Looking for some escapism during lockdown? Dreaming of getting back out on the water?
If so, we’ve selected a list of boating and sailing books to inspire you. These may evoke the sound of the waves on the hull, the wind whistling through the sails or the adventure of the high seas. Whatever they conjure up, they’re captivating reads…
1) Sailing Alone Around the World - Joshua Slocum
This is one of the most famous accounts of a solo voyage around the globe. In fact, Joshua Slocum was the first to undertake such a journey.
His voyage began in 1895 on his boat, ‘Spray’ – a 36ft foot oyster sloop – and lasted three years when he returned in June 1898, some 46,000 miles later.
A highly dramatic account of life on the ocean waves, this book sees Slocum meeting native tribes, diplomats, pirates – and even the ghost of one of Christopher Columbus’ crew who helped him steer the boat when he was in trouble.
Arthur Ransome (see below) said of the book: ”Boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once.”
2) Moby Dick - Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael”
This famous opening line is from Moby Dick, a frightening tale of one man’s obsession which is described by D. H. Lawrence as “the greatest book of the sea ever written”.
The book tells the story of Captain Ahab and his fixation with a white whale which bit off his leg (his prosthetic limb is made out of a whale’s jawbone). Ishmael joins the Pequod on a whaling mission that travels the ocean in search of the whale.
Moby Dick’s nail-biting conclusion and warning over obsession has become hugely influential in Western culture. So much so, that Bob Dylan cited it as an influence when he accepted his Nobel Prize in 2017.
3) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing
In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 28 set sail in the ship Endurance to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctic. This would be one of the last ‘Heroic’ expeditions of the British Empire before WWI broke out. What happened during this voyage is an amazing story of courage, determination and resolve.
The ship became crushed by ice floes and left the whole crew stranded on the ice packs. Facing attacks from wild animals, starvation and bitterly cold temperatures, they eventually sailed to Elephant Island a whole year later.
It was from here that Shackleton managed led a crew of 5 some 650 miles to South Georgia Island, where he was then able to return to his remaining crew members and lead them home.
Based on actual accounts, including those of the ship’s doctor, this story will keep you gripped and full of admiration for those involved in it.
4) Close to the Wind - Pete Goss
This book covers the Vendée Globe, a single hand, non-stop yacht race round the world which takes 74 days and spans 24,000 miles. Sailors can face severe isolation and waves the size of a six-story building. It’s little surprise, therefore, that this race is regarded as one of the world’s hardest sporting events.
Pete Goss set sail in the 1996 event and was coping well until seven weeks in. Then, disaster struck – and not just for him. A mayday message was received on Christmas Day explaining that a French competitor (Raphael Dinelli) was sinking 160 miles away. Somehow, even though his sails were destroyed and his navigation equipment was useless, Goss headed to the rescue – even though it meant resigning his own chances of winning the competition.
Pete Goss was awarded a Légion d’Honneur following this extraordinary and emotional four months at sea.
5) Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
This is the story of four children who dream away the boredom of their summer holidays in the Lake District by discovering an island.
The first book in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, this book was (allegedly) inspired by his time teaching his friends’ children how to sail.
After the two sets of children discover an island (and a foe in ‘Captain Flint’,named after the parrot in Treasure Island), they compete against each other to see who can capture each other’s boat. A set of burglars is thrown into the mix for good measure…
This delightful, adventure-packed story is suitable for kids and adults (and, handily, it’s about curing boredom).
6) A Desperate Voyage - John Caldwell
In 1946, John Caldwell hadn’t seen his new wife for a year after the end of World War Two. He was stuck in Panama, where he’d worked as a merchant seaman, while she was in Sydney, Australia. With no other transport available, he was left with only one option – to sail single handed for over 9,000 miles after his crewmate dropped out.
This perilous journey against the elements would be difficult enough for any sailor. But John Caldwell didn’t have any sailing experience. He spent the first 10 days prior to his journey reading about the basics of sailing and navigation before leaving on the 20-foot Pagan.
A Desperate Voyage is a truly outstanding story about the challenges of sailing, especially from a novice’s point of view. It also captures John Caldwell’s love affair with the sea. His story is full of adventure and thrills. Sometimes funny, sometimes jaw dropping. Above everything, it’s borne out of an enduring love for his wife and a fierce determination to survive.
7) A Voyage for Madmen - Peter Nichols
To sail around the world single handed and non-stop had never been done until fairly recently. The year was 1968, when six Englishmen, two Frenchmen and 1 Italian decided to attempt it. One of them had never sailed before – and this was in a time when there was no satellite communications, internet or reliable radios. Dubbed the ‘Golden Globe’ race, this was a test of character, conviction and survival. A Voyage for madmen, it certainly was.
After 10 months, only one would reach the finish line. That was Robin Knox-Johnston, who wrote A World of My Own. One went mad, another committed suicide and a third just continued sailing around the world.
A carefully constructed account of the journey made by these men, Nichols’ book captures the complex underlying psychology of what they went through.