A High Wind In Jamaica and In Hazard , Richard Hughes
“The sea was like a smooth pampas of quicksilver: so steady you could not split shore from reflection, till the casual collision of a pelican broke the phantom.” Recently reissued by NYRB Classics, A High Wind In Jamaica by the Welsh writer Richard Hughes is as singular and strange as its cover — a painting by the artist Henry Darger — would suggest. The Bas-Thorton children, en route to England, find themselves captives aboard a schooner populated by cross-dressing pirates, and quickly make themselves at home on the high seas. It would take 10,000 words to describe just how weird and wonderful this book is — the children are both imperiled and the imperilers, there’s a fight between a lion and a tiger, charged intimacy in close quarters, and a barely concealed hatred of the “new” steamships — but Hughes, who also wrote the terrific In Hazard, is unparalleled in his descriptions of all things ship-and-sea related.
Treasure Island , Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
Buccaneers! Buried gold! Black spots! Billy Bones! Long John Silver! And the young Jim Hawkins, on the adventure of his life aboard the Hispaniola. This is Seafaring 101, a must-read (or, in most cases, a must-read-again) and makes the Pirates of the Caribbean seem like the cruddy and rickety Disney ride it always was. Do yourself a favor, though: find an edition that comes with the original illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. Second favor: find a kid, preferably one you already know, and read it aloud over the course of a few evenings, near a roaring fire. When the story is over, hand them a “Black Spot” — the covert pirate summons — and you’ll make him or her a sailor for life.
Typhoon and Other Tales , Joseph Conrad
It’d be negligence to leave Joseph Conrad off this list. Conrad, like Melville, was a sailor himself, who, before setting himself to writing, spent years serving in the British merchant marine. Many of his most famous books and stories draw on his experiences at sea — Lord Jim, The Secret Sharer, and The Nigger of the Narcissus, just to name a few — and if you’re interested in what the author of Heart of Darkness has done in addition to gifting us with the chilling final words of Mr. Kurtz (“The horror! The horror!”), Typhoon and Other Tales is a good place to start. His wheelhouse? Articulating the ways in which men try, and often fail, to maintain their integrity when confronted by the boundlessness of their surroundings. Prolonged exposure to the sea (indifference on a grand scale!) results in a strange demagnetization of one’s moral compass and a new, often bleak, understanding of the self. Also, the dude’s a wordsmith.
Master and Commander , Patrick O’Brian
So, you’ve seen the movie, right? The movie’s perfect. Even better, though, are the books. This is the first in O’Brian’s series of historical novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and the ship surgeon Stephen Maturin, set during the Napoleonic Wars. I asked my dad, who loves Patrick O’Brian, and has multiple copies of every book he’s written, what he liked about this series, and he said the books are “swashbucklers, but the relationship between the two characters is really what is happening — the swashbuckling just supports that.” Aubrey and Maturin exchange barbs like an old and well-matched married couple — who also happen to be out battling French warships, and visiting the far side of the world. To read Patrick O’Brian is to plunge headlong, with purpose, into the waves aboard Aubrey’s ship. These books are perfect for Father’s Day. Dads everywhere love Patrick O’Brian, I promise.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex , Nathaniel Philbrick
True story: in 1820, the whaleship Essex was stove by an understandably angry sperm whale, and sank in the South Pacific miles and miles offshore. And things went downhill from there. Most of the crew, which had split up into the smaller whaleboats in an attempt to reach South America, died from exposure, dehydration, and starvation. Some survived, but probably wished they had not: it’s hard to go back to Nantucket knowing you’ve eaten a good friend. In The Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award when it was published, and Philbrick, a true Bard of the Sea, writes compellingly, giving readers not only the story of the Essex and her unlucky crew, but a full-on historical tour of the whaling industry. This is the spook story whaling captains told cabin boys during gams. One of those cabin boys was a young man named Herman. Who said to himself: I think there might be something here I can use. Fun fact: there was a real, albino whale named Mocha Dick who haunted the southern coast of Chile. And that, I guess, is how the Melvillian sausage gets made.
Voyage of the Narwhal , Andrea Barrett
Here we go: a big book, packed with big ideas (the ambitions of science! the unmapped canals of the human heart! the physical and moral perils of polar exploration in the 19th century!), written by one of the best authors working today. Andrea Barrett won the National Book Award for Ship Fever, a collection of stories, and another novel, Servants of the Map, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but my favorite book of hers is The Voyage of the Narwhal. Though it’s certainly an adventure story that revolves around the haunting and fateful expedition of the Narwhal, Barrett also turns a keen eye to those the explorers leave behind. This is an immersive novel that engages the head and the heart equally. A perfect summer book.
In the Land of White Death , Valarian Albanov
Feeling a little too hot on the beach? Need something to make you feel grateful for those fried clams and chips so readily available at the concession stand? This is the true story of a desperate trek across the Arctic ice, written by one of the few men who survived to tell the tale. Once his ship, The Saint Anna, spent a year and a half encased in ice, Valarian Albanov set out across the floes with 13 other people with minimal provisions and even less of an idea of where he was headed. He survived; those who remained aboard the ship drifted north with the ice-pack to their doom. Reads like a novel. Is not a novel. Unbelievable.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket , Edgar Allen Poe
Along with A High Wind in Jamaica, this is one of the stranger sea narratives in the cannon — and also a bit of a narrative grab-bag that includes a stowaway, mutiny, cannibalism, a dog who conveniently appears, listing ships in severe weather, a voyage deep into lands-not-on-the-map, and an abrupt and terrifying ending that makes you want to read the entire thing all over again — but would you expect anything else from Edgar Allen Poe?
Moby-Dick , Herman Melville, Illustrated by Rockwell Kent
The heavyweight champion, and for good reason. The story is simple: a whale hunt that takes the Pequod to Nantucket, around Cape Horn, and deep into the Pacific. But it also comes laden with a king’s serving of cetology, maritime lore, digressions on theology, and, in the indelible character of Captain Ahab, a distillation of the insanity that very well may have been part and parcel with the American Whaling Industry in the middle of the 19th century. If you find yourself in Nantucket this summer, or in New Bedford (where every year the book is read aloud, marathon style, over the course of an entire weekend), this is the book for you. There are as many editions of this book as there are (or: were) different kinds of whales, but make sure you get an edition with the Rockwell Kent illustrations. It’s a long book. Pictures, particularly these pictures (beautiful woodcuts), help.
Bonus: Seafaring movies of note
Seafaring books not doing it for you this summer? What’s wrong with you? Well, you can still get your seafaring fix by watching some of these ocean-bound classics. Invite friends over, get some sardines and hint-of-lime chips (for the scurvy), dig into the Kraken Rum, and have a gam. You can’t go wrong with any of the below.
For the Submarine Lovers (you claustrophobic lot):
Das Boot, dir. Wolfgang Peterson (1981) The Hunt for Red October, dir. John McTiernan and featuring a young Alec Baldwin (1990)
For the Terror and Emotional Discomfort at Sea Crowd:
Knife in the Water, dir. Roman Polanski (1962) Dead Calm, dir. Phillip Noyce, featuring Nicole Kidman (1989) White Squall, dir. Ridley Scott (1996)
For the Swashbuckling and Amazing Special Effects Crew:
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir (203) Mutiny on the Bounty, dir. Lewis Milestone, featuring Marlon Brando (1962) 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, dir. Richard Fleischer (1954) Jason and the Argonauts, dir. Don Chaffey (1963)