Dean King

21Captains Courageous (1896)Rudyard Kipling. Spoiled young Harvey Cheyne receives an involuntary education aboard a Grand Banks fishing schooner. He soon learns the ways of the seamen—from how to bait a hook to how to swear at rival fishermen. He is thus able to appreciate the unforgettable scene at Virgin Rock, where hundreds of fishing vessels converge after completing their runs, and where Kipling revels in the camaraderie and patois of the sea.

22The Last Grain Race (1956)Eric Newby. Revered for his book on the central Asian wilds, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,Newby got his start as a travel writer at sea. At age 18, he boarded the four-masted Finnish barque Moshulu and sailed to Australia and back to pick up grain. A first-rate writer, whose wry humor will make you guffaw, he proves to be a skilled and fearless topman in the most harrowing of seas. He’s also a brawler who shows the Nordic fo’c’sle bullies the mettle of an English jack. Lonely Planet, 2006.

23 The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea (1997) Sebastian Junger. A sensation when it was published and now a classic, Junger’s work delivers the storm of the ages: mountainous seas, hurricane gusts, desperate wives waiting on shore. While he dishes out copious details of storm formation and the minutiae of deep-sea fishing, the pace never flags as we chart the course of the doomed trawler Andrea Gale. Junger deftly connects the fate of six Gloucester longline swordfishermen with the New England sailors who came before them—the ones you’ll find in Captains Courageous and In the Heart of the Sea. HarperCollins, 1999.

24 Percival Keene(1842) Frederick Marryat. A sea captain who served under the great frigate commander Cochrane, Marryat wielded a pen the way a boarder wields a cutlass. Though a bit dated, the novel still offers a rollicking voyage. Keene survives a stint on the ship of a black pirate, wages war at sea, fights a duel for his father, survives a shotgun blast from his uncle, loses his frigate on a lee shore, and barely dodges execution by Napoleon’s cavalry. "I have been chuckling, and grinning, and clenching my fists, and becoming warlike," Dickens wrote Marryat after reading the book. Out of print.

  "We had nothing to eat but dry biscuits and not a drop of fresh water to drink for three days. I cautioned the men to be careful, and not to drink too much at first, as it would be likely to make them sick, and I was the first one that did it, as I stepped on board and went into the cabin, whilst the Captain & passengers were questioning the men about the wreck, and on the cabin table was a pitcher of water, and I thought I would just take one swallow, but when I put it to my mouth I could not take it away until I had nearly emptied it of its contents."
—Charles Tyng, Before the Wind

25Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833 (1999) Charles Tyng. Found in an attic over a century later, this account of a U.S. merchant captain’s cruises between 1808 and 1833 is admirably spare, like the captain himself. Fortunately, Tyng’s sentences pack as much wallop as the belaying pin he wields when reminding his surly crew of their duty. Tyng is one tough but loveably frank Yankee sailor, whether describing the necessity of kissing a native king’s wives "lying on a mat, like three brown hogs, naked, their skins oiled" or discouraging a challenge to his command. Penguin, 2000.

26Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (1998)Gary Kinder. In 1857, the steamship Central America went down with 400 passengers—and 21 tons of gold. We follow the fate of the steamer and then the exploits of treasure hunter Tommy Thompson 130 years later. Thompson locates the wreck through historical detective work, weathers the labyrinthine rules of international salvage law, and develops new submersible technology to enable deepwater recovery (the ship lies 8,000 feet down). This true story culminates in a series of seaborne ruses as the treasure hunters try to evade piratical competitors. Vintage, 1999.

27 Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942)Samuel Eliot Morison. A renowned Harvard historian and devout sailor, Morison retraced Columbus’s route for this 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. The attention he devotes to explaining navigation is invaluable in showing Columbus’s genius. If you can’t get enough of the wiles of dead reckoning, seek out the original two-volume edition. Little, Brown, 1970.

28 The Saga of the Cimba (1939) Richard Maury. It’s just a voyage from New York to Fiji (via the Panama Canal). But Maury’s bittersweet telling is so enthusiastic and lyrically beautiful that it takes your breath away. Jonathan Raban calls it "the most eloquent prose hymn ever written to the exhilaration, the beauty, and the sheer joy of being at sea." The voyage’s abrupt end will wring tears from your eyes, but as Maury notes, "We cannot hold the same poetry throughout life." McGraw-Hill, 2001.

29 Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (1999) Jonathan Raban. An incomparable literary companion with whom to share a boat, Raban explores the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau and encounters Indians and all manner of serendipitous acquaintances. His reflections upon Captain George Vancouver and other predecessors are rich for being informed but never effete. How did the Polynesians navigate? With their testicles, of course, sensing variations in the sea swell through their most sensitive parts.Vintage, 2000.

30The Principall Navigation, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589-1600)Richard Hakluyt. At a time when maps still had lacunae labeled "here be dragons," Hakluyt published 12 volumes of the accounts of English explorations around the globe. His intent was to spread English might Elizabethan-style, to curry enthusiasm for settlement and expansion, and—oh yes—to make good on his own investments. But the accounts became an end in themselves as he recorded the tales of Portuguese and Spanish explorers, too. Some say he invented travel literature. An abridged edition, Voyages and Discoveries (1972), is available from Penguin.

31 Typee (1846)Herman Melville. Before he was a great novelist, Melville was a ship jumper. At age 22, he and a friend left a whaler in the Marquesas Islands and lived among the natives for four months. This, his first novel, was based on that experience and is a classic of the sailor-in-a-strange-land genre. There is much to admire in the land of Typees, many sensual pleasures, and much, it turns out, to fear.

32The Sea Around Us (1951)Rachel Carson. This is the centerpiece of a trilogy that ?Carson, a trained zoologist, wrote describing the origins, evolution, and characteristics of the sea, from topography to waves and currents to ocean minerals. It’s all here and charmingly readable. Why do penguins thrive on the Galapagos Islands near the equator? Because the Humboldt Current brings icy waters and marine life from Antarctica. Oxford University Press, 1991.

33 To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy (1980-89) William Golding. In 1813 a decrepit man-of-war sails from England to Sydney with a load of "pilgrims" and a tyrannical captain—the perfect hothouse setting for a Nobel laureate to explore the British class system. A homosexual chaplain lusts for sailors. A passenger is beaten in a pagan equator-crossing ritual. A young aristocrat wrestles with the nature of justice at sea and his desire for a young woman of dubious repute. The trilogy is chock-full of literary and operatic allusions and stunning descriptions of ship squalor. The mood is dark and the plot as cross-grained as the sea. Faber and Faber, 1991.

The mutineers setting Lt. Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from the HMS Bounty, by Robert Dodd

34 Mutiny on the Bounty(1790) William Bligh.Known for expert seamanship and colorful epithets, Bligh nevertheless recounts his ill-fated voyage to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies in unadorned words. His equanimity certainly helped him succeed in one of the most appalling open-boat voyages ever—3,600 miles on limited grog from the not-so Friendly Islands to Timor. Whatever else one might say about Bligh, he delivered 17 of his 18 faithful crew to safety, a better fate than that of the mutineers. This is Bligh in his element, before the spin. Available as The Bounty Mutiny from Penguin Classics.

35Middle Passage (1990) Charles Johnson. In a story as old as Jonah, Rutherford Calhoun runs to sea to escape debts and a woman. But Calhoun is a ?free black, the year is 1830, and the ship is an illegal slaver. In a tale rich in symbolism (the ship is called the Republic) and sometimes in the grotesque (the captain is a literate, pedophile dwarf), the erstwhile confidence man somehow manages to earn the trust of the captain, the mutinous crew, and the defiant cargo. Johnson’s writing is elegant and informed. Scribner, 1998.

36 By Way of Cape Horn(1930) A. J. Villiers."Out from Wallroo, by way of Cape Horn," the steel-sided clipper Grace Harwar, one of the last of her breed, sails to England in ballast to pick up a cargo of grain. It’s everything you would expect: the hazards of the Horn, dissension among the crew, life in the rigging, and death overboard. Author of 25 books on his sea experiences, Villiers makes it all seem fresh on this towering 20th-century square-rigger. Out of print.

37The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1970)Gabriel García Márquez. Talk about luck. Washed off a Colombian destroyer, ?Luis Alejandro Velasco survives for 10 days on a cork raft with no provisions. The sun blisters him and sharks snap around him. A spectral friend keeps him sane while the current washes the raft to his native shores. And then comes the luck. Not that he is anointed a national hero—a fact that mystifies the humble sailor—but that a Bogotá newspaper assigns a future Nobel laureate to the story. The result: a lyrical rendering that captivates a nation, shuts down the paper, and immortalizes Velasco. Vintage, 1989.

38Godforsaken Sea: Racing the World’s Most Dangerous Waters(1999) Derek Lundy. The Vendeé Globe Race—from France around Antarctica (weathering all three great Capes) and back (single-handed, stopping nowhere)—is the most grueling race in the world. In 1996-97, 16 entrants sailed their 60-foot boats into the heart of the fierce Southern Ocean, surfing seas the size of apartment buildings at 28 knots in Force 10 gales. Pete Goss’s attempt to rescue a capsized competitor, turning his boat around to sail upwind and find him two days away, is unforgettable. Anchor Books, 2000.

39 The Safe Guard of the Sea (1998) and The Command of the Ocean (2004) N. A. M. Rodger. The first two volumes of a planned three-volume history of the Royal Navy are sweeping and authoritative as they chart the rise of Britain’s supremacy on the sea between 660 and 1815. Rodger, a renowned naval scholar, writes with the congenial ease of a don instructing his eager class. Volume 3 is now in progress. Norton.

40In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000) Nathaniel Philbrick. An up-to-date version of the sinking of the whaleship Essex by a rogue whale in 1820. The story inspired authors from Melville to Edgar Allan Poe. Philbrick fills in the gaps—instructing us on the ways, mores, and economics of Nantucket whaling—and ends up with a hoary tale of men trying to survive alone in an open boat. Viking.


Crackerjack Sea Books: Intro & 1-20 | 21-40 | 41-60 | 61-80 | 81-101