A Sailing-Books List
By Liz Merton (with help!)
I wanted to stay outside a little longer . . . and go sailing . . . with large and small presses alike . . . so I revisited a blog post from the summer for which I'd rounded up people and asked them to name books for a short list of good sailing reads. A few of those books ended up here. Now, some of the books named below definitely qualify as sailing “classics,” but I’ve also left off some classics (Gipsy Moth Circles the World, William F. Buckley, Jr., Kon-Tiki . . .). I wanted to mix it up a little, so I gybed in a few new places. Some of these selections are romp-ish (Love with a Chance of Drowning), but isn’t a little lighthearted entertainment necessary to break up the floggings?
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., published in 1840
Dana was studying at Harvard when he ran into issues with his eyes. He decided to ship out from Boston to California on a boat participating in the hide trade (collecting hides to be made into shoes in Boston). He ended up writing his book to raise awareness of the “employment issues” (like floggings!) common sailors faced. So when you think your boss is bad (and you dream of sailing into the sunset), just remember: back then, you coulda been flogged. . . .
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum, published in 1900
Captain Slocum was the first person to circumnavigate solo. This one’s kinda a must-read for salty literary folk. If you haven’t read it, think of us when you come to the plums and cheese . . . and the tacks on deck. Oh, the problems of shipboard life!
Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, published in 1934
This book sits as the last in the Bounty trilogy by this duo. As historical fiction with a good dose of research, it tells the story of the end of the original mutineers who landed on Pitcairn Island after Fletcher Christian and his band took over the Bounty and set Captain William Bligh adrift in 1789.
While Captain Cook’s journals are a bit dry (so they don’t make this list!), Cook’s writings reveal Bligh’s service under Cook and put a little more flesh on the Bligh-story bones, too. Whatever demons lived in the man, Bligh definitely qualified as a “salty mother.” He did, after all, take an overcrowded 23-foot boat, full of those who remained loyal to him, on a 3,600-mile journey to safety after the mutiny. (Ultimately, Bligh returned to England, sailed to Tahiti again, finally succeeded in getting breadfruit trees to the West Indies, and fell prey to two more mutinies. With his relationships with his crews, I'm thinking it was definitely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me.”)
The Complete Cruiser by L. Francis Herreshoff, published in 1956
A little tongue-in-cheek, a little informative, and a lot of fun, the incomparable Herreshoff takes readers on a cruise through mid-twentieth-century “yachting.” This work provides an excellent source from which to compare cruising “then and now.” (A little cruising background in A Severe Mercy does likewise. A young couple in that book, which features C.S. Lewis, does some cruising on a 26-footer.)
Dove by Robin Lee Graham, published in 1972
Graham became the first “kid” to circumnavigate when he took off alone around the world on a 24-foot sloop, at the age of sixteen. His journey spanned 1965 to 1970. There’s a movie, too.
Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, published in 1989
So after Graham wrapped up his journey, Aebi set off as an eighteen-year-old girl on a 26-footer. She broke Graham’s record . . . kind of. (It took her less time to make the voyage, so she returned slightly younger than Graham did; her journey spanned 1985 to 1987.) There’s a passing bit of controversy about another person being aboard for a short leg, but come on: this woman sailed alone around the world at an age when most kids now are glued to TikTok!
Keelhauled: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and the America’s Cup by Doug Riggs,
published in 1986
If you race . . . if you enjoy the history of sailing and racing, Riggs takes readers on a trip down memory lane for the old America’s Cup!
Godforsaken Sea by Derek Lundy, published in 1998
Lundy gives readers a wet ride around the 1996-97 Vendee Globe racecourse: singlehanded, ’round-the-world racing through the Southern Ocean. Not much more I need to say about this one.
Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low, published in 2013
(Read Hokule`a first for a little backstory.) Low tells of the resurgence of Hawaiian-voyaging-canoe culture and Nainoa Thompson, a young man who learns the ancient art of Polynesian/Micronesian navigation to become the first modern Hawaiian to use the old ways to navigate from Hawai`i to Tahiti. (You can see my review in the second-from-the-top position here.)
Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche, published in 2013
A cute romp through cruising with a lubberly young woman who gets salty after falling in love with a guy committed to cruising the South Pacific on a 32-foot Valiant.
Sail Cowabunga by Janis Couvreux, published in 2017
(We featured this one earlier this year.) Couvreux tells the story of her family’s ten years aboard their 42-foot ketch Cowabunga in the ’80s. They sailed Europe (Couvreux is American; her husband is French), Africa, South and Central America, the Panama Canal, Mexico, and the U.S. It’s a fun, realistic, authentic read that takes its audience to places like Devil’s Island/Ile St. Joseph and remote rocks in the Atlantic.