Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Writing and Publishing Books

Writing books

Always writing; one of my “bucket list” dreams was to publish a book. It’s the kind of project that requires time, and a certain amount of persistence.

Some of my titles on my parents' bookshelf

 My first book was a technical kayaking manual for beginners. It presented me with two major challenges. First, how to explain how to perform each maneuver, in as much detail as seemed appropriate, and to arrange everything in logical order throughout the book. Second, how to best demonstrate the essential points of each maneuver, in my kayak, for a photographer to capture in a sequence of photos.

I wrote my first books longhand, ink on paper 

Cut and Paste 

My publisher requested each chapter, typed, double-spaced, as soon as completed, so he could follow my progress. I wrote longhand on paper, crossing out and writing between the lines until the page became too overwritten to be usable, at which point I made a clean handwritten copy. Sometimes I cut out sections and pasted them onto a sheet of paper in a different order. I used a pen, paper, scissors and glue.

When I was satisfied with what I had written. I typed out each page carefully, on a typewriter. No typist, I worked slowly using just two fingers, so the typewriter arms/keys would not jam, and with plenty of white correction fluid painted over mistakes.

Inevitably I made last-minute changes to almost every page, rendering them too messy to send. That typing stage took a long time. I duly folded the sheets of each finished chapter into an envelope, addressed it, attached a postage stamp, and mailed it.


After I had submitted the whole manuscript, my publisher brought a photographer to North Wales. Over the course of three sessions, she shot all the technical sequences to illustrate the book.

In those pre-digital days, there was no way to view any images until the rolls of film had been sent away to be developed, and contact prints made of each roll. The film was 135, commonly called 35mm. The contact prints, which arrived by mail, were positives of exactly the size of the original negative, each monochrome image just 24 by 36mm, although they would be enlarged for the book. 

35mm camera film contact print sheet

With a magnifying glass, I identified all the photographs, cut them out and pasted them onto paper, in the correct order for the chapters of the book. I then labeled the frames we should use from each sequence and added captions. With 13 chapters, the book was lavishly illustrated with 280 photographs, including inspirational action shots.

Canoeing was released in 1990 with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Sold out and reprinted within 6 months, the book’s success prompted the publisher to ask if I had any other book ideas. Sea Kayaking, Open Canoe Technique and Nigel Foster’s Surf Kayaking followed. It was the book on canoeing technique that finally sparked my first book to be less ambiguously retitled Kayaking

My first books were published by Fernhurst Books in UK

Fernhurst Books collaborated with Globe Pequot Press to increase visibility in the USA, and Globe Pequot opened up new opportunities for me.


For me, the writing process became easier when I bought a laptop. It was a Toshiba PC with 4MB RAM and 120MB hard disk, running both DOS and Windows 3.1 operating systems. It had a version of a mouse, or touchpad, which clipped onto the side of the laptop, with a ball on the top.

The screen was mono. The battery typically lasted for 8 hours of use on one charge. I carried a spare battery and a portable printer when I traveled.

My first laptop, mono screen, 120MB hard drive.

Typing on a computer keyboard was much easier than typing on a typewriter even though at that stage I still found it easier to arrange my thoughts with pen and paper first. The ability to print out the complete requisite physical copy of a book manuscript, double-spaced, for a publisher, was a huge saver of time and effort. But a book, albeit without the color slides or prints, would fit on a single floppy disk which was easier to mail. The publishing industry seemed reluctant to change.

But, although a double-sided high density 3.5-inch floppy disk, with 1.44MB, could store the draft of a book, that would be without images. Color slides and film negatives still had to be physically mailed. Of course, optical storage in CDs and DVDs, with their far greater memory capacity, superseded the magnetic storage on floppy disks, and digital cameras became more available and affordable. 

Nowadays it is possible to email a manuscript. Photography is digital and images can be shared from computer to computer. Nothing needs to be physically mailed until a book is in print.

3.5 inch floppy disks

Self-publishing option

My next experiment in authoring came when, failing to find a publisher, I considered self-publishing the story of my kayaking expeditions to Baffin Island and Labrador, as Stepping Stones. I found a company, Outskirts Press, which offered self-publishing for a price, with a menu of options to choose from, such as cover design, interior layout, indexing, and so on. Each book sold was printed on demand and shipped by the company, with a royalty paid to the author.

I was curious to discover whether that was a viable alternative to using a mainstream publisher. Each appeared to have pluses and minuses. Mainstream publishers paid in-house editors, and designers for covers and book layout, and had all the marketing and bookstore distribution set up. Publishers paid an author an advance of royalties, which reflected their commitment to getting the book out there to be sold. But each book inevitably took on the personality of the publisher and its staff to a varying degree, with give and take. Was that an advantage or disadvantage? I would prefer my books to express only my own thoughts in my own words.

Stepping Stones, and later, On Polar Tides

With a self-publishing service, I would have to pay upfront for any editing, help with cover design, and interior page layout. I would be responsible for all my own marketing. I would accrue higher royalty rates, but would that overcome the extra outgoings? I could buy and sell books myself but would also benefit from the company’s own distribution. I would run the risk of the book not being considered credible if self-published.

In my favor, I had several books already published by mainstream publishers, and I was well known in my field. For different price points, I calculated how many books I would have to sell to break even, and how many more I would have to sell to match what I might otherwise expect in advance. It is impossible to foresee sales figures, but I decided to give self-publishing my best try. At the least it would be useful research. I considered the results a success.

I often wonder how Stepping Stones would have sold if originally published by a mainstream publisher. As it happens, it was later released by Falcon Guides as On Polar Tides. With the additions of story elements Falcon recommended, and an insert of color images on glossy high-quality paper, the finished book is better designed and produced than its predecessor. Publishers certainly have skilled and experienced staff. Falcon published my next two books. My best book on kayaking technique so far was one of them: The Art of Kayaking.

Amazon print on demand

At the onset of covid19, I returned from Sumatra, Indonesia, having agreed to write something about kayaking on Lake Toba, the biggest caldera lake in the world. At 60 miles long, Lake Toba sits in the bottom of the crater of a super-volcano in Sumatra. The  expedition I had been invited to join, and write about, was supported by National Geographic Indonesia, among others.

Initially envisaging a magazine article, I soon became engrossed in my research of the Batak people around the lake, with their rich culture and history. Faced with travel restrictions, I took time to dig for hard-to-find information, and soon had more than enough material for a book.

I had no illusions about my chances of a positive response from a publisher to a proposal about an expedition on a lake in a remote place few people have heard of. Besides, at that time, which aspiring writer would not be taking advantage of a Covid lockdown to send off multiple book proposals? Acquisition editors must surely have been inundated.

Having completed my draft, I learned, with the help of a retired book publisher friend, how to format a book ready for publication using Microsoft Word. I planned the interior layout, designed a cover, bought my ISBN, and uploaded my files onto Amazon KDP.

Heart of Toba was the first book I published with Amazon KDP

Amazon’s print-on-demand service is an interesting way to publish a niche book. There is no upfront charge for anything. If you, as an author, can do all the grunt work, writing, editing, formatting, indexing etc., you can upload just two PDF files and publish without any expense. I ordered proof copies of Heart of Toba, to see exactly how the cover and interior would look, in time to make any adjustments before publishing.

Amazon prints books in various locations around the globe. A book bought in Australia will be printed there. Purchase in Germany and the book will be printed in Germany. This reduces shipping time and cost.

The traditional publishing model would be to print, often in Asia, a predetermined number of books, based on anticipated sales, and to deliver to customers via a distribution center in the home country. An international book distributor would handle overseas orders, but that could affect the availability, price, and delivery time. With a wide variety of paper types and book bindings to choose from, offset printing offers more options and can produce higher quality results, but I have been happy with the print on demand quality of the three titles I have with Amazon.

With my first Amazon title successfully launched, and and still travel restricted, I next wrote Kayak across France, preparing monochrome images from my digital color photographs to illustrate the story of the journey across France from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, via the seventeenth century canal du Midi and onward. I would now discover how well print-on-demand tackled images. 

Kayak across France, best appreciated with a glass of wine!

Iceland by Kayak

I have since published my third book with Amazon KDP: Iceland by Kayak, about the first circumnavigation of Iceland by kayak. I began preparing the book with the help of the books and charts I used when planning the trip, and the journals I wrote along the way. My original color slides and monochrome 35mm film needed cleaning and scanning. When I published, I realized it had taken me 46 years to transform my journal and subsequent research into a book.

Since Amazon now offers hardback in addition to paperback and digital options, I chose to publish Iceland by Kayak in hardback first, issuing the paperback later. I am particularly pleased with the quality of the hardback.


Iceland by Kayak, a fun trip and a fun story


Having crafted multiple books over the years, the first with pen and paper, I have benefited from the advances which technology offers the writer. Yet the basic process remains the same. We need to find the right story, the appropriate words to tell it, and a way to present everything in an attractive and engaging way.


BUY Iceland by Kayak


Wednesday, November 1, 2023

What Happened to the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse?

Iconic chalk cliffs

The Seven Sisters Country Park, in the south of England, features precipitous chalk cliffs, where the sea has cut into the undulating dry valleys and ridges of the south downs. To the east of the seven sisters, the cliffs peak at Beachy Head. At 530 feet high, this is the tallest chalk cliff in England. Diminutive by comparison, a red and white painted lighthouse stands below on a wave-cut ledge.


Black and white photo of Beachy Head and its lighthouse,
Beachy Head with lighthouse

Beachy Head Lighthouse, and Belle Tout

This elegantly tapered granite tower was the last traditional offshore lighthouse to be built by Trinity House in this tower style. Starting operation in 1902, it replaced the earlier, 1834, clifftop Belle Tout lighthouse. Belle Tout was frequently obscured by sea mist, and, inconveniently, was out of sight of ships passing close to the rocks below. The newer lighthouse was better placed.

Belle Tout, however, is still there, currently operated as bed-and-breakfast accommodation. In 1999, when threatened by cliff erosion, the 850-ton structure was moved inland 56 feet.  The cliff erodes with a big collapse periodically, at an average of about two feet per year. Sooner or later the lighthouse will need to move again, or it will end up at the bottom of the cliff.

Kayaking beneath the cliffs

When I lived in southeast England, I rated Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters as one of the most scenically attractive sections of the coast within easy reach by kayak. Launching onto the River Cuckmere at Exceat Bridge, to the west, a round trip to Eastbourne beneath these amazing chalk cliffs measured about fifteen miles.

In those days, three keepers manned the lighthouse which was powered by paraffin (Kerosene), until a supply of electricity reached the lighthouse in 1975. I moved away from southeast England before 1983, when the lighthouse became fully automatic, and the keepers were no longer needed.


Red and white painted Beachy Head lighthouse, England
Beachy Head lighthouse

Birling Gap

At Birling Gap, between the Seven Sisters cliffs and Beachy Head, a hamlet with road access perches in a dry valley at the cliff-edge. Many of the original buildings have already been taken by cliff falls.

There was usually a temporary flight of steps of some kind from the cliff top to access the beach. Since the sea frequently damaged or washed away the steps, access was never guaranteed. The carry down, and back up was often awkward to negotiate with kayaks, especially when replacement steps took tight turns. We used this launch place to catch the tide east past the Beachy Head lighthouse, with its ledges and overfalls, toward the Royal Sovereign shoals offshore Eastbourne.

 The Royal Sovereign Shoals.

The Royal Sovereign shoals are littered with wrecks. From 1875 onward, a lightship was moored there to alert ships of the dangers. The most recent lightship to serve there resembled the Varne lightship, shown. The Varne marked a point roughly midway between England and France, a comforting confirmation of our progress when I first crossed the English Channel with friends in 1974.

Varne lightship ion the English Channel
Varne lightship, Mid-English Channel

The Royal Sovereign lightship was replaced by a lighthouse in 1970.  As a teenager at that time, I was fascinated by the plans for how that lighthouse would be constructed, and how it would be positioned on these always underwater shoals.  It would look quite different from a traditional tower lighthouse. 

sea chart of Beachy Head Sussex England, with Royal Sovereign shoal
1967 Admiralty chart shows Beachy Head and Royal Sovereign shoals

The Royal Sovereign Lighthouse.

The structure was built in two parts, on the beach at Newhaven. The hollow base, with the column attached, was towed out to the shoal. The base, once flooded, sank onto a leveled area of shoal.

The second part of the lighthouse, a rectangular cabin section with a helicopter landing pad, and light tower, was towed out later. At high tide, this structure was held above the base until the falling tide dropped it into position on the column. Finally, the telescoping inner section of the column was jacked up by 43 feet and cemented into its elevated position.

The lightship was towed away when the lighthouse began service in September 1971. The lighthouse, provisioned by helicopter, was manned by three keepers. The whole construction procedure was filmed and can be seen on YouTube (22 minutes)

View of Royal Sovereign lighthouse from a kayak
Royal Sovereign Lighthouse

A closer look

This unusual lighthouse stood tantalizingly within reach by kayak, just 6 miles offshore from Eastbourne. In March 1976, I left from Eastbourne to see it up close, timing my crossing to arrive at slack tide. Eastbourne offered an easier solo beach launch than Birling Gap with its steps. 

The tides may have run as forecast that day, but the weather certainly did not. The wind picked up from the southwest, kicking up a sea. My spray deck leaked, and with so much water washing over, my cockpit began to fill. I carried a sponge, but when I unsealed my spray deck, waves flooded the cockpit faster than I could bail. I gave up and pushed on. 

My kayak had a bulkhead immediately behind the seat, and another beyond my feet, so although water could not flood the whole kayak, it drained forward. The deeper the water grew in the cockpit, the more it weighed down the bow, and the more forcefully the kayak weather cocked away from where I wanted to go. It was a tough paddle back. 

A lesson learned

That experience got me thinking not only about a better spray deck, but also about bilge pumps. Preparing to circumnavigate Iceland by Kayak the next year, 1977, I deck-mounted a Henderson Chimp pump on my new kayak. 

deck mounted bilge pump on a kayak
Deck-mounted bilge pump with red and black handle

This kind of pump made it possible to empty a cockpit without removing the spray deck. Easy enough to operate when rafted to another kayak, it was challenging to use when balancing in rough seas, solo. I next experimented with foot-operated pumps which let me continue paddling while pumping. 

sea kayakers approach the Royal Sovereign lighthouse, Sussex, England
Kayaks approach lighthouse

Visiting the keepers on the platform 

Next month, I paddled out to the Royal Sovereign lighthouse with friends. With visibility limited to four miles, I called the coastguards beforehand to inform them of our plan. Bearing gifts of newspapers and fresh milk, we paddled into the fog on a compass bearing. At the lighthouse, we climbed out onto the ladder on the column, tied our kayaks, and scaled the ladder to knock on the door. One of the keepers welcomed us and treated us to a tour of the lighthouse followed by coffee.  

By the time we clambered back down the ladder, the tide had turned, carrying our kayaks out of sight behind the pillar. Anxiously, we hauled on the lines, relieved to find the kayaks still firmly tethered. 

When crossing from Eastbourne, the tide offered little assistance. But on the 18-mile round-trip from Birling Gap it gave us a helpful boost, especially past Beachy Head. The extra miles compared to a round trip from Eastbourne were more than compensated for by the assistance of a spring tide. We timed our launch from Birling Gap, on the flood tide, to round the lighthouse at high water slack and return with the ebb. Birling Gap became my favorite launching place.

Where is the lighthouse now? 

The Royal Sovereign lighthouse was a great target for a fun day trip by kayak, but times change. The light was automated in 1994, and from 2006 onward everything was controlled from shore. Full-time keepers were no longer needed, and the lighthouse remained unoccupied except, occasionally, for maintenance. 

The concrete Royal Sovereign lighthouse, state-of-the-art when built, deteriorated more rapidly than the granite Beachy Head light tower. It was only designed to last for 60 years. Royal Sovereign was taken out of service on March 21, 2022, and scheduled for removal. 

Removal is expected to take three summers, while buoys, north, south, east, and west cardinals mark the shoals. Will there be another lighthouse there? Unlikely. Since ships carry far better navigation systems than in the past, a lighthouse here is considered redundant. 

The first stage of deconstruction began in October 2023, with the removal of the rectangular top section. For now, only the column, on its base, remains. Has anyone been tempted to paddle out to see it before the column is removed? 

If you are interested in learning more about the lighthouse, Bexhill Maritime offers a wonderful description.

Nigel Kayaks logo with silhouette of sea kayaker


Saturday, July 22, 2023



What is Sculling?

I don't mean saying cheers in Swedish: skål, or  Icelandic: skál. Sculling  is a term used to describe two ways of propelling a boat using oars. One of those can also be used to propel a boat using a paddle. As a kayaker and canoeist, I'll focus on efficient paddle technique, but here is some context first.

Sculling or rowing?

Technically, there is a difference between sculling and rowing, particularly in competition, although the two terms are often used indiscriminately. Rowing (or sweep rowing) requires at least two oars, one oar for each rower. In other words, at least two people are needed to row, one oar each side. Only one person is needed to scull, using a pair of oars, one in each hand. But there is another way to scull. A single person can propel a boat using a to-and-fro movement with one oar, usually over the stern, although sometimes at the bow or over the side. 

Grab and pull method. (Or grab and push).

The sculler, facing the stern of the craft, grabs the water with both blades and pulls against them to propel the boat forward. The familiar sight of racing sculls with the scullers sitting low to the water, facing the stern using two oars, is a classic example, but many people scull small boats using two oars while facing forward. In this case the sculler grabs the water with both blades and pushes the craft forward. 

The three scullers facing the stern of the green boat work two oars each. The helmsperson (coxswain) in the back faces forward. Venice Italy.

Side-to side method, single oar.

The sculler swings a single oar thwartwise (from side to side) with the blade aligned to push the boat forward with every sideways swing.

Sculling a sampan with a single oar over the stern, using a side-to-side movement. Suzhou China.

A combination of the two techniques

Gondoliers use a modified version of sculling, using a single oar while standing in the stern facing the bow. They use the scull with a rowlock (the forcola) to one side of the stern, using a combination of the “grab the water and pull” action, and the “to-and-fro” movement. They never switch sides and mostly keep the blade in the water during recovery between strokes. The gondola is asymmetrical to make steering easier since the gondolier uses the oar to both propel and steer, always on the same side. The elevated position of the gondolier allows the oar blade to stay closer to the hull, making the gondola easier to navigate through the narrow Venetian canals. A sculler in a racing scull sits low, the oars reaching wide.


A gondolier sculls using a single oar to one side of the hull near the stern. Venice Italy.

Over-stern sculling

 All over the world, especially in Asia, a similar sculling movement is used over the stern of the boat. The back of a single oar or paddle, whichever is used, is engaged in a pushing mode. The leading edge of the oar is slightly closer to the stern than the trailing edge.

Sculling a Sampan with single oar blade in pushing mode at stern, Suzhou China (Above and in Video below)

Over the bow sculling

Coracles are circular, bowl shaped, so the bow in this case is more of a concept rather than a design feature. The paddler kneels or sits, sculling the craft with the face of the blade engaged, in pulling mode at the front. The coracle is used for fishing with a net, when the short paddle used single-handedly frees the other hand to work the net.  Coracle - Wikipedia

The sculling draw, to move sideways.

Canoeists and kayakers use sculling to pull their craft sideways with the face of the blade engaged. (We also use a similar blade action but starting with the blade flat on the water and moving the blade across the surface in the manner of a knife spreading butter, to aid or to recover balance. I’ll go into how to use that, another time.)

The blade action is a to-and-fro movement, with a slight adjustment of blade angle with each swing. The blade movement is most easily understood if we first imagine a pendulum action with the blade in neutral. That is, sliced edge-first with no pressure on either the face or the back of the blade.

If we angle the leading edge of the blade slightly away during each swing of the pendulum, the blade will try to climb sideways away from us. This is the pulling mode. This is the style used to pull a canoe or kayak sideways, or a coracle forward.

Pulling mode, here dragging the dock toward the right. For clarity, blade is shown partly immersed but it should be fully immersed when in action

If we angle the leading edge of the blade slightly closer to us than the trailing edge, the blade will try to climb sideways closer to us. This is the pushing mode, used for over-stern propulsion, and also to push a kayak or canoe sideways.

Pushing mode, here pushing the dock toward the left. For clarity, blade is shown partially immersed. It should be fully immersed in action.

Refining the paddle stroke.

Keep blade upright to go sideways, or flat to aid support.

The stroke is most effective at pulling the craft sideways when the blade is held upright: perpendicular to the water, with the blade fully immersed.  The closer the blade angle approaches horizontal, the less effective it gets at pulling sideways; it climbs to the surface rather than sideways from the craft. When it climbs to the surface it may be used to aid balance or recover it. A 45-degree angle to the water surface will offer a lot less sideways pulling effect compared to a 90-degree angle.

Here, the blade is used one-handed in pulling mode, the shallow water necessitating a low blade angle to the water of about 45°. While less effective at this angle, you'll notice it did offer some balance support. Lake Toba Indonesia

Positioning the top hand directly above the bottom hand throughout the stroke will prioritize the sideways pull, while lowering the top hand to the level of the deck will make the blade more useful in maintaining balance.

To maximize sideways movement, rotate your torso to face your direction of travel, hold your top arm straight, horizontal at shoulder level, over the water perpendicular to the side of the kayak. Control the blade angle with your lower hand. Pause momentarily at the end of each swing while you change the blade angle.

 Try using the paddle in the manner of a pendulum, with the top hand in a fixed position and compare the effectiveness to when you move both arms together, keeping the top hand vertically above the bottom hand. Does torso rotation help your draw stroke?

Figure of eight.

Watch your blade carefully throughout the stroke. During the pause at the end of each swing, when you change the blade angle ready for the return swing, your kayak or canoe will slide closer to the blade. To allow for this, the blade must creep a little farther from the hull during the following swing. This makes the motion of the paddle naturally describe a figure of 8, (8 on its side against the hull as shown) even when you try to simply pendulum the blade in straight lines. 

There is no need to deliberately focus on describing a figure of 8 with the blade, as this will occur naturally. Any deliberate pull toward the hull at the end of each swing will tend to make the kayak yaw while moving sideways.

Steering while moving sideways

You can steer by sculling with a lesser blade angle in one direction than in the other. You can also turn by sculling only at one end of the craft, leaving the other end almost stationary. Play with it!

Find more tricks and tips in my book, The Art of Kayaking.

Learn more about the author at nigelkayaks.com