Adventure and Calamity at Sea

by Alyssa S

While I don’t own a boat, and the longest water voyage I’ve ever taken was an overnight ferry from Ireland to France, I do love a perilous, eventful sea story, whether fact or fiction. I’m fascinated by the Shackleton expedition, by Polynesians and Vikings and their ability to navigate long distances without the aid of even Enlightenment-era technology, and by the fact that descendants of the Bounty’s mutineers still populate tiny Pitcairn Island. Oh, and I’ve watched the original Pirates of the Caribbean way too many times. Here are some of my favorites:

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horvitz

Working as a sailor aboard a replica of Captain James Cook’s ship, along with his reckless Aussie friend, Horvitz retraces Captain James Cook’s Pacific exploration routes in a grand adventure that not only conveys what it would have been like to sail around the word in the 18th century, but also astutely observes Cook’s lasting, destructive effects on places he visited. The settings are varied and engrossing, and since this is Tony Horvitz, Blue Latitudes combines the serious with the laugh-out-loud funny. It’s worth noting that not every community welcomes a visit from an Endeavour replica.

Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian

A shining high-water mark in historical fiction, the series about Captain Jack Aubrey and his naturalist and spy sidekick Stephen Maturin charms with breathless battles, delightful dialogue, intricate descriptions of life aboard a British navy ship during the Napoleonic wars, and the occasional liquor-loving sloth. Captain Aubrey is a master strategist, but he usually manages to lose his prize money somehow. And Maturin’s presence is like travelling with a comical version of Charles Darwin. Won’t someone please make a high-quality TV adaptation?

The North Water by Ian McGuire

An ill-fated whaling expedition unknowingly harbors a psychopathic killer among its crew. Soon he’s killing off rather important crew members who try to defend their comrades. Somewhere in the icy maze of northern Canada’s islands, the ship becomes stranded. Not for the faint of heart, this grisly, heart-pounding story is soon to be a BBC miniseries and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to stomach the darkness and pain in film format. Carcass sleeping bag trope alert.

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings by Jonathan Raban

English author and Seattle resident Jonathan Raban navigates the Inside Passage of channels and islands from Seattle to Juneau alone on a 35-foot sailboat, accompanied by indigenous lore, Romantic-era literature, and Captain George Vancouver’s diary. He planned to write a book about the journey, but with sudden familial loss and his marriage possibly crumbling, the result goes beyond travelogue to become a meditation on mortality and self, informed by the stunning scenery, isolated communities, changeable weather, and eccentric characters Raban encounters along the way.

Lastly, if you’ve read or watched The Terror, you’ll have heard of these two ominously-named ships whose wrecks were finally found in the 21st century.

What are your favorite sea stories? Tell us in the comments.

Public domain image of Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer/The Sea of Ice courtesy of Wikipedia.

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