship is more than a travel journal. It describes an inner journey as much as an outer one—disasters and discoveries, powerful landscapes and modern visionaries, and encounters with the animals living on the wild edge of the Atlantic. Above all, it is about the gaps that open up between those who go and those who stay at home.

Seamanship, in the end, is not about the sea. It's about being alive.

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Editorial Reviews

Bernard Cornwell
"A superb book, as wise as it is beautiful."
Nathaniel Philbrick
“A dazzling triumph—a profound and magical account of a voyage along the wild edges of the British coast.”
—Bernard Cornwell
“A superb book, as wise as it is beautiful.”
—Mail on Sunday
“A genuinely intriguing, thoughtful work.”
--Mail on Sunday
“A genuinely intriguing, thoughtful work.”
Mail on Sunday
"A genuinely intriguing, thoughtful work."
Library Journal
British author Nicolson expands on the explorations that he started in his 2002 book, Sea Room, which detailed three remote islands in the Hebrides off Scotland's west coast. He recounts how he and a friend explored the islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland in a small boat. Anyone who has ever entertained the idea of heading out to sea with a friend and a sail-or anyone interested in a unique perspective on these islands, which are steeped in ancient history and inhabited by Christian monks and shepherds-will find much to relish in Nicolson's descriptions of a journey and a friendship set against an often beautiful, sometimes dangerous, and always exciting Mother Nature and her seas. Given the popularity of other seafaring books like Linda Greenlaw's The Lobster Chronicles and Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Nicolson's tale should find a solid readership. Recommended for public libraries.-Mari Flynn, Keystone Coll., La Plume, PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nicolson (God's Secretaries, 2003, etc.), who has traveled extensively on British soil, takes to the Atlantic coast in this odyssey of island-hopping and psychic exploration. Nicolson is in the grip of romance for hard, dangerous living, with something vital in its strangeness and seriousness, a life force of sweaty, physical engagement. His vehicle is a boat traveling the waters from southern England up the western edge of Ireland and Scotland, then to the Orkneys, with a final stop in the Faroes. It takes six months, the time between the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Sailing such waters at any time is hard work, especially for those stretches that include only Nicolson and George, his skipper. There are buffeting episodes aplenty, not just when crafts are bullied by the rudeness of the sea-at one point, Nicolson is nearly drowned trying to run a dinghy to an island and getting clobbered by a pugilistic wave-but also when one or both of the men experience a feeling of utter, elemental foreignness that reaches in and plucks their souls like stringed instruments. Nicolson recounts such moments with unaffected wonder: the exultancy he feels at a hermit's hut high on the Skelligs, a pair of "tall, crocketed rocks" rising 700 feet straight from the ocean, or during a barefoot pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick. There's a blessing at a monastery, where the strong hand of tradition reduces the men (both nonbelievers) to tears in its display of sustaining love. Then there are the Faroes, which steal Nicolson's heart, islands that suggest a "living survival of habits of mind," with their dwellers' heritage, confidence, and brio. Nicolson catches grief from the captain for his disengaged ease and lackof seamanship, but his focus is on the wild margins, where land meets water and recalls so much ancient, human drama. Regional author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060753443
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/14/2007
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 981,717
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicols on is the author of Seamanship, God's Secretaries, and Seize the Fire. He has won both the Somerset Maugham and William Heinemann awards, and he lives with his family at Sissinghurst Castle in England.

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Read an Excerpt

A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles

Chapter One

The Auk

I was having an affair with the Atlantic. Alone with my books in my room, I had been thinking of little else for weeks. I was longing for the sea. I wanted to get out, away from my desk, into the air, somewhere on the big Atlantic shore of the British Isles, that incomparable, islanded world which has more miles of coastline than the whole eastern seaboard of the United States. Not just to see it, but to sail it, to immerse myself in that ocean side of the country, its long, beautiful wildness, from headland to headland, the place where high winds met hard rock. I wanted days and nights of it. If I thought of openness, or even freedom, it was the Atlantic that filled my mind. I didn't mention it to Sarah. I knew these were, in their heart, treacherous thoughts.

I went down, one Sunday, to the beach on the Sussex coast. Milky rollers poured on to the shingle. The café windows stared at them as though the sea weren't there. People sat in their cars looking at the waves. From time to time they used their wipers to clear their windscreens of the spray. I drank it in and felt stranded on the shore. To be out there! What would I give for that?

Until the eighteenth century, Europeans thought the sea in general and beaches in particular smelled disgusting. The air on a beach was not full of liferestoring, energising ozone, but stiff with rot. The beach was where the natural order collapsed and the sea beyond it was pure anarchy. It carried no marks of history or civilisation and was filled with nauseating monsters whose flesh turned putrid if evercast ashore. When, in the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit of God was said to move 'upon the face of the waters', those waters were clearly what God was not. The sea was the absence of all meaning, not its source.

But I wasn't living in 1680, I was heir to another tradition. Looking out from the beach suggested to me, as it had to others for two or three hundred years, something larger than the ordinariness of life on land. The Romantic instinct equates roughness with reality.

It thinks of the sheer discomfort and violence of the sea as the guarantee of authenticity, the lack of safety a measure, strangely, of truth.

It is a curious fact that you can know why you are acting as you are; be fully aware of the influences which have you in their grasp; understand the damage which those actions might cause; and still be unable to do anything about it. So I talked to Sarah one evening. 'The sea?' she said, a sudden focus in her eyes. Yes, yes, I explained, the sea, the western shore, that wild place, away from here, encountering the world as it was, a boat, perhaps from March to October.

She looked away and said, 'If that is what you need to do, that is what you need to do. But you have got to make sure we are all right here before you go.' She took the idea for what it was, a kind of leaving, a desire to live before you die. 'I don't want you to go,' she said, 'but I can't stop you.'

Alone with an atlas and a cup of coffee, I picked a course, wandering through that ocean-enriched and ocean-threatened world. Not knowing what I wanted or needed, I looked at yachts in magazines. Nor, to be honest, did I know how to sail ...

A Voyage Along the Wild Coasts of the British Isles
. Copyright © by Adam Nicolson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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