What’s your all-time top 10 books about boats?

One of the great books of all time set on a boat Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. Illustration from the C. H. Simonds Co. edition, (date)

One of the great books of all time set on a boat Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. Illustration from the C. H. Simonds Co. edition, 1892.

I was recently invited to talk with ABC 702 radio Mornings program’s Linda Mottram about what might be my top ten ‘books about boats’ of all time. It wasn’t hard to think of a few classics such as The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Thor Heyerdhal’s Kon Tiki, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — all books that resonated with me when I first read them, and stayed with me long after.

A couple of others that I didn’t get the chance to mention — and were not specifically about boats but have hard-to-forget descriptions of amazing, almost mystical boat journeys — were Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Callers to the program were obviously passionate about their favourite books about boats. But what is it that makes such books so popular? It is the narrative journey of an ocean voyage full of adventure? Or just mucking about with boats over the summer holidays? Maybe it’s the struggle against the ocean and nature? The epic survival-against-all-odds story? Perhaps it’s the way a ship can be a microcosm of society? Or how being stuck together at sea makes us see our common humanity?

You can hear the podcast and see callers’ responses on the ABC 702 blog.

A list of some of the books that callers to the program plumped for is below, in no particular order. There’s certainly a few on that list I must read!

But what is your favourite book about boats — and why? Let us know in the comments section.

  • Hungry as the Sea by Wilbur Smith
  • Dove by Robin Lee Graham
  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier by Diana Preston
  • Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton
  • Time Storm by Steve Harrison
  • A Flock of Ships by Brian Callison
  • The Lonely Sea and the Sky by Sir Francis Chichester
  • Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl
  • Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson
  • Icebird by David Lewis
  • Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • Barrier Reef Rendezvous by Allan Lucas
  • The Boat That Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowatt
  • Angry as the Sea by  Wilbur Smith
  • Eye of the Tiger by Wilbur Smith
  • Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
  • Desperate Voyage by John Caldwell
  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
  • 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill
  • Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
  • Master and Commander (and the series) by Patrick O’Brian

— Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator

10 thoughts on “What’s your all-time top 10 books about boats?

  1. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ by Nathaniel Philbrick – a gripping and horrifying account of the whaleship Essex, rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, and the fate of the survivors. It’s the true story that inspired Moby Dick.

  2. For me, ‘HMS Ulysses’ by Alastair McLean – his most memorable book by far and, as in the best nautical books, the sea itself becomes an antagonist (in this case the icy North Sea faced by the WW1 Arctic convoys).
    ‘The Nautical Chart’ by Arturo Perez-Reverte is also great – a modern “buried treasure” thriller.

  3. For real life sea adventure in the 1950s – 1970s the books of the voyages by the mountaineer and sailor H.W. (Bill) Tilman take some beating. Erudite, humorous, and at times thrilling he takes you to the icy seas of the arctic and the stormy seas of the southern Atlantic and Indian oceans in his little Bristol Channel cutter.

  4. I agree about the Tilman books, they are excellent. But for me there is one stand out voyaging book. ‘A World Of My Own’ . Robin Knox-Johnston’s superb account of the world’s first solo, non-stop circumnavigation before the days of high tech sailing.

  5. You’ve mentioned several that I would concur with such as Das Boot, Kon Tiki and I would offer up the following selection – ‘Ice Station Zebra’ by A MacLean, ‘The Sand Pebbles’ by R. McKenna, ‘Straws in the Wind’ by H. Stoker, ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ by E. Beach, ‘The Caine Mutiny’ by H. Wouk, and ‘Hunt for Red October’ by T. Clancy for your consideration… But ultimately, there is one book above all others for me…The ‘Cruel Sea’ by Nicholas Monsarrat.

  6. A bit late in the conversation, but I wanted to add a few titles I have really enjoyed which live in our home library- accounts of real explorations and adventures, eg Storm and Silence, Joe Cannon; Sailing in my sarong, Linda Anderson; Dolphins at sunset, Elizabeth Thurston; Lionheart, Jesse Martin; True Spirit, Jessica Watson; First Lady, Kay Cottee; Windswept and the Line, Gavin Le Sueur; Sailing around the world, Joshua Slocum; Shapes on the wind,David Lewis; 500 days, Serge Testa. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these people. Long live the challenge of the sea! Judithe Hall

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