23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Dean King

61Doctor Dogbody’s Leg (1940)James Norman Hall. In this send-up of the naval tall tale, Hall creates one of the most hilarious characters to sail the seas. The year is 1817. Egged on by his straight-faced, ale-quaffing friends at the Cheerful Tortoise pub in Portsmouth, Dr. F. Dogbody earnestly tells each new stranger a different and increasingly outrageous tale explaining the loss of his "larboard" leg. First it’s a cutlass-wielding Indian, later a French guillotine, and then amputation after being shot by a poisoned arrow while clinging to a runaway ostrich. . . . Owl Books, 1998.

  "My desire to some day build a fleet for the Ethiopian race and thus help them to free themselves from bondage had found its immediate source in the story of the Full Moon. My knowledge that Liberia was the one bit of land in all Africa still held by its rightful heirs made me think of its importance as a base of operations. The dark continent held a new interest for me and the troubles of my race had taken on a new significance. Even at that early age I was dreaming of an Ethiopian Empire."
—Captain Harry Dean, The Pedro Gorino (#62)

62 The Pedro Gorino: The Adventures of a Negro Sea-Captain in Africa and on the Seven Seas in His Attempts to Found an Ethiopian Empire, An Autobiographical Narrative (1929)Captain Harry Dean. On his first voyage, a three-year world tour with his merchant uncle in 1877, Dean parties with a king in Honolulu and sees a man fight a shark with a knife. In Africa, haunted by tales of the slave trade, he decides to build a fleet for the Ethiopian race, because "a race without ships is like a man stricken and blind." In time, he buys the schooner Pedro Gorino and pursues his extraordinary dream for as long as he can hang on to her. Out of print.

63 The Real McCoy(1931) Frederic F. Van de Water.During Prohibition, the colorful bootlegger Bill McCoy runs spirits up the East Coast, jockeying with mobsters and the feds. All are out for easy profits; McCoy, however, proves to be an outlaw with principles and a soft spot. Most of all he loves his schooner Arethusa, "an aristocrat, a thoroughbred from her keel to her trucks." In this charming as-told-to memoir, there are no good guys, but mobster McCoy steals our hearts. Flat Hammock Press, 2006.

64Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II(2004) Robert Kurson.When an experienced charter captain discovers a submerged German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, two American divers spend six years trying to identify it. Kurson, a journalist, recounts the dangerous dives (others die while exploring the wreck), the competition, and the jealousies, and recreates the lives of the German sailors aboard the mystery ship. The sleuths dive and dive again, research in national archives, and consult U-boat experts in Germany. In their quest for communion with the past, they honor the entombed sailors and uphold the German submariners’ creed—Schicksengemeinschaft ("a community bound by fate"). Random House.

65 The Cruise of the Falcon(1884) Edward F. Knight.As eccentric an English voyage as was ever conceived. On an enticingly sunny day, two free-spirited pals walk away from their jobs in the City and imagine an endless summer at sea. They acquire a yacht and assemble a haphazard crew: two nomadic gentlemen, a 15-year-old homeless boy, and a kitten. Armed with a swivel cannon (and grapeshot) and an "ample" cask of rum, the Falcon promptly sets sail for South America. This jauntily told true story of a two-year voyage of adventure gone awry is an armchair traveler’s summer dream. Out of print.

66Two Years on the Alabama: A Firsthand Account of the Daring Exploits of the Infamous Confederate Raider (1895) Arthur Sinclair. The fifth lieutenant tells the story of the Confederate cruiser, which plied the whole of the Atlantic (from the Cape of Good Hope to the English Channel) and sank 60 Union merchant vessels. One measure of her success: she started with 15 shipboard chronometers and ended with 75 (at some point they stopped winding them all). Sinclair’s account is filled with equal parts whimsical anecdote and misty pathos (you’ll weep with merchant captains as they watch their ships go down) before the Alabama meets her end outside Cherbourg.

Shackleton’s Endurance on ice

67 Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (1959) Alfred Lansing. The story of the great failed expedition to the South Pole in 1914 is so moving that it merits an additional perspective. Lansing interviews members of the crew and examines their smoke and blubber-smeared diaries, broadening the take on events already so well described by Worsley (#18) and Shackleton (#10). This is not just the story of the captain or the expedition leader but of the men before the mast, battling tedium, loneliness, close quarters, and short rations before taking to the ice. Carroll & Graf, 1999.

68The Golden Ocean (1956) and The Unknown Shore (1959)Patrick O’Brian. Loosely speaking, these are prequels to the vaunted Aubrey-Maturin series. Set during Commodore Anson’s famed voyage of 1740, in which he circumnavigated the globe and captured a fortune in Spanish gold while losing four of his five ships, these two books show flashes of O’Brian’s greatness and are thrilling reads in their own right. In the latter novel, the protagonists, Midshipman Jack Byron and Surgeon’s Mate Tobias Barrow, survive the wreck of the Wager, sunk off Chile, and struggle to return home. Norton.

69 Spartina (1989)John Casey. In this 1989 National Book Award winner, an embittered Rhode Islander trying to muddle through his life decides to build his own boat to maintain his self-respect. He navigates Block Island’s corner bars, where he cuts deals to realize his dream, and even makes a harrowing drug-smuggling run in the salt marshes. But he’s really just like you and me—after the local girl. Vintage, 1998.

70 The Cruise of the Nona (1925) Hilaire Belloc. A prolific essayist and poet, Belloc loved to sail. In 1924, he cruised England’s coastal waters—from Holyhead (in St. George’s Channel) to The Wash (in the North Sea)—in a small yacht, allowing the sea to rejuvenate and inspire him. "The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men," he writes. "The sea provides visions, darknesses, revelations." Belloc muses profoundly about his affinity for the sea and digresses pleasingly on history, politics, and religion. Out of print.

71The Silent World (1953)Jacques Cousteau. The TV shows made it all look so easy. Read today, this book reminds us that Cousteau, a French naval officer, and his fellow early scuba divers really were exploring an unknown world in experimental gear. Under the watchful eyes of German occupiers, their spirit remained indomitable as they tested the "aqualung" and expanded our universe in miraculous ways. National Geographic, 2004.

72 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) Jules Verne. In the age of the lowly Hunley, the visionary French author conceived of the Nautilus, a deluxe, narwhal-horned, sci-fi cruiser of the ocean floor. Captain Nemo takes his misbegotten guests—the scientist Pierre Aronnax, his man Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land—on a zany voyage around the world. They battle a giant squid, joust with a pod of sperm whales, fend off crushing ice pack at the South Pole, and endure hellish seas. Along the way, they discover Atlantis and their captain’s eccentricities.Restored and annotated edition, Naval Institute Press, 1993.

73Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast(1996) Daniel Duane. In Duane’s words, a surfboard provides "a way of seeing not just the shapes and moods of the waves but the very life" of the sea. Duane takes a year off from college to surf the waters of Monterey Bay, but he is no slacker. He quotes from Cook and Dana, discourses on wave formation and sharks, and reveals the joys of surfing via locals. From his board, Duane sees California afresh and paints a sublime portrait of Santa Cruz’s sea and coastal life. North Point Press.

74Mr. Midshipman Easy (1836)Frederick Marryat. In the grips of his father’s over-the-top egalitarian philosophy, the naive young gentleman Jack Easy enters the midshipmen’s berth in his Majesty’s sloop Harpy. This is the Captain’s most popular novel, and as always, the action comes fast and furious—gales, broadsides, ruses de guerre, and French prisons. The adventures are thick with social satire, naval-reform politics, and the pursuit of love and friendship.

75 Sufferings in Africa: The Astonishing Account of a New England Sea Captain Enslaved by North African Arabs (1817) Captain James Riley. The true story of the wreck of a Connecticut merchant brig off the west coast of Africa. The crew of 12 is captured and enslaved by desert nomads. Half the crew perishes, but Captain Riley convinces Arab trader Sidi Hamet to escort him 800 miles across the Sahara to the port of Essaouira, where he can be ransomed. The crew’s ordeal is a brutal tale of death, suffering, and slavery on the burning sands. Riley ultimately saves himself and some of the men through the bond he forges with Hamet. Abraham Lincoln named this memoir a favorite of his youth. Lyons Press, 2000.

76 The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (1913) John Claus Voss. After a Canadian journalist asks Voss if he can round the globe in a vessel smaller than Slocum’s Spray, the captain converts a 38-foot, cedar dugout into a three-masted sailboat. He takes the journalist with him. Short and tough—and a masterful sailor—Voss cruises the South Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand, where he proves to be part showman, part huckster, an expert witness, a semi-reliable mailman, and one hell of a raconteur. The ride on the Tilikum ("Friend")is so rough that every new mate becomes violently seasick. One disappears overboard, a stigma that Voss never fully recovers from on his otherwise triumphant 1901-1904 voyage. Available as 40,000 Miles in a Canoe, from McGraw-Hill, 2001.

77The Pyrates: A Swashbuckling Comic Novel by the Creator of Flashman (1983) George MacDonald Fraser. The author of the inimitable überarch Flashman series sends up the pirate genre, as the all-too-dashing and circumspect Royal Navy Captain Ben Avery, bound for Madagascar with a priceless crown, falls into the hands of pirates. Avery is marooned on a sandbar, while the voluptuous Vanity, an admiral’s daughter and passenger with whom he has fallen in love, is sold into slavery. Avery must return to save the day and the damsel against a cast of scurvy characters. All quite silly and hilarious. Lyons Press, 2003.

78 The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (1970) Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. In 1968, nine sailors leave Europe on the first nonstop, single-handed, round-the-world boat race. While Bernard Moitessier sails off into the great yonder in pursuit of his muse and Robert Knox-Johnston claims the crown, a third sailor steals the show. Found calmly adrift, the trimaran Teignmouth Electron seems normal, except for one thing: she is unoccupied. Gone without a trace is her skipper, Donald Crowhurst, an eccentric who after 240 days at sea had appeared to be the frontrunner. Two journalists discover a failed journey and a wake of deceit—but no body. As with the Mary Celeste, this ghost story will haunt sailors forever. McGraw-Hill, 1995.

79 The Sand Pebbles (1962) Richard McKenna. In this anomalous story, the Sand Pebbles are actually the crew of the San Pablo, an antiquated U.S. Navy gunboat stationed up the Yangtze River in tumultuous 1920s China. The isolated crew has adapted to its surroundings in undisciplined ways. When newcomer Engineer Jack Holman, whose only friends seem to be the engines he nurses, joins the crew, he faces crises in a foreign land. Like The Heart of Darkness, this novel reminds us just how strange it is to be an unwanted guest an ocean away from home. Naval Institute Press, 2000.

80 The Mirror of the Sea(1906) Joseph Conrad. Fifteen essays that amount to a metaphorical meditation and manifesto on the life of the sailor. How does man fare against the sea? Writes Conrad: "All the tempestuous passions of mankind’s young days, the love of loot and the love of glory, the love of adventure and the love of danger, with the great love of the unknown and vast dreams of dominion and power, have passed like images reflected from a mirror, leaving no record upon the mysterious face of the sea." Various publishers.

 

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