“Well before I began writing about Vikings in The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, I had already fallen in love with books about ships and the sea. Beauty and hardship, grace and horror exist side-by-side in these narratives. They illuminate the heights and depths of what humanity is capable of while reminding us how small we are compared to the endless ocean. Here are a few of my very favorite books about ships and the sea.” — Linnea Hartsuker
To write The Wave, Susan Casey spent years with legendary surfer Laird Hamilton while he chased giant waves all over the globe. She experienced nearly 100-foot waves from the back of his Jet Ski and heard the surfers’ horrific wipeout stories told around the beach bonfires at night. Interspersed with Hamilton’s quest for the largest waves, Casey explores other facets of waves and discovers little we know about them. Freak waves, whose physics is still not understood, rise to three times the height those surrounding. At least two container ships sink or go missing with all hands every month. Lloyd’s of London got its start insuring shipping, a task that gets harder every year, while salvage operators descend on sinking ships to save their crew and cargo — for a price. Casey weaves all of these threads together into a narrative that is both gripping and informative.
The Horatio Hornblower Books
By C. S. Forester
You could start at the beginning of the story, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, or with the first books that Forester wrote: Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours (my preferred reading order), but either way, you will meet and be both charmed and exasperated by Horatio Hornblower, an officer in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Hornblower rises from modest origins, through the ranks, to become a very able seaman but is always tormented by his self-doubt and perfectionism. Forester’s ability to draw readers into the arcane world of a nineteenth-century warship is without parallel, and the action scenes will leave you breathless.
The Master and Commander Books
By Patrick O’Brian
O’Brian’s twenty-book series about Captain Jack Aubrey and amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin creates one of the great friendships in English literature. With O’Brian’s ear for nineteenth-century language, even though he was writing in the twentieth, these books make a wonderful parallel to Jane Austen’s novels. This is what Persuasion‘s Captain Wentworth was doing while Anne Elliot was regretting their parting. The first book is a bit heavy with nautical terms, even for someone who has read all of Hornblower, but worth it for the story, and all of those terms are well explained in Book 2 and beyond. Aubrey and Maturin’s friendship grows and changes, affecting both men, who are as different from one another as the cello and violin they play together.
The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition
By Caroline Alexander
Ernest Shackleton’s best-known voyage is remarkable as a successful failure. His ship was trapped in pack ice and crushed, leaving him and his twenty-seven men stranded on the ice floes. They made two attempts to escape in open ships in the treacherous Southern Atlantic before finally being rescued. Alexander’s narrative brings to life the varied personalities in the expedition, and Shackleton’s extraordinary leadership that brought them all to safety. This book also contains the photographs of Frank Hurley, the voyage’s photographer, here together for the first time.
By Dan Simmons
If a book has hypothermia, cannibalism, or sailing in it, I’m probably going to be interested — combine all three, and I will read a 600-page book in one sitting, as I did with The Terror. The novel recreates Captain Franklin’s lost expedition in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage. Both of his ships, The Terror and The Erebus, are trapped in ice and eventually sink, while the captain and crew have to survive the cold, botulism from cheap canned food, and a mystical polar bear that stalks them. Simmons smoothly interweaves a historical recreation with memorable details and characters, while building a supernatural menace that lurks out on the ice. In the end, though, the threat that the men pose each other is as great as that of the cold spirits of the North.
This was probably the first novel I ever read about ships and the sea, and I read it until it fell apart. Geared toward eight-to-twelve-year-olds, this book is still wonderful for all ages, telling the story of the young Charlotte Doyle, sent from England in 1832 to rejoin her family in the United States. She is meant to travel with a family that will chaperon her but finds herself the only passenger on a ship captained by a man whose mistreatment of his crew soon sparks a mutiny. Charlotte must make herself into a sailor and clear herself of a murder charge before the voyage is over. Charlotte is a wonderful protagonist, with a good heart but much to learn. If you ever fantasized about running away to sea, this is the book for you.
By China Miéville
In China Miéville’s strange world of Bas Lag, Bellis Coldwine is a linguist whose part in a revolutionary plot condemns her to transportation to a prison colony. But her ship is captured by the Armada, a floating pirate city. As the Armada chases the Godwhale, an enormous creature that will give them speed, Bellis must understand their true goals and navigate the strange world of the Armada. Miéville’s fantasy is like no other, bringing the reader into a world of horrifying grotesqueries and astonishing beauty.
By Anne Rivers Siddons
No list of books about the sea is complete without a beach read and Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons is the type of long book you can get lost in. Spanning nearly seventy years, it tells the story of Maude Chambliss, a wild southern girl who marries into a blue-blooded New England family and spends her summers at Retreat vacation colony on Cape Rosier in northern Maine. While fighting for her family’s survival against the mental illness that runs in their blood, she learns to love the rugged Maine landscape. The sea takes her loved ones from her and gives her back herself. The descriptions of harsh and beautiful landscapes make this a book you’ll want to move into.