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Great Books About Boats And The Sea

By Pierre-Yves and Sally Beley

A sailor in love with classic marine literature gives us his short list

Curiosity prompted my explorations into the voyages of ancient navigators, and so, with the help of fellow devoted boaters around the world, here’s a compilation of literary works that, we all decided, should be on anyone’s list.

  • William Bligh, A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty. No matter what one thinks of Captain Bligh himself, his incredible 3,600-mile Pacific voyage on an open lifeboat after the famous mutiny is one of the greatest sea adventures of all time. (Also see The Bounty by Caroline Alexander.)
  • Alain Bombard, The Voyage of the Hérétique. In 1952, a doctor sails trans-Atlantic on an inflatable raft with next-to-no-provisions, demonstrating the possibility of surviving shipwrecks and plane crashes.
  • Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, A Voyage Round the World. Bougainville’s famous voyage of discovery and Pacific exploration, 1766-1769, preceding Cook.
  • Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca, Castaways. An extraordinary true tale of Spanish explorers shipwrecked and marooned on the newly discovered North American continent, 1528-1536. What a story!
  • John Caldwell, Desperate Voyage. Caldwell’s harrowing account of being stranded in Panama after World War II, then single-handing on a 9,000-mile journey aboard the 29-foot Pagan to rejoin his wife in Australia.
  • Francis Chichester, Gypsy Moth Circles the World. The solo round-the-world voyage of the famous navigator, then 65.
  • Christopher Columbus, The Log of Christopher Columbus. A translation/reconstruction of the logbook kept by Columbus himself during his first great voyage of discovery.
  • James Cook, The Journals of Captain James Cook. Eleven years of discoveries by the greatest explorer of all time.
  • Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The Silent World. The book that first made the breathtaking world beneath the sea available to us all.
  • Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast. A law student who sailed as crew on a ship bound for California in 1834 writes about “the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is.”
  • Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle. The sea voyage that changed the way we see ourselves and all living things.
  • Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor. A sailor spends 10 days clinging to a life raft, as retold by the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • Alain Gerbault, Alone Across the Atlantic. The narrative of one of the first solo circumnavigators (1923-1929).
  • Sterling Hayden, Wanderer. Hayden walks away from a successful acting career and a marriage in tatters to set sail for the South Seas, taking along his four young children, the objects of a bitter custody battle.
  • Thor Heyerdahl, Kon Tiki. Heyerdahl believed (erroneously) that the Polynesians had originated in South America, and completed a 3,500-mile voyage on a raft to prove his theory.
  • Tristan Jones, The Incredible Voyage. The legendary sailor finds himself “a thousand times beyond the limits of endurance” on a six-year voyage during on the lowest and highest bodies of water in the world.
  • Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm. New England fishermen are caught in the biggest storm of the century.
  • Olivier de Kersauson, The Sea Never Changes. The narrative of his 1988 solo round-the-world race on board Poulain, a 75-foot trimaran.
  • Robin Knox-Johnston, A World of My Own. The first non-stop single-handed voyage around the world.
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance. The incredible 800-mile Antarctic Ocean crossing by Shackleton and his men in an 18-foot whaleboat, after their polar expedition fails.
  • Simon Leys, The Wreck of the Batavia: A True Story. The story of the heretic who led history’s bloodiest mutiny off the west coast of Australia.
  • David Lewis, Ice Bird. Lewis sets sail from Australia in a small yacht, on a search for adventure. He finds it in the inhospitable, fascinating Antarctic.
  • Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way. Around the world a time-and-a-half without a landfall or encounter with another human being. Also, Tamata and the Alliance, the story of his life.
  • Peter Nichols, Sea Change. Reflections on solitude and a lost love during an Atlantic crossing on an old, leaky sailboat.
  • Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau. A cruise up the inland passage along the Canadian west coast, by a gifted writer.
  • Dougal Robertson, Survive the Savage Sea. A family survives weeks of high waves, shark attacks, and deprivation in a small dinghy and an inflatable rubber raft after a killer whale attack sinks their schooner.
  • William Robinson, Deep Water and Shoal. The second (almost) solo around-the-world voyage (1932).
  • Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage. The author tracks the discovery of America by sixth-century Irish sailor saints, retracing the presumed route of Saint Brendan and his monkish crew, in a replica of the leather boat in which they sailed.
  • Sir Ernest Shackleton, South: The Endurance Expedition. The first attempt to cross the Antarctic, the Endurance trapped in ice, and the wild voyage to South Georgia Island for help.
  • James Simmons, Castaways in Paradise. Incredible, true stories of castaways, each more extraordinary than the one before.
  • Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World. A retired sea captain makes the first solo around-the-world voyage. A must!
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas. Stevenson’s account of his voyages to the Marquesas Islands and the Tuamotus.
  • Eric Tabarly, Lonely Victory, Atlantic race 1964. Tabarly crosses the Atlantic in a record 27 days.
  • Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania. One of the world’s best travel writers paddles his collapsible kayak through Polynesia and Melanesia.
  • Nicholas Thomas, Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James Cook. An extremely well-researched account of Cook’s voyages.
  • Joseph Conrad, Typhoon. A terrible storm wonderfully recounted by one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe. Reread it as an adult.
  • William Golding, Pincher Martin. A castaway in desperate straits, by the author of Lord of the Flies.
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. A Cuban fisherman struggles to save his prize catch -- a philosophical tale.
  • Homer, The Odyssey. The first great sea adventure in literary history.
  • Jack London, Tales of the South Seas. Eight stories depicting the havoc caused by the white man.
  • Pierre Loti, Iceland Fisherman. Life among the fishing communities of Brittany. A poignant tale by one of the finest writers of his day.
  • Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Foretopman. A superb novel about a young mid British sailor who dares to strike an abusive officer.
  • Henri de Monfreid, Secrets of the Red Sea. Derring-do, gun running, and smuggling in the Red Sea by the dashing French adventurer.
  • Chris Nordhoff and James Norton Hall, Mutiny on the Bounty. The trilogy that served as a basis for several movies. (Also, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander.)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum! Pirates, sailing ships, and buried treasure, for adults and young readers.
  • Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Sail with Captain Nemo aboard the submarine, Nautilus.
  • Pierre-Yves Bely worked with NASA and the Paris Observatory. Do Dolphins Ever Sleep? from which this article is excerpted, is co-authored by his wife, Sally Beley, who taught college French, and has a special interest in marine biology and sailing.