By: Scott Way
If you’re stuck on shore or otherwise unable to live the swashbuckling life of a (smart, responsible, friendly) pirate, the literary tradition is stacked with centuries of high seas adventure. There are enough captivating true stories, nautical folklore, and epic storytelling to satisfy any reader’s taste. This list covers the full gamut of the nautical tradition- classics, fiction, non-fiction, harrowing true stories, and some shameless paperback entertainment.
There are revered authors, a couple lesser knowns, and a few adventurers with a penchant for the pen. Whether you’re a sailor, a power boater, the captain of a superyacht, or the deckhand on a fishing boat, there’s something for everyone to get lost in. If you're itching to get back on the water and could use some nautical escapism, here are 15 great books to excite your imagination.
1) Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Of course Moby Dick makes the list. Captain Ahab’s bad luck aboard the Pequod in search of an elusive white whale is a legendary tale. If you’re unfamiliar, Moby Dick tells the oddly compelling story of a madman in pursuit of a mythical creature as mysterious as the sea itself. History and folklore have both examined the parallels between Ahab’s tenacity and the realities of the human character and trickled them throughout popular culture- Moby Dick is about the faith we keep during hardship, about perception versus reality, about persistence under mounting odds, and about the hilarity we sometimes find in agony.
2) Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fanciful tale highlighting the romantic idealism of faraway adventure, Treasure Island is an iconic novel. Written in prose but full of action, it’s a story about good and evil- affable young Jim Hawkins encounters the malevolent Blind Pew at the Admiral Benbow Inn, resulting in multiple twists and turns that culminate in a battle for treasure on a tropical island. The evil is personified as the inimitable Long John Silver, one of writing’s best villains. The good presents as Jim Hawkins' genial nature and inherent good fortune. A complex and contradictory character, Long John Silver is the cunning stalwart to Jim Hawkins’ coming of age idealism and youthful exuberance. If you enjoy sagas about tropical adventure and romantic escapism, Treasure Island should be in your bunk.
3) Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Don’t mistake Peter Pan as strictly a children’s book. While it follows a mischievous boy who refuses to grow up, Peter Pan is a tale of unwavering belief for any curmudgeony adult who needs their priorities checked. Made into countless films with spin-offs on Broadway, in music, and beyond, the original Peter Pan is a fun read that captivates both kids and adults. The metaphoric concept of ‘looking for your shadow’ leads to a mystical universe called Neverland, where Red Indians, The Lost Boys, and the dastardly Captain Hook remind us to embrace the qualities in a person that truly matter. With merciless pirates, fairy dust, and a gang of friends bonded by adventure, it’s page-turning excitement that makes you wonder what lurks in the next paragraph. If you get hooked on Peter Pan, the prequel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry is a similar high seas adventure about bravery and the human spirit. Peter and a mysterious new friend named Molly overcome bands of pirates (including the legendary Blackbeard) to guard a secret from their evil pursuers. It’s a 2-for-1 pair of novels you can read by flashlight in the cabin after dark.
4) Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Life of Pi isn’t your typical story about trouble at sea, and that’s what makes it great. It’s a fantasy adventure with an unusual setup about a boy in a drifting lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Despite the quirky arrangement, it’s a thoughtful novel about the roving line between spirituality and practicality. The protagonist is Piscine Molitor, or ‘Pi’, who spends 227 days drifting in the Pacific Ocean with his unusual co-host, Richard Parker. With Pi’s family having left India on their way to Canada transporting a zoo of animals, only to be lost in a shipwreck, Pi and Richard barely survive but must learn to trust and understand one another in order to succeed. It’s a fascinating story about the relativity of truth and the perception of circumstance.
5) 500 Days Around the World on a 12-Foot Yacht by Serge Testa
Serge Testa is the author and subject of this riveting story about the 500 days he spent navigating the world in a boat barely larger than a bathtub. Testa sailed the world in his homemade sailboat ‘Acrohc,’ which measured less than 12 feet, and his successful completion earned him a place in the Guiness Book of World Records. Testa braved innumerable troubles aboard Acrohc and writes humbly about his experiences that included encounters with whales, cyclones, and a nearly fatal fire. There’s a welcome element of humour, especially during difficult moments, and it’ll ignite a sense of adventure in any outdoor enthusiast. The boat was barely bigger than a bathtub!
6) Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
This book is considered required reading among sailing circles, and for good reason. It’s a historical tale, and a true one, about Joshua Slocum’s 1895 solo journey around the world. Slocum would be the first person to sail around the world solo, doing so aboard his 34 foot sailboat ‘Spray.’ Sports Illustrated called the memoir “(o)ne of the most readable books in the whole library of adventure,” so you know you’re in for a page turner. Sailing Alone Around the World inspired countless nautical adventurers, its success having lasted 125 years and still being read by countless sailors today.
7) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
A quintessential classic for boating and literary fans alike, the Jules Verne odyssey is on every ‘Best Of’ list for a reason. In 1866, an unidentified monster threatens the shipping passages of several nations, leading French oceanographer Pierre Aronmax and his trusty assistant Conseil to join a U.S Navy expedition to hunt and destroy the mysterious culprit. With no luck after several months, Aronmax, Conseil, and Canadian harpooner Ned Land go overboard during an attack only to find the monster they’re hunting is in fact a futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The fabled Captain Nemo mans The Nautilus, a character renowned as the definition of shadowy and aloof, who leads the crew on a 20,000 league odyssey through sights beyond their wildest imaginations, including the Antarctic ice barrier and the lost ruins of Atlantis.
8) Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
A classic survivalist story first published in 1719, the book is presented as the autobiography of an English sailor named Robinson Crusoe who spends nearly three decades moored on a deserted island. Originally believed to be a true story and Crusoe to be a real person, its popularity spanned the globe and now rests on the bookshelf of nearly every literature fan. A straightforward narrative, the book still manages to tackle deeper subjects like a human being’s struggle with fate, and the nature of God in hopeless circumstances. Robinson Crusoe is not only a part of sailing literary tradition, it’s a fantastic story that makes for great late night reading if you’re up on watch.
9) Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Another classic many recognize by name, Gulliver’s Travels is satirical prose telling the story of a surgeon named Lemuel Gulliver who takes to the sea. He embarks on multiple voyages involving absurdities like being marooned on a desert island inhabited by a race of people only 6 inches tall, only to find himself on a later voyage unceremoniously abandoned in mysterious land where he meets a new companion who’s 72 feet tall. Written to be a satire about human nature and the fantastical tendencies found in ‘traveler tales,’ the sagas of Gulliver are a poignant look at the realities of human failings. Broken into 3 individual parts, each adventure takes place inside an amusing universe where the ordinary is extraordinary to both the characters and the reader alike.
10) On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
The title might look familiar, as the name and key plot elements were the focus of Johnny Depp’s quirky captaincy in a Pirates of the Caribbean blockbuster of the same name. The Tim Powers novel, however, follows a puppeteer named John Chandagnac who sails for Jamaica in reclamation of his stolen birthright until his vessel is captured by pirates. Unsavory captain Phil Davies offers to spare him if he’ll join their motley crew of bandits, so Chandagnac takes on the name John Shandy and begins a new life aboard a brigantine. The book immerses itself in the heyday of piracy and includes fictitious characters with real histories like Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, and Woodes Rogers. Despite the elements of non-fiction, the supernatural reigns supreme as undead pirates hunt the living, and a black magic known as vodun sorcery rules the underworld. Shandy and his shady posse embark on a journey in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth (which is in Florida, apparently), and there's a convenient romantic side story about Shandy utilizing his brains and brawn to save his love interest Beth Hurwood.
11) The Boat Who Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat
A wonderful non-fiction that’s full of humour, The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float starts the way many great stories do- a man becomes tired of everyday life and decides to embark on an adventure in hopes of finding meaning within a troubled world. Iconic Canadian author Farley Mowat (who also wrote other literary gems like Never Cry Wolf), brings you to the shores of Newfoundland where he rebuilds a boat amusingly named ‘The Happy Adventure’ in hopes of sailing from Newfoundland to Lake Ontario. The boat is a dilapidated mess that can barely stay afloat (and sinks regularly); its condition so pathetic it leaves the harbour on its maiden voyage in reverse after the engine gets stuck. Mowat and his crew, which includes the woman who would later become his wife, managed to coax the boat all the way to Lake Ontario despite run-ins with sharks, rum runners, and rum itself. It’s a charming look at what a sense of adventure can lead to, and it’ll help lighten the mood if you find yourself docked for repairs.
12) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway had a penchant for writing unadorned, simple, and direct stories, and The Old Man and the Sea certainly qualifies. Hemingway himself was living in Cuba when he penned this in 1951 and it’s a gripping short story about a Cuban fisherman named Santiago. He and his young apprentice Manolin suffer through 84 days without catching a fish before landing an enormous marlin that will net them a sizable check and the respect of their fellow fishermen. It takes Santiago 3 full days to get the fish tied to the boat, only to find himself fruitlessly fending off sharks while trying to get back to shore. A story about struggle and the ironic ways we earn the respect of our peers, The Old Man and the Sea can get even the unluckiest of fisherman to smile.
13) Mid Ocean by T. Rafael Cimino
What’s a list of nautical adventure without some smuggling on the high seas? Mid Ocean is a digestible piece of fiction about Special Agent Joel Kenyon, who gets assigned to the badlands of drug enforcement- the Florida Keys. He struggles to adjust to a life of sandals, Jimmy Buffet, and the cutthroat nature of the Caribbean wild west, especially since the Keys are full of respectable divers and fisherman by day, but a haven for mayhem by night. The book is set in 1984, so there's quintessential 80’s tropical boating lifestyle coming through the pages- all that’s missing is a docktail and some yacht rock. If you enjoy harmless fiction in the vein of Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler, Mid Ocean makes for great entertainment while you’re anchored up and wondering where the speedboat passing by is headed.
14) 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin
438 Days is the unbelievably true story of a man who survives adrift at sea alone longer than anyone in recorded history. In November of 2012, Salvador Alvarenga left the coast of Mexico on a 2 day fishing trip, only for a storm to damage his engine and drag his boat out to sea. He was sent west by wind and waves before washing ashore in January of 2014 in the Marshall Islands, a staggering 9,000 miles away. Alvarenga built a fishing net from empty plastic bottles, fashioned fishhooks from engine parts, and eventually learned to catch fish with his bare bands in order to keep himself from jumping overboard into shark infested waters. He used fish vertebrae as needles to stitch together clothes and dealt with a constant onslaught of shark attacks upon his crippled boat. Despite a set of circumstances that would drive almost anyone to the brink, Alvarenga imagined a method of survival that kept him sane, and alive, long enough to travel across the Pacific Ocean. In a strange final twist, he was saved by a couple living alone on their own island paradise who nursed him back to health before eventually helping him return to civilization to tell his story. If you’ve read other harrowing tales of survival like Alive or Into Thin Air, you'll find Alvarenga’s 438 day saga is the stuff of legend.
15) Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks
The mystery of the Mary Celeste is one of sailing's most troubling true tales. On December 4th, 1872 the 100-foot brigantine Mary Celeste was found drifting in the North Atlantic. There wasn’t a soul aboard, no evidence of damage, all the cargo was intact, and there was no indication of mutiny or struggle. The captain, his wife, daughter, and crew were all missing. Historians spent 130 years trying to uncover what happened, and Ghost Ship is a captivating examination of what may have occurred. Historians claim the Mary Celeste was cursed from the get-go, her first captain having died before she even completed her maiden voyage. She’d also been abandoned once before near Cape Breton when a storm ran it ashore, and had also previously rammed and sank another English brigantine. By 1872 the boat had been refitted and put in the hands of reluctant captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs. He took the Mary Celeste on a merchant delivery departing New York on October 20th, 1872, only for it to be found abandoned without a lifeboat near the Azores 6 weeks later on December 6th, 1872. Author Brian Hicks claims to know the truth of what happened, but the combination of bad luck and human error to which he claims has to be read to be believed.