My favorite sailing books

It’s my dad’s birthday today. He would have been 64. I’ve memorialized him enough here. And yet, I didn’t want today to pass without a little bit of notice.

A love of the sea, ships, and books about both was one of the things we shared. It was a family passion, but it originated with his craftsman’s respect for the beauty of tall ships. Here are some of my favorite books that touch on the sea and sailing.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham: Nathaniel Bowditch’s story of adversity and at points downright tragedy is amazing. Latham’s account tends towards the bootstraps mentality, and yet it’s impossible to mistake the sheer determination with which Bowditch faced life.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome: I took to these books so completely and so thoroughly that I wanted to be Nancy Blackett, as the August 1999 entries here will attest. They are best read in order, at least the first time, but my favorites are: Swallows and Amazons, Pigeon Post, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Secret Water, and Coot Club.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian: I read this at an astonishingly early age, not so much in terms of difficulty as content. These are the books that bring back my dad most vividly: he had read all 21 of the books at least twice and whenever he re-read the first, he would call me over and read the opening aloud, his delight in them so wonderfully apparent. I do enjoy them quite a bit, especially the first few, but I never made it all the way through the series.

Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forster: I’m not sure exactly when I started reading these, but certainly by eighth grade. I know this because I was convinced, and tried to convince my eighth grade history teacher, that C. Northcote Parkinson’s (fictionalized) biography was in fact real. Ah, the innocent days before Wikipedia! Anyway, in some ways these were more to my young taste than O’Brian. Perhaps the fact that I had already seen the TV adaptation and was therefore imagining Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower helped.

Looking over this list, it’s a very classic one. Perhaps it’s only my own niche interests speaking (probably not many other children amused themselves by pretending to be a tacking ship at recess), but O’Brian and Forster have been popular for years for a reason. I’d love to see a great YA book set on a ship, whether it’s historical, fantasy, or something else entirely. And if I’m missing your favorites above, tell me!

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “My favorite sailing books

  1. There’s not much actual sailing in it, but I loved The Boyhood of Grace Jones by Jane Langton. It’s about a tomboy girl in the 1930s who adores Swallows and Amazons and definitely wants to be Nancy Blackett. She also loves “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and learns it by heart while doing dishes. It’s a sequel to Her Majesty, Grace Jones, but would be fine as a standalone.

  2. JB

    I am trying to think of seafaring books I’ve read. If “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” counts, there’s that (though I didn’t love it). I also read “Seabird” as a teen for school. Considering the amount that I’ve come to love ships and sailing as an adult (when I have precious little time to read), it seems disproportionate that I can’t think of more than just those two.

  3. My own favorites are Winter Holiday and The Picts and the Martyrs! The Ds are my favorite characters. I will add Grace Jones to my list too!

    • Maureen Eichner

      I do love the Ds too! Picts and Martyrs I didn’t re-read nearly as much so I’m not sure if my muted memory was me not reading it as often or not liking it as much.

  4. I personally think that we can never do enough of this sort of thing (memorializing) and so glad to read this. May your Dad’s memory be eternal!
    *
    What a beautiful thing to love (art of tall sailing ships). So glad you can continue this on!

  5. What a beautiful list, and a moving way to memorialize your father. I was actually just lent Swallows and Amazons by my significant other, who’s a lifelong fan of the series; I need to remember to find an appropriately idyllic weekend afternoon to enjoy it this summer.

    The Redwall series had terrific nautical setpieces, thanks to Brian Jacques’ having been a merchant seaman. So many dramatically swinging booms – !

    I hear you on Ioan Gruffudd! My mom was also hilariously fond of a Hornblower montage she’d found on Youtube that was set to the Village People’s “In the Navy.”

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