Hello. I'm a writer/photographer who writes about and photographs all things nautical. As well as contributing articles to a range of magazines, I write books about boats, sailors and the sea (plus the occasional foray into economics). I have a large archive of photos, mainly of sailing boats, and I'm regularly out on new assignments. There's more info in About Me, and details of recent books below.
A history of madness at sea
They say the sea always finds the inner you. Slowly, relentlessly, it washes away the veneer of politeness and reveals people’s true nature. And it’s not always pretty. Take Paul Terman, an experienced German sailor who set off on a transatlantic cruise in 1981 and felt so antagonised he ended up killing the yacht’s skipper and his girlfriend. Or Donald Crowhurst, who spent months drifting around the Atlantic pretending to be sailing around the world in the 1968 Golden Globe race before giving up and committing suicide. Even during the Age of Discovery, there were several mutinies and mass murders caused by spending too long at sea. And mental illness was so widespread during the Age of Sail that the Royal Navy was forced to build several ‘asylums’ to house its mad sailors.
It’s a rich area for psychologists too, and several case studies have been made of long-distance yacht races as well as more general studies of the ‘outlaw sea’, where national laws don’t apply. The philosopher Foulcault describes ships as “not only the greatest instrument of economic development […] but the greatest reservoir of imagination.” And it’s a thin line between the imagination and the fantastical; reason and madness.
This book looks at the
sea’s physical character, how it confuses our senses and makes rational thought
difficult. It looks at the long history of madness at sea and how that is
played out in many of today’s singlehanded and crewed races. It looks at the
often marginal behaviour of sailors living in a liminal space which is both
figuratively and literally outside society’s usual rules. And it looks at the
sea’s power to heal, as well as cause, madness. Published by Adlard Coles, September 2017. Available here. It's also available as an audiobook, narrated by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, at Audible.
'This horrifying and engrossing book could scarcely be improved upon. [...] a lightly-worn but gripping contribution to the field, well researched and full of anecdote and comparison.' The Spectator
'A fascinating and engrossing nose dive into the underreported depths of nautical insanity.' Kerkus Reviews
'Must-reading for nautical enthusiasts with a strong stomach and readers intrigued by the body-mind connection and other psychiatric matters.' Booklist
'Nic Compton’s brilliant new non-fiction release proves a powerful and fascinating exploration of the long and unusual history of madness at sea.' The Arts Desk
"This marvellous, engrossing and horrifying book charts the story of lunacy at sea, its causes, manifestation, treatment and implications. At a crucial moment in the history of human mental health, Off the Deep End is immensely informative and readable, and hugely provocative." The Big Issue, Best Books of the Year
'A fun, amusing and engaging history of men and women who went mad at sea.' Blue Water Sailing
'Compton's collection of questionable-sanity stories covers centuries of sailing in a way that is part history, part horror and part hypothesis. Whichever part appeals to you, this book is a fascinating and cautionary tale.' Sailing
'Highly recommended.' Yachting Monthly
'Off the Deep End is well written, Nic Compton’s prose embracing the reader’s attention and clipping along at a pace.' Ocean Cruising Club
'A fascinating book.' Sailing Today
'Your subject is under-explored - despite near universal interest - and your treatment of it is very well judged: highly readable without resort to sensationalism, well researched but not dryly academic, and relevant without becoming a campaign pamphlet. I hope it gets the readership it deserves.' Dr Stephen, Consultant Psychiatrist, Edinburgh
Some notable boatables
It's exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of 40 stories of 40 interesting or 'notable' boats. It took some ingenuity to think of interesting stories for some of the boats suggested by the publisher, eg a gondola (Casanova's escape from the Doge prison), a Hinckley sloop (John Lennon's trip to Bermuda shortly before he died), etc. Lots of the usual suspects are there (Spray, Suhaili, Dorade, Gypsy Moth IV, etc) as well as a few surprises (who's heard of Evgeny Gvozdev, Amyr Klink and Kawika Kapahulehua?). I even managed to squeeze in Huck's raft and the Kon-Tiki. Anyway, I'm very pleased with the end result: one of those books that it's a pleasure to hold (regardless of what's inside!).
What the reviewers are saying:'Visually impactful, historically relevant, the book offers an intimate exploration of the boats – both real and fictional – that have shaped the iconography of the subject throughout history. Adventure, disaster and heroism: it's all here.' Vanity Fair
Becoming cyclonic later...
Like most sailors who have navigated through UK waters, I've often been at the receiving end of the Shipping Forecast and been grateful for its reliable predictions. I've also sat at home and been entranced by its strangely poetic rhythms, as it circles around the 31 sea areas, from Viking down to FitzRoy and back up to Southeast Iceland. So I was delighted when BBC Books asked me to write a miscellany based around this most unlikely of national institutions.
The result is this book, which starts off with a description of how the Shipping Forecast came to be adored by seafarers and landlubbers alike, before dipping into each of the sea areas themselves to explore some of the rich maritime culture to be found around the British Isles. Featured on: the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4), the Steve Wright Show (BBC Radio 2), the Breakfast Show (BBC 1), BBC Radio Devon, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Express, The Times and Radio Times.
What the reviewers are saying:'Fantastic book – we're loving it!" Steve Wright, BBC Radio 2
'...a touching tribute.' Roger Lewis, Daily Mail
'Of all the books that my girl has given to me, as christmas presents, over the (considerable long) years, this rates equal best with "The Devil's Dictionary" as one I least expected to get and have enjoyed sumthin considrble.' Shannon O'Hara, reader
The making of a Titanorak
I can't pretend I had any interest in the Titanic before I was asked to write this book. But I soon got interested, trawling through thousands of pages of first-hand testimonies about the disaster. I think what makes it so compelling as a story are the hundreds of interlocking stories of human suffering, courage and fallibility – as well as plain cowardice and selfishness. And there are bigger themes of man vs nature, corporate greed, institutional failure, etc. It really is all there! My book tells the story in 'real time' from the perspective of various passengers and crew – from the firestokers standing in the engine room when the first gush of water bursts through the hull, to the first class passengers who may or may not have paid their way to safety – all told in their own words (lightly edited). It was certainly one of the most engrossing assignments I've ever had, and I now count myself among the millions of Titanoraks out there. Published by Bloomsbury, April 2012.
What the reviewers are saying:
"Many many books have been published [about the Titanic], some better than others but Titanic on Trial by Nic Compton is one of my favourites out of this genre. [...] Difficult to review such a moving and tragic account but I do urge you to buy and read. Not ashamed to say it made me cry." Elaine Simpson-Long, Random Jottings
Now you know why it's called 'tortured ply'...
This was my first attempt at writing a biography and, while I would probably do things differently now, I think it's a good attempt to capture one of the most enigmatic characters in the boating scene. One of the first designers to see the potential of epoxy/ply construction, Iain made his name with elegant boats designed for amateur construction, never patronising his customers, and proving that amateurs could build beautiful boats too. Designs such as the Acorn Skiff, the Caledonian Yawl, the Ness Yawl and, more recently, the St Ayles Skiff have helped establish a worldwide following for the reclusive designer.
Published by Adlard Coles, 2009.
What the reviewers are saying:
‘This sensitively written book is about an artist with a belief in beauty and simplicity, who lives his dreams, mostly by himself, while giving far more to the world than he takes from it.’ Maynard Bray, Technical Editor of WoodenBoat magazine
'Biographies are often slow going, even a bit moribund, but for me this one reads more like a thriller, pulling you forward, wanting to find out what happens next. […] Mr. Compton has knit all this together into a flowing narrative that stays out of the way and allows the story unfold like a satisfying afternoon sail. Highly recommended.’ Thomas Armstrong, 70.8% Blogspot
‘This book is to be devoured in a couple of sittings and then dipped into whenever life becomes too jaded, a source of inspiration for many years to come... This is a must-have volume.’ Water Craft
Did Nelson really say 'Kiss me Hardy'?
Ever wondered why boats are always referred to as 'she'? Or why a rope on a ship is rarely called a rope? Or where the highest tides and fastest currents in the world are? And did Britain's greatest naval hero really ask another man to kiss him before he died? Why Sailors Can't Swim is awash with maritime folklore, trivia and anecdotes for sailors and non-sailors alike. As the blurb says, it's "full of entertaining, surprising and insightful titbits about the history, science and culture of the sea. [...] Learn the origins of the myriad of nautical expressions that have crept into everyday English speech, and impress with your knowledge of bizarre and obscure nautical facts!" Published by Adlard Coles, May 2013.
Time to cast your vote
It's an inspiring tale: the story of newly-weds Aaron and Abbie Ashton buying an old wooden boat and restoring it with the help of their wedding list funds (see below). Now you can vote for their project, the Fred Shepherd-designed Heron II, at the Classic Boat Awards.
Wharram's world tour
The 63ft catamaran Spirit of Gaia, designed by James Wharram and Hanneke Boon, was intended as a dolphin exploration vessel. She ended up sailing around the world and inspiring a new range of Wharram catamarans. The whole story is told for the first time in the April issue of PBO.
Ultimate wedding gift
Abbie and Aaron Ashton banned toasters and hair driers from their wedding list and set up a boat fund instead. The result was the 52ft Fred Shepherd cutter Heron II, which they spent three years restoring. Sailing magazine in the USA gave the story the full treatment in February including this rather fine cover.
Sun, sea and service
Having helped my parents deliver 'sun, sea and service' as a kid in Greece, it was thrilling to be on the other side of the equation 40 years later. Our home for a week was the lovely ex-Danish trawler Ionian Spirit. You can read about our food-orientated odyssey in the February issue of Classic Boat.
Return of the eel barge
For centuries, live eels were transported from Holland to London using special barges fitted with 'wet holds'. The trade ended in 1933, partly due to pollution in the Thames, but a replica of the last eel barge was built as a community project. I joined the first barge to deliver live eels to London for 86 years and wrote about her in the Jan/Feb issue of WoodenBoat.
Swiss family Robinson
The heart-warming story of a well-travelled Drascombe Lugger owned by one family for 28 years and sailed in the Swiss Lakes and Venice before being donated to the Stoke Gabriel Boating Association in Devon. All is explained in the December issue of Practical Boat Owner.
The 1878 Lowestoft drifter Gleaner was about to be demolished when Spike Davis and friends dismantled her, packed her into a container and shipped her back to England. Five years later, she's sailing again, thanks to a lot of hard work, some handy donations and not a lot of money. You can vote for Gleaner as Centenarian of the Year and Spike as Boater of the Year at the Classic Boat Awards.
Triumph or carbuncle?
The Cutty Sark is 150 years old! In 2012, the ship's restoration project was awarded the Carbuncle Prize for 'defiling the very thing it sets out to save'. But was it all worth it for the sensation of lying under one of the world's most iconic ships? German readers can find out in the 24/2019 issue of Yacht.