Forty years ago, cruising from England to California, Eric and I met in the Canary Islands a gentlemanly English sailor by the name of Tom Blackwell. Tom was in his 70s and on his third solo circumnavigation aboard a 50’ wood yawl. It was a big, heavy boat with a full-sized, claw-footed bathtub—in which he stored his potatoes—and bookshelves lined with leather-bound classics. Once, he told us, in an anchorage off the Pacific coast of Mexico, he was working in the cockpit when a young couple on a neighboring boat rowed over in their dinghy. They held up a brown grocery bag filled with books they had read and wanted to trade. Being eager for fresh literature himself, Tom popped below, filled a like bag, and a swap was made. Crossing the Pacific soon thereafter and having saved the stash especially for the long voyage, Tom delved into the bag, eyes agleam. Disaster!
“It was full of paperback romances that were practically pornography!” he mourned. “And I gave them all my Graham Greene!”
Given the limited space on a boat, trading and passing on books means we cruisers can refresh our onboard bookshelves on a regular basis. In addition, most marinas provide a take-one/leave-one bookcase in their lounge or laundry room. It’s a great place to pick up secondhand cruising guides and tourism literature on the country you’re visiting. When you sail on, leave them to enlighten the next voyager. Cruisers’ libraries also, usually, offer a decent selection of fiction and nonfiction. Lately, however, I have been disappointed. (Warning: There will be a short rant on the matter before the end of this post.)
Of course, many cruisers have ereaders as well. Ours were a thoughtful gift from our children before we departed, and every birthday and holiday our daughter Kira gifts us with an ebook of our choice. In the Bahamas, a kind couple loaned us a flash drive containing over a thousand ebooks that we likewise can download. Now that we’re based in Townsville for a while, I also have my very own library card. Hooray! I feel so much more like a viable human being with a library card in my wallet. I’ve been using it to check out Australian storybooks, which I read, via videos, to our new grandson Anders.
Cruisers’ libraries are also the place to swap videos and leave unwanted items, from clothing to boat gear to cookware. We have scored some generous finds, including brand-new athletic shoes, a set of fluffy, king-sized bath towels, and the complete CD series of “Seinfeld.” In turn, we have repaid various “freebie bins” along our route with boat parts, spare life vests and surplus canned goods. On one occasion, I left a beat-up tea kettle in a freebie bin in New Zealand. Though I doubted anyone would want it, I hate to toss anything in a dumpster, knowing it will go to a landfill. Less than five minutes later, a boy and his father walked off, holding aloft their prize and beaming. One sailor’s trash…
Finding a “treasure,” then, is what a cruisers’ library is all about. Which is why I, like Tom, currently am dismayed. C,mon, cruisers, surely you read something besides romances, legal thrillers and murder mysteries? Where are the biographies of little-known yet fascinating historical figures, the offbeat novels, the volumes of heart-stopping poetry? As soon as I pull out a book and see a woman in a flowing dress on a windswept hilltop, back it goes. Ditto any book featuring a gun, a bloody knife or a shadowy figure in a doorway. And why is it always “When the body of a beautiful young woman is found in a remote wilderness…”? How about the body of an overweight, middle-aged bookkeeper riddled with bullets in a treehouse? Or a retired, 80-year-old dentist (male, female, LGBT—take your pick) strangled with a shoelace in a bank vault?
Okay, end of rant. I know my literary tastes are eccentric, and I do have my ereader and library card. Nor have I given up on cruisers’ libraries. You never know what will turn up, and I’m hopeful of discovering more treasures like those in the photo above. I am especially grateful to whoever left the beautiful Skywatching book on the jam-packed bookshelves in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas, in 2018. It has aided me immeasurably on a poetry project, and I will never let it go!
By the way, Tom told us that when he reached the other side of the Pacific with his grocery bag of disreputable books, he was too embarrassed to trade them openly with any other sailors he met. Instead, he left them in cruisers’ libraries across the South Pacific, sneaking in when no one else was around and furtively sliding a few here, a few there, among the other books on the shelves. I like to think those degenerate volumes are still circulating around the globe somewhere, lurking like an ominous shadow in a doorway, waiting to pounce.