Mike's Book Reviews

Hand, Reef and Steer


Tom Cunliffe

Subtitle:   Traditional Sailing Skills for Classic Boats

Click here. Classification: Nonfiction

What it's about:   In Hand, Reef and Steer   Mr. Cunliffe discusses virtually every aspect of the practical realities of planning, fabricating, adjusting, and sailing gaff-rigged sailboats. He is clear that this is not an introductory text. He assumes you understand the basics of what makes a sailboat "go."

He covers everything from small single-masted boats through large cutters and schooners. His background discussions span from the early days of sail (flax sails and hemp rope) up to the present day. He wants you to know the "why it's done this way" part of the story, without dwelling on it too long. I found that very satisfying.

He discusses a wide range of topics - the usual tacking and gybing, heaving-to, reefing sails, etc. info, of course. He also covers the finer points of setting and adjusting the mainsail, topsail, jib, flying jib, and jib topsail. And, more usefully, when *not* to bother doing these things. When good enough is just fine, and it's time to leave the rig alone and just enjoy the sailing, the view, and the ocean.

He uses many clear sketches and terrific color photographs. These cover everything from the details of rigging hardware and methods up to beautiful photos of tall ships with all their sails in place and pulling. His photo of the schooner Defiance sailing past downtown Manhattan will just hold you there, staring.

Main facts or viewpoints I got from this book:   An appreciation for the history of gaff-rigged boats, and the problems earlier generations faced in developing them to their current designs. I also acquired a better understanding of the tradeoffs to be made in setting up the rigging on a gaff-rigged boat. And I've developed a better understanding of the choices one has available in facing and solving the problems that will crop up during sailing.

My evaluation of Hand, Reef and Steer :   Excellent! The author's mixture of text, drawings and photographs made the information very easy to understand and absorb. For example, it was useful to see his photograph of how the mainsail and topsails twist in a strong wind, along with his explanation of how best to adjust for it. Words are good; words and pictures together are much better. And words and *beautiful* pictures together are better yet.

The author keeps you captivated both by the surprising beauty of his photos of many ships under sail and by the continuous flow of useful information he imparts. This is a hard book to put down.

Why read this book:  Both for its practical advice and for its beauty.  It's practical in that it's chock-full of useful rigging tips and techniques, examples of how to rig quick work-arounds in the event of problems of many types, how to sail under difficult or restrictive conditions, and how to handle real-world problems such as having to come into a crowded port with a tall ship under sail alone.

Read this book to have more techniques in your mental "bag of tricks" when the need arises. To be, in sum, a more knowledgeable and safer sailor.

A good example of his mixing both practicality and beauty is his photo (with discussion) of a Grand Banks schooner nosing into a crowded harbor in the fog, maneuvering with just sail and anchors!  You feel you're there, doing it yourself.

When a friend asks "what's sailing really like?"...hand them this book.
When a friend asks you "WHY do you sail?"...hand them this book.   And they will understand.

To give you a better feel for its contents, here are the book's chapter titles. In truth, these simple headings don't do the book's contents and beauty justice. But here they are. Understand that they contain within them the life-experience of a true master:

To learn how to rig and sail a gaff-rigged boat yourself,
or just to soak up the broad experience of the author,
this book is a pleasure to read.
Click here.
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