Dean King

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The year is 1902, the place Auckland, New Zealand, on the deck of the Tilikum. Captain Jack Voss is interviewing yet another potential mate on his two-man round-the-world journey in a sailboat made out of a red-cedar canoe. Since setting out from British Columbia, he has lost one mate overboard and several others to seasickness and temptations in port. After ascertaining that this candidate, an Irish ex-clergyman, can steer a yacht, Voss asks the apparently frivolous and yet perhaps most critical question of all: "Can you tell a good story?"

The would-be mate rips off a tale—a "real crackerjack"—on the spot and earns the dubious honor of a berth in Voss’s extraordinary canoe.

Storytelling is intrinsic to the sea. Ever since man learned to sail long distances, he has amused himself and his fellow crew by telling stories. Or, as John McPhee writes in his book Looking for a Ship: " All through a voyage while nothing happens, sailors tell stories about things that happen."

Life at sea can be tedious and the hours lonely, but things do happen. Just ask Odysseus or the Ancient Mariner, or Cook or Ahab, or Hornblower or Queeg. Since time immemorial, young men have gone to sea to prove themselves, fallen men to escape their troubles, ambitious men to discover new lands or to make fortunes or to gain fame by setting new records of distance and speed. Since time immemorial, men have also gone to sea to fight. And while it may be true, as Joseph Conrad says, that the ocean is a brute that has "no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory," it has been exceedingly generous in one way: sailors and their chroniclers have recorded and conjured up a singular body of literature upon its waves.

This body of work spans three millennia, covers a fascinating swath of history, and includes some of the towering works in the English language. From Moby-Dick to Jaws, from Scylla and Charybdis to the perfect storm, from the Pequod to the Titanic, sea literature defines danger for us. In the voyages of Cook, Dana, Riley, Shackleton, Heyerdahl, and Slocum, it takes us on adventures to the boundaries of our globe. And in the strange unhingings of Ahab, Queeg, and Crowhurst, it allows us to see the outer limits of the inner mind.

It was Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, a roman-fleuve of the Age of Nelson only completed in recent years, that rekindled my passion for sea literature, which had been suckled by Homer and Hermann Melville and Conrad. In the wood-paneled library of the New York Yacht Club, for days on end, sailors’ stories enveloped me. I could crack open a book and soon find myself on frozen shrouds fighting an angry storm off Cape Horn, shipwrecked on the uncharted Saharan coast, in the midst of an epic sea battle, whaling, pirating, treasure hunting, or trading with natives in the South Seas.

Out of this wonderful chaos of sea books—of memoirs, histories, biographies, and novels—we (for I have had the help of some generous friends) have culled here the best books, regardless of era or genre, that any good library of the sea should possess. Some of the books are recognized classics, while some are mostly forgotten. (Ever heard of The Lightship, The Real McCoy, or The Last Grain Race? You’ll be glad you have now.) Some are explorers’ firsthand accounts, some are great histories or biographies, others are fiction. All but six of the books were written in the past two centuries.

It has been said that every great book is a response to another. Certainly many a sea book has inspired another voyage, which in turn has inspired another book. In modern times, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (list #5) has stirred so many sailor-readers that there is even a book about the voyages of voyagers who set out to repeat his pioneering raft ride. Before that, Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (#16), inspired dozens, including Captain Voss’s canoe voyage, recounted in The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss (#76).

Slocum himself reads Christopher Columbus and James Cook on his way to Cape Horn—a place saturated with the lore of voyagers’ battles with arctic winds, violent storms, and warlike natives. The Horn is a palimpsest of stories and histories, layered with Magellan (#92), Cook (#8), Darwin (#13), and Dana (#6). Windjammer sailors of the early 20th century left their mark in such classic accounts as A. J. Villiers’s By Way of Cape Horn (#36) and Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race (#22). Cape Horn continues to be shaped not just by the currents of wind and water but by a tide of sailors’ stories.

The more one reads, the more one discovers the continuity and interconnectedness of the great library of the sea across the ages. It is fascinating to follow the threads—from Moby-Dick (#2) to Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (#40), from Bligh (#34) to Nordhoff and Hall’s Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy (#11) to Caroline Alexander’s The Bounty (#59).C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books (#9), which were the spiritual descendant of Captain Frederick Marryat’s oeuvre (#24), gave birth to O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (#4). Upon Forester’s death in 1966, his American publisher wrote O’Brian to see if he would like to try his hand at a series. The result: Master and Commander.

Richard Hughes’s novel In Hazard (#19) openly borrows from "Typhoon," and Graham Greene praises Hughes for having the gumption to steal from Conrad’s iconic tempest and get away with it. In The Sea Around Us (#32), Rachel Carson recommends Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea (#80). Lothar-Günther Buchheim alludes to the same work in Das Boot (#7), as his submarine commander reads an account of a raging Conrad storm to his crew while they themselves are battling a storm in the North Atlantic.

In Long John Silver (#46), Bjorn Larsson tells the life story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous bad boy in Treasure Island (#20), and in The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower (#90), C. Northcote Parkinson chronicles the life of C. S. Forester’s fictional hero, Hornblower. More recently, Gary Kinder and Robert Kurson have combined new adventures with old stories in their gripping treasure-hunting accounts Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea (#26) and Shadow Divers (#64), respectively.

These wonderful books are but a few of those that connect with earlier, classic works of the sea. You will undoubtedly make many new such discoveries of your own.

The Art of the List

We based our choices on a number of criteria. Readability and good storytelling, historical significance, insight into life at sea and the human experience, a gripping plot, humor, and originality all mattered.

While we often found ourselves in the difficult position of comparing apples to oranges, the mixing of the genres serves a purpose. It introduces more possibilities, particularly for readers who tend to stick solely to either fiction or nonfiction. In order to make the list more well-rounded, we also set seemingly arbitrary parameters. For instance, for the sake of breadth and diversity, once an author made the list with one title, it was more difficult for him or her to land another book on the list. While some notable books by great authors may be absent, the list benefits from having more authors and more subjects. For the same reason, we considered a trilogy or a series as one title. Thus you will find the 20 novels of the Aubrey-Maturin series occupying one line, as you will C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series and the trilogies of Golding and Nordhoff and Hall.

We feel that by exposing readers to a greater number of worthy authors, many of whom might otherwise be lost in the shadows of the canonized authors, we are serving the interests of readers and writers (and sailors) best. We hope that you discover many new books—and even better, many new authors whose bodies of work will reward your continued exploration.

The Contributors

A number of sea-literature experts made invaluable contributions to the creation of this list, namely, Ron Chambers, former director of the Naval Institute Press; Tom Cutler, senior acquisitions editor of the Naval Institute Press; Robert Foulke, professor emeritus of English at Skidmore College and editor for literature of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History; Greg Gibson, head of Ten Pound Island Book Co.; John Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History; Louis Parascandola, associate professor of English at Long Island University; and Tom Philbrick, professor emeritus of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Equally as meaningful were the contributions of sea-literature aficionados Bruce Coffey, Sr., Patrick Darby, Mike Douglas, Commander Brad Holt (USN), David Roth, and John Wigmore. Finally, the list would not have been possible without my man Friday, Bruce Coffey, Jr., whose devotion to this project was extraordinary, as is his capacity for devouring books and remembering what is in them. My hearty thanks to all.

Dean King is the award-winning author of the national bestseller Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival (Little, Brown, 2004), about the wreck of the Connecticut merchant brig Commerce on the west coast of Africa in 1815 and the enslavement and escape of her crew. Skeletons is currently being turned into a feature film by Paula Weinstein and Intermedia and into a two-hour special documentary by the History Channel. King is also the author of Patrick O’Brian: A Life Revealed, a Daily Telegraph book of the year, and of A Sea of Words, the first companion book to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

The 101 Best Sea Books

The date after the title is the date of first publication, or in the case of Homer, the approximate time of composition. The publisher at the end of the entry indicates the most recent or recommended edition of the book, accompanied by the date of publication if it differs from the original. When there are multiple editions but none is preferred, no publisher is listed. A book not currently in print is noted. Most books not in print can still be found in libraries—if not locally, then through interlibrary loan. Or they can be bought from bookstores specializing in used books.

1 The Odyssey (ca. 700 BC) Homer. The battle for Troy won, Odysseus and his men sail for Ithaca, aided by Athena and opposed by Hyperion (god of the sun) and Poseidon (god the sea). The obstacles they face—the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis—are now archetypes, the tale’s structure and themes woven into the fabric of Western civilization. Odysseus is a hero for the ages, but no matter how fearlessly he strives to reach his destination, the Ithaca he left has changed forever. This story perpetually reminds us of the irony of the voyager: often the greatest challenge he faces is returning home again.

2 Moby-Dick (1851) Herman Melville. The opening sentence, "Call me Ishmael"; the ship name Pequod; the maniacal Ahab; the tattooed Queequeg; and the search for the great white whale—these are the touchstones of Melville’s masterpiece. But half of Moby-Dick documents the whaling practices of the time, what life was like aboard a New England whaler, and the details of the whaler’s prey. (Remember what ambergris is?) Melville wove these facts with the mythic quest to create a tale that is the Leviathan of sea literature.

Joseph Conrad

3 A Conrad Argosy (1942) Joseph Conrad. A Polish-born émigré and sailor in the French and British merchant marines, Conrad used the crucible of the sea—and nature in extremisto explore morality, courage, honor, duty, fear. He excelled in the short fiction collected here half a century after he wrote it. In "The Nigger of the Narcissus," "Typhoon," "Youth," and "The End of the Tether," men respond to ferocious storms and other calamities, baring their souls and revealing the lengths they will go to (and often the depths they will sink to) for survival. Though this book is out of print, Conrad’s short fiction of the sea is collected in a number of volumes.

4 Master and Commander and the Aubrey-Maturin series (1967?2004) Patrick O’Brian. Hailed as the best historical novels ever written, this ?20-volume series follows the lives and careers of Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon and particular friend Stephen Maturin (who is also a natural philosopher, intelligence agent, and sometime laudanum addict). The two sail, fight, explore, play music, and pursue amours—everywhere from the Baltic to the East Indies and the South Seas. O’Brian’s descriptions of sailing and fighting a square-rigger are textbook, and his erudition and humor are legendary. He captures the culture of Nelson’s Royal Navy like no other writer. The second novel, Post Captain,is the seminal one of the series. The third, H.M.S. Surprise, is the best. Norton.

5 Kon-Tiki (1950) Thor Heyerdahl. With a crew of five, the Norwegian biologist builds and rigs a primitive raft à la pre-Columbian Indians and sets off into the deep to prove his theory that the Pacific islands were peopled from the east. Storms wash over and through the motley assembly of logs; a curious whale considers the possibilities. Sharks teem so densely that the crew fights back: they hand-feed the voracious beasts, and when the sharks turn to dive back under, momentarily suspending their tails in the air, the sailors grab them and haul them on board to be clubbed to death. Don’t believe it? Then rent Heyerdahl’s 1952 Academy Award-winning documentary and see it with your own eyes. The 101-day ride is pure Indiana Jones at sea. Adventure Library, 1997.

6 Two Years Before the Mast (1840) Richard Henry Dana. At age 21, to cure his ailing eyes, Dana leaves Harvard on a two-year voyage to the American Pacific coast and back. He sails around the Horn, works in icy rigging in rolling seas, packs the ship’s hold with furs beside Kanaka (Hawaiian) sailors, and sees California in its primordial state. In no other sea book will you find a more clear-eyed description of the life of the common sailor in the age of sail. Penguin, 2000.

7 Das Boot: The Boat (1973) Lothar-Günther Buchheim. Life in the Atlantic theater during World War II was as harrowing for German U-boats as it was for the Allied convoys they stalked. Buchheim’s account of one great captain and his crew is as funny, sweaty, gritty, and frightening as any in the annals of sea literature. You’ll empathize with the Germans (the captain has no love for Hitler) as the hunters become the prey, lurking on the bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar, afraid to lower a toilet seat for fear of being heard, unable to keep a cigarette lit as the oxygen wanes... Cassell, 2003.

8 The Journals of Captain Cook (1768-1779) James Cook. On three voyages, Cook explores the Pacific from Antarctica to Alaska. Much of his tale is well known: from his interactions with the likes of the famous botanist Joseph Banks, the notorious navigator William Bligh, and the explorer George Vancouver, to Cook’s unpleasant demise in the Sandwich Islands. In three hefty tomes—perhaps the richest trove in the annals of discovery—Cook regales us on astronomy, wind patterns, native diplomacy, unknown flora, and the topography of new lands. Dip into these pages and return to a time when undiscovered worlds and peoples were still eagerly sought out by brave sailors. This abridgement of the definitive four-volume edition published by the Hakluyt Society (J. C. Beaglehole, editor) weighs in at a mere 672 pages. Penguin, 2000.

9 Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and the Hornblower series (1937-1967) C. S. Forester. Contrary to popular belief, Horatio Hornblower is not a real person but the fictional embodiment of Thomas Cochrane and Horatio Nelson, and perhaps sea fiction’s most beloved character. The hero of schoolboys across Britain, Hornblower rises from midshipman to admiral during the Napoleonic wars (1793-1815) with just the right touch of ingenuity, courage, introspection, and zeal. He is a self-conscious and stiff-lipped Everyman whose heroics sometimes go awry and who sometimes stumbles into heroism. Forester’s dozen novels and short-story collections are the heir to Marryat’s oeuvre and the inspiration for O’Brian’s. Back Bay Books.

10 South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance (1919) Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s 1914 attempt to be the first to cross the Antarctic? continent overland west to east achieved much more than that—by failing. Had he and his crew of 27 men and lots of sled dogs succeeded, they would have merely adorned the record books. Instead, their story of survival, first in a ship being crushed by the ice pack, then on ice floes, and finally in boats and on a godforsaken patch of Antarctic tundra, became one of the greatest and most enduring songs of community and heroism that we possess. Shackleton’s open-boat voyage and crossing of South Georgia Island will stir something deep inside you. Lyons Press, 1998.

11 Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy (1932-1934) Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Bligh’s disastrous mission to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies makes for a whopper of a sea tale. The authors, best friends and Word War II aces, went to the records and to the islands to research the legend of Fletcher Christian’s mutiny against the foul-mouthed commander of HMS Bounty. Did life among the alluring Tahitians corrupt the sailors’ hearts? Was Bligh’s cruelty to his men insufferable? What forces compel men to rebel against their leader? These questions endure. When Christian lets the captain and 18 men take the ship’s longboat, Bligh makes one of the great open-boat voyages of all time. The trilogy also covers the life of the mutineers in the islands. Available in one volume. Little, Brown.

12 The Old Man and the Sea (1952) Ernest Hemingway. The classic parable of Man versus Fish, but it’s really Man against? the Sea. For the humble and appealing Cuban fisherman Santiago, who is inspired by "the great DiMaggio," the sea instructs us, in matters great and small, on how to live. This novel helped Hemingway reel in the Nobel Prize in 1954. Scribner, 1996.

Darwin’s HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens

13 The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) Charles Darwin. There’s a reason you can navigate Tierra del Fuego via Beagle Channel and anchor in Darwin Sound. Embarking at age 22, history’s most famous naturalist spent five years circling the globe on board the Beagle, collecting the data from which he would produce The Origin of the Species. If you can’t get enough of Stephen Maturin, what would be better than to spend 500 pages with Darwin investigating exotic terrain and cataloging the unknown species of the globe? National Geographic, 2004.

14 Robinson Crusoe (1719) Daniel Defoe. The only survivor of a shipwreck on what Defoe calls "the island of despair," Crusoe must master the uninhabited landscape around him as well as his inner demons during a 24-year stretch. His resourcefulness in building a life and preparing for potential hostile visitors never ceases to fascinate. Crusoe is partly relieved from his loneliness by the stranded Pacific native Friday, who becomes a devoted servant. Based on a true story complete with pirates, hurricanes, and cannibals, this survival tale constitutes one of the first great English novels.

15 Lord Jim (1900) Joseph Conrad. After his ship Patina, loaded with pilgrims to Mecca, collides with an unseen object, Jim, the first mate, joins the captain and crew in abandoning the ship’s Muslim passengers. Trying to come to terms with this cowardly act, he wanders the East and ends up the protector of a Malaysian tribe, their "Lord." But his demons drive him to self-destructive behavior. This is a classic tale of cowardice and redemption played out at sea, and in the heart and the mind.

Slocum’s Spray

16 Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) Joshua Slocum. The book that launched a thousand boats. Slocum was the first sailor to circle the globe solo—46,000 miles in three years—in his 42-foot Spray. He inspired a century of single-handed sailors and their accounts of lonely voyages. The best part: his trip through the Strait of Magellan, battling Fuegians all the way (he even leaves tacks on deck at night to keep them away); after he gets through once, the wind blows him off course, and he has to cross the Strait all over again.

17 Treasure Island (1883) Robert Louis Stevenson. The granddaddy of pirate tales, Treasure Island has charmed, frightened, and inspired youth for over a century. It’s rich with unforgettable moments—the "blind" beggar Black Dog tipping the Black Spot at the Admiral Benbow Inn; Jim Hawkins eavesdropping on the pirates from an apple barrel; and marooned Ben Gunn’s cries for "Cheese!" And then there’s the richest, most ambivalent yet empathetic villain in the genre—Long John Silver. Do you trust him or not? Through the length of the adventure, young Jim Hawkins wrestles with this enduring question.

18 Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (1931) Frank A. Worsley. Shackleton’s South Pole expedition is told in the slightly more-at-ease voice of the captain, who, after all, had the boss’s large shoulders to rest on and more time to reflect. During their 800-mile voyage through furious seas to save the day, Worsley sees the sun only four times but still manages to make the landing. His description of the explorers’ descent from the frozen peaks of the island is—there’s no other word for it—chilling. Norton, 2000.

19 In Hazard (1938) Richard Hughes. In the Caribbean, the 9,000-ton British merchant steamer Archimedes, manned by a crew of Chinese sailors, encounters the mother of all storms, a relentless, blinding hurricane that behaves against science and with almost human vindictiveness. Lean and spare, Hughes’s novel excels in crystallizing truths about the sea, sailors, and humanity. Capstan Press, 1998.

20 Journal of a Cruise (1815) Captain David Porter. No other work gives a truer picture of life at sea in the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. Porter sails the frigate Essex around the Horn, the first U.S. Naval warship to enter the Pacific. There he disrupts the British whaling industry to such a degree that the Royal Navy dispatches a force to hunt him down, setting up a showdown at Valparaiso. Porter is so fair-minded and plainspoken, so diligent in his duty, so gentlemanly to his captive enemy, and so attentive to his crew’s welfare that when the British captain (a former friend no less) fights unfairly, the result is heartbreaking. Out of print.


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