The Boating Playlist

By Tim Murphy
Published: February/March 2012

Boats and music have always been inseparable. Now, in the era of the digital cloud, it's easier than ever to match the perfect song to a good day on the water. So, let's take a musical journey — from folk, to seafaring, to classic, to indie, to, well, wild! Get ready to rock with our best boating playlists.

Photo of Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson

When I was 16 years old and living in the fo'c'sle of a 130-foot brigantine the first time, I heard "Song for the North Star" — one of many times my life was incontestably steered by a song. I knew nothing then about Jorma Kaukonen, nothing about his electric band Hot Tuna, or his previous membership in Jefferson Airplane, nothing even about his Piedmont Blues mentor, the Reverend Gary Davis. It was just that song, played on a cheap cassette recorder, that crept inside me and told me where to go. Eventually, the fellow who owned the tape went his way and I went mine, and for the next several years every chance I got to poke into a record store would see me digging through the stacks, hoping to find it on an out-of-print album called "Quah."

That was in 1982, and it's been a solid decade since I even thought of "North Star." But this morning I clicked on a link, and in about three minutes and for less than $10, I downloaded that whole long-lost album. While there, I checked in with a few other old friends. The song still stands up to the raised expectations of all that waiting.

Photo of Enya

The Boating Playlists

Playlist 1: The Starter Kit

Unless you haven't been a boater for more than about two weeks or you just want to visit some old music friends of your own, you can slip right out of this well-marked channel to the next playlists where we'll explore some lesser known gunkholes of the music world. The Starter Kit comes in two halves. The first part is a top-10 list, based on a survey of boaters recently conducted by Discover Boating, an arm of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The second part is composed of my own informal survey of boaters' foundation songs. The playlist's final item is not a single song but a 72-song box set. Let's face it: The Starter Kit wouldn't be complete without highlights from the whole Jimmy Buffett oeuvre. In fact, it's no accident that our first playlist begins and ends with Buffett. He's even hiding there in the middle. Love him or hate him, "JB's" music has thoroughly infused the boating scene since his 1977 release, "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes". And his better songs came from before that: By the following year, when "Cheeseburger in Paradise" hit the airwaves, Buffett's Parrotheads would evermore dominate the space where boats and music meet.

Photo of Vetiver

Within this category of well-traveled boating tunes, Crosby, Stills & Nash (CSN) best embodies the sailor's wandering, searching spirit not just in the lyrics but in the very rhythms and intervals of their voices and instruments. The Discover Boating list places CSN's 1982 "Southern Cross" as number 4, and that's well deserved. Legend has it that Stephen Stills reworked that song from an unreleased Curtis Brothers demo called "Seven League Boots," recorded a few years earlier with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. (Despite plenty of trying, I still haven't tracked down that mythical proto-song; if you find it, I want to know!) No matter how deep you dive into the CSN catalog, great boating songs keep turning up. "Lee Shore" makes our next playlist, and David Crosby was said to have written "Wooden Ships" and "Carry Me" aboard his 1947 59-foot Alden schooner, Mayan. Neil Young wrote many a song aboard his lovely Ragland, a 1913 gaff-rigged Baltic Trader he owned for 35 years.

Photo of Jorma Kaukonen
Jorma Kaukonen

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Online Extra

Logo markerSecret Treasures:

A musicologist in love with the sea picks his favorite versions of some terrific songs on our playlists.

Logo markerTechnology For Your Tunes:

Here's what you need to know about all the ways to get tunes aboard your ride. Let's start with a few words about your boat's stereo, then turn to gathering songs.

1. The Starter Kit
  • "A Pirate Looks At Forty," Jimmy Buffett
  • "Come Sail Away," Styx
  • "Redneck Yacht Club," Craig Morgan
  • "Southern Cross," Crosby, Stills & Nash
  • "5 O'Clock Somewhere," Alan Jackson, with Jimmy Buffet
  • "Knee Deep," Zac Brown Band
  • "Boats," Kenny Chesney
  • "Sloop John B," The Beach Boys
  • "If I Had a Boat," Lyle Lovett
  • "Rock the Boat," Hues Corporation
  • "Back to the Islands," Leon Russell
  • "Four Strong Winds," Neil Young (Ian Tyson)
  • "And It Stoned Me," Van Morrison
  • "Wooden Ships," Crosby, Stills & Nash
  • "Boats to Build," Guy Clark
  • "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," Gordon Lightfoot
  • "The Irish Rover," The Pogues
  • "Redemption Song," Bob Marley
  • "Sail Away," Enya
  • "Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads" (album), Jimmy Buffett

Photo of Rob Lutes
Rob Lutes

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