I’ve compiled a selection of my favourite books about sailing adventures, both real and imagined, idyllic and horrific.
This instalment of the Armchair Travel series is brought to you with a healthy dose of Vitamin Sea. Like travelling (and sailing), these books could bring you complete escapism, teach you new skills, and ideas or throw you in at the deep end. So hoist the mainsail and catch the wind, and head off into the sunset with ten of my favourite books about sailing adventures…
Sailing Alone Around the World – Capt. Joshua slocum
The single-handed circumnavigation of the globe Slocum made on his sloop Spray was the first time such a voyage had been made. Sailing more than 46,000 nautical miles, crossing the Atlantic three times and the Pacific once, long before radar and satellite, the understated and direct writing isn’t overwhelmed by the extraordinariness of the achievement. Read it here.
The Kon tiki expedition: Across the Pacific by Raft – thor yerdahl
This is my most favourite book ever, and I first read it when I was around 10 years old. More about the adventure than sailing, this is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions taking a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Peru to the Tuamoto archipelago. I was really interested in the way the crew handled the challenges, excitement, danger, and boredom of the voyage. Get it here.
We, The Drowned – Carsten Jensen
I loved this book, but I think it will be a challenge to explain why. The story of the seafarers of Marstal, Denmark, from the golden age of sail to the end of the Second World War, from Scandinavia to North America to the islands of the South Pacific. Despite the epic scope of the book, the pacing is tight, and twists and turns in the plot unexpected. The writing is beautiful and thoughtful, and the book is rich in historic detail, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts. Read it here.
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur RansomE
A classic children’s book set in the English Lake District in the 1920s, this is the tale of an idyllic summer of adventures, friendship, and imagination for the children of two families and their sailing dinghies, Swallow, and Amazon. The “ruthless pirate” Nancy Blackett was my childhood hero, and after watching the film so many times, I can’t run through a meadow without throwing in a tack. Find it here.
The Brendan Voyage – Tim Severin
Using medieval texts as a guide, experimental archaeologist, adventurer and writer Severin constructed an ox-hide curragh and traces what may have been the first European landfall in North America, around 500 years before Norse settlements and a thousand years before Columbus. Weathering storms and treacherous conditions, close encounters with marine life, and living in the most basic of conditions. A truly remarkable undertaking, and an insight into medieval boatbuilding technology that is little heard about. Read it here.
The Last Grain Race – Eric Newby
In 1938, Newby, then aged 18, quit his job at an advertising firm, and signed-on as crew on the windjammer Moshulu, to sail 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.
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, lyrical descriptions of wind, waves and wildlife. The book helpfully includes a sail plan and rigging diagram so you can keep track of topgallants, flying jibs and spankers. Get it here.
one wild Song – Paul Heiney
Writer and broadcaster Heiney’s son Nicholas, a keen sailor and poet, took his own life aged 23 after years of living with depression. Together with his wife, journalist and sailor Libby Purves, Heiney pays tribute to Nicholas, and aims to connect with happier memories, by setting out for Cape Horn, considered the Everest of sailing. A powerful and moving account of processing grief, beautifully written and thought-provoking. Find it here.
Longitude: the true story of the lone genius who sloved the greatest scientific problem of his time – Dava Sobel
For centuries seafaring navigators could fix their latitude accurately with a sextant, but the calculation of longitude was far more prone to error. The British Admiralty established a prize for the first person to develop a technique, thus ensuring their continued naval superiority, leading to John Harrison’s forty-year quest to build the most reliable chronometer of the time. A classic of the history of science. Get it here.
This thing of darkness – Harry Thompson
A fictionalised life of Captain Robert FitzRoy of the Royal Navy, commander of HMS Beagle, and pioneer of meteorology, this superbly written book is captivating from the start, and filled with historic details. It traces FitzRoy’s voyages to chart the coasts of South America and introduces a young Charles Darwin, trainee cleric and keen geologist, engaged as a gentleman companion to the captain on the second voyage. The two men discuss, debate, observe, and speculate, on a range of themes, until profound differences in their beliefs eventually drive a wedge through their friendship, exacerbated by their receptions by society on their return. Get it here.
Against the flow – Dee Caffari
More people have walked on the moon than have made a successful solo westabout circumnavigation, against prevailing winds and currents, and in 2006 Dee Caffari was the first woman to do so. Stepping out of the comfort of a secure job, to face physical hardship, sleep deprivation, and the unpredictability of the weather, this is an inspiring account of her adventure. Read it here.
Have you enjoyed any of these books? Which salty adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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