The Best Boat Books and Sailing Novels to Read in Self-Isolation
by Olivia Michel
Looking for the best sea-inspired books to read during lockdown? We round up the best boat books and sailing novels to read while in self-isolation
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Martel’s fantasy novel tells the story of Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, adrift at sea and sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. In 2012, Life of Pi was adapted into one of the best boat movies.
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Robert Quinn
A gambler, inventor and fraudster with 36 aliases, Charles Wells famously bet his worldly possessions, including his yacht, Palais Royal, at the Casino de Monte-Carlo in 1891 – and broke the bank. This fascinating account details his improbable life and investigates whether he really was just lucky at the tables.
Typhoon by Joseph Conrad
This novella is best read while safe on shore – the description of the tropical storm in the title is unnervingly real. Conrad is thought to have drawn from his own experiences of riding out a cyclone aboard the steamer John P Best.
The Endurance by Caroline Alexander
In 1914, Ernest Henry Shackleton set off to cross the Antarctic continent, but his ship, Endurance, was crushed and sunk by the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. The rescue of his men involved an extraordinary journey of 800 miles across the South Atlantic in the tiny lifeboat James Caird. Alexander tells the story with gusto, her book marvellously enriched by expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s images.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Herman Melville's 1851 tome tells the tale of Ahab, the captain of a whaler obsessed with getting revenge on a white whale that destroyed his ship on a previous voyage. The novel is notable for its accurate portrayal of whale hunting techniques, while issues such as class, race, status, religion and good and evil are explored through the whaler's diverse crew.
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
The tale of the maiden and final voyage of RMS Titanic is one of heroism as well as horror, and although it has been told many times, no one has done it better than Lord. This is the classic account, published when the disaster was still within living memory, and Lord – a hardworking historian from Baltimore – was able to speak to those who had survived the sinking of the White Star Line’s grandest ship.
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
In 1845 Sir John Franklin set off on an expedition to find the elusive Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route to the Pacific through the frozen Arctic Ocean. His ships, Erebus and Terror, were lost; Franklin and his men seemingly vanished into thin air. In Barrett’s novel, naturalist Erasmus Darwin Wells sails from Philadelphia in 1855 aboard the Narwhal with the aim of discovering Franklin’s fate. This is a gripping novel that recreates the atmosphere aboard a 19th century ship venturing into the unknown with chilling accuracy.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
On the day of his wedding, Edmond Dantès, first mate of the Pharaon, is falsely accused of treason and imprisoned on a grim fortress off the coast of Marseille. The classic tale tells of Dantès' exhilarating escape aboard a smuggling ship and his plans for the ultimate revenge.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
In Fitzgerald's classic from the roaring twenties, Gatsby experiences his first taste of the high life on board a yacht. As a young man Gatsby encounters a sloop named Tuolomee, a yacht that belongs to copper magnate Dan Cody. Cody invites him aboard and hires him on the spot as “steward, mate, skipper, secretary." Gatsby sailed for "five years, during which the boat went three times around the Continent.”
Tuolomee may be a fictional name, but the boat she was based on was real: Ventura, an 18.5-metre cutter-rigged sloop designed by Nathanael Herreshoff and so splendid that she now has national landmark status in the US. Fitzgerald once went aboard as a guest of its original owner, George F Baker, the co-founder of the First National Bank of the City of New York (now Citibank), whom Time magazine once described as “twice as rich as JP Morgan”.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
If you're feeling isolated from the world while social distancing, then no book is more relatable than Robinson Crusoe. Set ashore on an island after a terrible storm at sea, Crusoe is forced to endure endless solitude.
Longitude by Dava Sobel
At London’s Royal Observatory you will find John Harrison’s marine chronometers. These masterpieces of engineering, invented by carpenter and clockmaker Harrison, were the first timepieces accurate enough to allow seamen to calculate their position in the open sea. American author Dava Sobel made Harrison’s quest to solve the problem of longitude into this compact, gripping narrative. Every sailor owes a debt to John Harrison and his clocks – and Sobel tells his story with panache.
The Odyssey by Homer
The Odyssey is the second oldest piece of literature in the Western world, and the original sea-faring story. The epic poem sees the hero Odysseus coming up against sirens, a sea monster named Scylla and the god Poseidon in his decade-long effort to return home.
Casting Off by Emma Bamford
Feeling stuck in a rut, London journalist Emma Bamford bought a one-way ticket to Borneo to work as crew on a yacht with a man she’d never met – and his cat. Her first memoir and its sequel, Untie the Lines, tell of her adventures sailing in South East Asia and the Caribbean.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
For families stuck at on shore, get your children’s imaginations racing with this charming classic. In the English Lake District in 1929, five children join forces to defeat the treacherous Captain Flint with the help of their dinghies Swallow and Amazon. With a strong message of friendship and an emphasis on the importance of remembering the dangers of the sea, this is a must for any youngster.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
One for those with a passion for the best sportfish yachts, Hemingway's novel follows the exploits of an ageing Cuban fisherman, Santiago, as he battles to catch a huge marlin off the Gulf Coast of Florida.
The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
When British Foreign Office official Carruthers joins his acquaintance Davies for a yachting holiday on the Baltic Sea, he expects a leisurely sunshine cruise. Instead he finds himself quickly learning to sail a much smaller boat before discovering the invitation was a ruse to get him to help Davies investigate suspicious goings on by the Germans in the Frisian Islands. A fast-paced thriller that will have you yearning for a chase in one of the world’s fastest tenders.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Just invested in one of the best superyacht submarines? Let your imagination run away with you with Jules Verne’s underwater epic. The 1870 novel is most notable for Verne’s remarkable description of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, which accurately predicted features of modern submarines that were still decades away from being invented.
Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami
Souhami tell the story of Alexander Selkirk, a young Scotsman engaged in privateering during the early 18th century. Following a dispute with the captain of Cinque Ports, a 16-gun, 90-ton vessel, Selkirk was put ashore on an uninhabited island some 400 miles west of Chile. There he remained utterly alone for four years, until he was found by another vessel.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another great story for sailing families, Treasure Island tells the story of an adventurous boy who gets hold of a map and sets off on a ship in search of buried treasure. Among the crew, however, is the treacherous Long John Silver who is determined to keep the treasure for himself.
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
The Voyage of the Beagle is an account of the five years (1831-36) Darwin spent as a naturalist on HMS Beagle cruising through the coastal waters around South America. Embarking on the journey at the age of 22, Darwin visited Tahiti, Australasia and the Galápagos. Had he not made the journey, his theories of transmutation might never have been formulated.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart
Gary Shteyngart’s uproariously funny Lake Success follows a status-obsessed New Yorker on a journey of self-discovery. Of course, there’s a boat in it. Indeed, its denouement hinges on a video made on a yacht off the coast of Sardinia.
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson
For great entertainment value and a more controversial take on the whole Darwin enterprise, try Harry Thompson’s epic fictionalised retelling of the voyage.
Rites of Passage by William Golding
When it comes to the minutiae of life aboard, Golding, who served in the Navy during the Second World War, is writing from experience: the routine, the closed society and, most evocatively, the relentless movement, are key features of his novel.
Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian
O’Brian’s 21 novels are set during the Napoleonic wars, and they follow the friendship between a Royal Navy officer and a surgeon as they serve on a succession of warships. Start with the first book and see how many you can read before the end of coronavirus quarantine...
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