By Nigel Calder
Review by Steve Morrell
I’ve owned Nigel Calder’s classic book Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual “How to Maintain, Repair, and Improve Your Boat’s Essential Systems” for over 20 years. It covers everything. That’s all there is to it. If you have this book—only one of several he wrote on cruising—you can learn about every system on your boat—and in depth. It’s a big book and how anyone could put all the information together, well…they must really know everything. It’s an encyclopedia with lots and lots of information. Many who read this review will probably have the book. It’s not a book you read at home and study. It’s one you keep around, probably on board (especially if you live on board or cruise periodically), but you can’t know everything in there. There’s just too much. Only Calder can know that. But who is this guy, Nigel Calder? Some mechanical genius?
Shakedown Cruise will tell you. It’s about his first long cruise with his American wife Terrie (Calder is English) and their one-year-old child (and Terrie was also three months pregnant when they cast off).
Calder received much of his mechanical knowledge from working the oil rigs in the Gulf. While working on the oil rigs, he and Terrie spent six years building their 39-foot Atkins-designed ketch from a bare hull. He even wrote and self-published a book on marine refrigeration systems, which turned out to be a financial failure. But it did lead to publishing Marine Diesel Engines, which was the real beginning of his book-writing career—and it helped finance their first cruise.
After their boat, named Nada, was completed, they sailed around the Gulf getting to know the boat and the cruising life. Eventually, they were ready and departed right after midnight from Lake Pontchartrain (New Orleans) in January 1987.
If there’s anything you learn in this book, it’s that things go wrong, mistakes are made and systems breakdown—even when one of the world’s mechanical experts on marine systems for sailboats is on board. And if you are considering going cruising but keep making all sorts of mistakes right off the bat, don’t be discouraged—Calder had so many mishaps that they considered calling off the cruising life by the time they got to Key West.
Their first mishap was a classic: They forgot to unplug the shore power cable and they ripped it in half, discovering it trailing behind their boat the next morning. Then, right after departure, their engine dies, which Calder fixes. That was followed shortly by the refrigeration dying, which he also fixes. Then, while just hours into their start and still in the dark of night, the steaming light goes out. But they continue on—until next the toilet springs a leak, spilling sewage into the boat. They do make it into the Gulf and head down to Key West.
I am not spoiling anything about what the book is about because all these mishaps happen on pages 1 and 2. But it’s only the beginning and, as many of us know, if it’s on a boat, it’s gonna break down eventually. What you learn is: They have persistence and determination.
What makes this book great, besides Calder’s great writing is that you read about everything, and he let’s it all hang out and shares it with the world—the good, the bad and the ugly.
They continue on their cruise, eventually making it through the islands in the southeastern Caribbean and down to South America. You learn how frustrating it is to sail to windward—for what seems like forever—to eventually get south. Along the way, Calder describes not only life onboard with his wife and infant child (and eventually with two children), but he writes a little about the islands they stop at, including adding some history about many of them.
This tale of much of Calder’s life is a real page-turner and well-written. It’s a combination of autobiography, boatbuilding, family cruising, cruising story, cruising guide, island guide and tourist guide. You learn that Calder is—besides being a mechanical wizard—human, just like the rest of us. And you learn that his boat—owned by one of the small-boat mechanical experts of our time—is just like all the other cruising boats; things break down and need maintenance. He just doesn’t need to bring out his book to fix things.