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Sail Away: 8 Books That Will Turn Your Couch Into a Cruise Ship

By Pat Tompkins

May 3, 2021

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Illustration by Taisiya_art/Shutterstock

Eager to get back on a ship? While we wait for the cruising seas to calm, get your fill of ocean adventures through these 8 novels and nonfiction books.

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Moby Dick begins with two well-known declarations. The second, longer one might apply to anyone who loves sailing: “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Alas, for those with cabin fever, sailing the high seas is not an option for most these days. One way to counter the no-cruise blues is to tuck into a sea adventure at home. The following eight books, novels about the ocean and nonfiction tales of the high seas, will spirit you away for far less than the cost of a first-class cabin.

Fiction

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Buy now: $15, bookshop.org; $13, amazon.com

Set during the mid-19th century, this story explores a trip to locate the crew of a vanished expedition in the Arctic. That expedition was the final actual attempt by Sir John Franklin to locate the Northwest Passage. Central to the drama are the expedition’s ambitious leader, Zechariah Voorhees, and its naturalist, Erasmus Darwin Wells, and how they handle the unexpected. Barrett’s fascination with science and history enhances all of her novels and stories, including this tale of characters under duress from their mission and location.

To the Edge of the World (first published in U.K. as This Thing of Darkness, 2005) by Harry Thompson


Buy now: 
$23, amazon.com

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This account, based on the five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, focuses on Captain Robert FitzRoy and one of his passengers, Charles Darwin, as they set sail in 1831 to explore South America. To tell the epic story, spanning more than 30 years in 750 pages, Thompson traveled to various locales of that voyage, including the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego, and New Zealand. Nominated for the Man Booker long list, it was Thompson’s first novel, following a career in travel reporting and TV. Unfortunately, it was also his last; he died soon after its publication.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville (written 1891, first published 1924)


Buy now: 
$6, bookshop.org; $6, amazon.com

Melville’s novels take readers to a very different time and place, in this instance to what befalls a sailor “impressed” (aka forced) from a merchant ship into service on the HMS Indomitable. The prose style is less than laconic, but the leisurely pace can be a plus. As with Moby Dick, in the much shorter Billy Budd good versus evil is the real story in this portrait of a singular sailor. And, as with many of his novels, Melville based his fiction on his own sailing experience and on a true case, the trial and execution of two midshipmen onboard a USS ship. This last novel by Melville went unpublished for more than 30 years; it is now regarded as one of his finest.

Nonfiction

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (1997)


Buy now: 
$15, bookshop.org; $13, amazon.com

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A best seller and inspiration for a good movie, the 1997 book is much better than the movie in putting this modern fishermen-against-nature story in perspective. A “perfect storm” in weather terms is a disaster, long and ferocious. Here it describes the Halloween Gale of October 1991, a convergence of three storms that created waves over 100 feet, plus winds of 100 miles per hour. Caught in it is the fishing boat Andrea Gail, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with six men on board. Junger does a masterful job describing the people and problems involved in this event.

Taking on the World by Ellen MacArthur (2002)


Buy now: 
$11, amazon.com

Imagine sailing around the world by yourself, never stopping in a race against 22 other sailors. You’re a 24-year-old woman; all the other racers are men. Just finishing would be a remarkable accomplishment. But first, you need sponsorship and fund-raising, as well as the determination and skill to compete in ocean racing. Discover how British sailor/author MacArthur made her 2001 voyage possible and did more than simply finish the race. Her account is perfect for fans of the recent documentary Maiden, an absorbing account of an all-women yacht crew competing in an around-the-world race.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (2002)


Buy now: 
$17, bookshop.org; $11, amazon.com

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The 1820 voyage of the Essex whaling ship, rammed and sunk by a whale, inspired Melville’s Moby Dick. The sinking is only the beginning of the troubles the sailors endure. A few crew members survived to recount the story, a sensation in its day. Philbrick excels at putting the cruel and violent hunting of whales in historical context. He also brings to this tale his expertise as a sailor and as a historian of Nantucket, where he has long lived. And if In the Heart of the Sea resembles a top-quality thriller, he offers one explanation: an appreciation of Stephen King’s books. As Philbrick told the New York Times: “I may write history, but all my books are horror stories of one kind or another.” This one received the nonfiction National Book Award in 2000.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the World by Glynis Ridley (2010)


Buy now: 
$16, bookshop.org; $16, amazon.com

As the subhead suggests, this book covers a lot of territory. It’s a tale of politics (gender, economic, and other) in which you’ll learn about such things as the international struggle to corner the nutmeg market. This global expedition of two French ships in the 1760s is commanded by Admiral Louis-Antione de Bougainville (yes, the plant is named for him); passengers include botanist Philibert Commerson and his young assistant, Jeanne Baret, disguised as a man. In short: things do not go smoothly, which makes for a compelling account.

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder (1998)


Buy now: 
$17, bookshop.org; $17, amazon.com

No selection of sea tales would be complete without a treasure hunt. With the SS Central America, the lure of the loot is substantial (the subtitle: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck). In the worst nonmilitary ship sinking in U.S. history, more than 400 passengers died and 21 tons of gold from California were lost in 1857, off the coast of the Carolinas. More than a century later, during an effort that takes years, sophisticated sonar and computer technologies help searchers recover its valuable cargo.

>>Next: Around the World in 80 Books

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