5 Seafaring Tales for a Sailing Holiday

Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.
Lord Nelson tied up alongside the quay in Hamilton, Bermuda.

I’m all at sea this month, quite literally, as I sail from Bermuda back to Britain on the STS Lord Nelson. On board we keep a watch system, with four teams working a rota to keep the ship sailing and carry out the tasks essential for everyone to live together in such close confines. Our down time, plus the lack of distractions, gives plenty of time to get lost in a good book. So, here are my recommendations for seafaring tales to take on a sailing trip.

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

Don’t be put off by the size of the book; this fictionalised life of Robert FitzRoy, a talented British naval officer, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, is captivating from the very start, well paced despite the epic scale of events, and superbly written. The historic detail is fascinating without being overwhelming. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to map the coasts of South America, giving flesh to historic journals and ship’s logs, and introduces a young Charles Darwin, a trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss and debate, observe and speculate, on a vast range of themes, until their profound difference in beliefs eventually drives a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their varying reception by society on their return. Buy it here.

The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby

In 1938, the great travel writer, then aged 18, quit his job with a London-based advertising firm, and signed-on as a novice crew aboard the four-masted barque Moshulu, to make the voyage from Ireland to Australia, round the Cape of Good Hope, and back again via Cape Horn. The Great Grain Race of 1939 was the last, with the outbreak of war later in the year, and the consequent development of shipping leading to the end of windjammer ships’ commercial viability. Life at sea was hard, physically and mentally, and tensions grow with the weather. Bawdy anecdotes of brawls and benders are balanced out with lush and lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The introduction helpfully includes a sail plan and diagram of the running rigging, so you can keep track of the topgallants, flying jibs and spankers. Buy it here.

The four-masted-barque Moshulu, on which Eric Newby sailed in The Last Grain Race. It’s now a familiar site on the waterfront in Philadelphia, USA.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Subtitled The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, this book is an account of the extraordinary sinking of the Essex, a whaling vessel based in Nantucket, that provided inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In the far reaches of the South Pacific, the ship was rammed repeatedly by a sperm whale until it splintered and sank. The survivors, taking to the whale boats, feared legends of cannibals on nearby islands, and set out on a remarkable voyage to reach the coast of South America, some 3,000 miles distant. The book draws on accounts from survivors of the 90-day voyage in open boats, short of food and water, and adds in fascinating details about the Nantucket way of life and the whaling industry of the 19th Century. Buy it here.

A female Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) and her calf. Photo from Wikipedia.

Sea Legs by Guy Grieve

Lots of people dream of packing in the daily grind, buying a yacht and sailing off into the sunset. Few actually do it. Grieve, along with his wife and two young children, sets out to realise the romance, buying a boat in the Leeward Antilles, off the coast of Venezuela, and sailing it through the West Indies and along the coast of north America, before crossing the Atlantic back to the family home in Scotland. With virtually no sailing experience, the family are quickly forced to realise the idyllic moments come with some of the most testing experiences of their life. Buy it here.

Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

Possibly the most well-known and widely read sailing memoir ever written, Slocum’s single-handed circumnavigation of the globe on board his sloop Spray was the first time such a journey had ever been undertaken. Covering over 46,000 miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once between 1895 and 1898 (long before the advent of radar and satellite) the account is rather matter-of-fact about the extraordinariness of the achievement. Slocum’s understated and direct prose reveals a thoughtful, knowledgeable and observant character, with a deep connection to the sea around him, and the people and places he encounters. A fair knowledge of sailing terms and a map will help to make the book more readable, and help readers to visualise the stages of the voyage. Buy it here.

The Spray, the vessel that took Joshua Slocum around the world on his pioneering voyage.

Do you have any favourite seafaring authors to recommend?

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.


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