Bookaholic while cruising


Can you ever have enough books? When we bought our magic carpet in 2007, Totem’s shelf space was leaner than suited our family, particularly with three young children at a range of pre- and early-reader stages. Before setting sail, Jamie added more than 20 linear feet of bookshelves on board. The world has changed and our children have grown; we value the shelf space, but ebook readers are now among the crew’s most indispensable personal items on board. How do we manage the family library as full time cruisers?

Black Rock (purchased from author, Louise Hoole, in St Helena); a volume of Wang Wei’s poetry; a phrasebook for Borneo

Getting digital books

We purchase books periodically, but overwhelmingly we check books out from our hometown library. Retaining cards (and even renewing them a few years ago) has been invaluable! Kitsap County’s library system offers reciprocal privileges with both King County and Seattle Public Library systems, further expanding opportunities for quality reading. Along the way, we got library cards in Australia and South Africa to use during our stays in each country.

For cruisers who don’t have a library card currently, it’s possible to get one – even from far away. Start by asking your hometown library: whatever location you pay taxes from. If that’s not an option, there are several library systems that allow non-residents to access their ebook library for nominal annual fees. Here are a couple:

  • Brooklyn Library: For $50/year, anyone in the USA can apply for a card to access the Brooklyn Library’s ebook collection.
  • Houston Library: this library can be joined in six-month increments ($20) or annually for $40/year.

Buying books online is a snap with Amazon, but if you’re not so keen on the megaretailer – check out Bookshop. This online bookstore works as a clearing house for independent booksellers, and sends the full profit of an order to your indie shop of your choice (or a pool that divides earnings among booksellers).

Picking an ereader

Get a dedicated ebook reader. A side-lit reader is far better than a phone or tablet on board (book snobs: I feel you. This was a much easier transition than I ever dreamed). Ebook readers are easier on your eyes, do not have screen glare, and are as perfectly visible in bright sunlight for cockpit reading, as when side-lit after dark in your berth. The battery lasts weeks instead of hours, and the latest Kindles are even waterproof!

Mairen engrossed in her Kindle; Thailand, 2014

We use Kindles on board, and these play well with our hometown library. Not every library system is Kindle-friendly: your first stop should be confirming which hardware the source you plan to rely upon works with. Kobo readers are a nearly identical (except, not waterproof) option for a quality ebook reader that some library systems work with instead. 

Physical books on board

The books we keep on board are dwarfed by the digital library. They are often sentimental: a T’ang dynasty poet’s selected works I’ve had since college. The copy of Dove that sold Jamie on cruising as a 12-year-old. A pocket sized Croatian-English dictionary (because someday we will cruise the Dalmatian coast). But beyond the sentimental, there are a few categories of books we prefer to have in physical form:

Vessel references

Some of these are requirement, like coast guard COLREGS; others feed nautical knowledge or maintenance needs; it’s easier to keep that exploded diagram next to you on a book than a device.

Cruising guides

Flipping pages of a guide in the cockpit is one of my favorite ways to prepare for a new region. We use them less over time for everyday decisions about where to go, but the general prep remains invaluable.

Field guides

Whether it’s identifying a shell, a mineral, a bird, or a reef fish, browsing through a field guide helps with both identification; it’s just not the same on-screen.

Medical references

When we were trying to diagnose Niall’s sudden illness last year (kidney stones, it turned out), three medical books flipped open in front of me were easier to physically cross-reference symptoms than if I were toggling between files on a reader.

Books that aren’t available digitally

Reading fiction and nonfiction about places we visit, to better understand and appreciate them, means sourcing sometimes uncommon books. They may predate digital era publishing or lack mass-market audiences, and thus unavailable digitally.

For a deeper list of recommendations of books on board, from key references for marine books or medical to specific field guides, see books for cruisers.

Kids need books! Physical books are easier to share with a new friend. Papua New Guinea

Considerations for kids

When our children were small, tablets and ereaders weren’t yet ubiquitous. But even now, physical books are invaluable to little ones. Choosing which books made the cut to sail away is a big deal in any case.

  • DK Eyewitness’ slender , engaging volumes provided many years of use, thanks to writing aimed at different reading levels within a single book
  • Image-driven field guides intended for adults were just as appealing for browsing to kids
  • We will always be That Family With The Encyclopedias; a full set from a rummage sale lining the shelf next to our master berth provided priceless hours of happy learning

Digital value hits when kids reach that voracious chapter book stage and can’t get enough reading material. At that point, digital libraries are priceless for the itinerant cruising kid. But audio books are useful, too. And audio books are how our pre-reader could participate with her siblings in enjoying Harry Potter books on their first big passage, 19 days at sea to the Marquesas.

Our anchorage this week: comet Neowise over Galatea. Photo: David Abbot – a former ‘boat kid’ now cruising with his family; see

Brave new book world

Before ebooks took over, bags of paperbacks would get passed around an anchorage; in cruiser hubs, you can still find take a book / leave a book “karma” shelve to browse. The selection on these shelves rarely appealed; I’m not interested in spy thrillers, bestsellers from authors that employ an army of ghost writers, or Happily Ever After romances. At least not all the time!

The evolution to digital and control over sourcing books has been revolutionary. I miss our books; the hallway lined with them, the favorites stacked next to our bed. But 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to download a guide to trekking in Baja within minutes of the recommendation, while anchored off an uninhabited island. Our world changed for better, if at some price of stratification.

Demonstrating a Kindle, so powerful and so out of reach, in Papua New Guinea

Register here to attend free TOTEM TALKS next weekend! Hurricane season is well underway in the northern hemisphere, and August is when things start heating up. We’ll talk about the big picture, preparation, strategies, insurance, and more – Saturday, July 25; 5:00 pm PT / 8:00 pm ET.

If you’d like to replay our recent events with Matt Rutherford and more, see for links and passwords.

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