Chart a Course for Adventure: 8 Thrilling Books Set on the Sea

Chart a Course for Adventure: 8 Thrilling Books Set on the Sea

Tuesday, 18 February, 2020

It’s anchors aweigh on literary voyages that promise excitement of both the physical and emotional variety. These eight enthralling books capture the timeless, compelling, and sometimes dangerous allure of the sea.

These stories take place on remarkable ships that are characters themselves — a pirate schooner in the 1800s, contemporary and WWII freighters in fraught circumstances, luxury cruise liners from glamorous decades past, a well-known whaler, and the tragic Lusitania. There are also pirates of many colors, found family brought together by happenstance, spies, ne’er-do-wells, frightened men who find their courage, and daring ladies with style to spare. Prepare to feel the wind in your face and smell the salt in the air.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast The Sea: Tales of Poets and Pirates.


Cinnamon and Gunpowder - Eli Brown

It’s 1819 and the captain of the Flying Rose — Mad Hannah Mabbot, lady pirate extraordinaire — busts into a luxurious dinner party and absconds with the chef. Via an elegant note sealed with wax, Mad Hannah informs the ‘Caesar of Sauces’ that she will spare his life, so long as he prepares a gourmet meal for her aboard ship every Sunday.

Mad Hannah clearly has secrets, and the somewhat prissy chef is ostracized by the rest of the men. It takes several almost-fatal adventures for him to resign himself to his fate and, in that resignation, find his courage.

He works miracles with the meager supplies available in the galley’s pantry, sun-drying tomatoes, crushing chocolate with a cannonball, soaking walnuts in ale for gourmet meals. As the larger-than-life pirate capers careen toward a very satisfying conclusion, we get to know the people behind the blustery personas. That’s when this rip-roaring, seafaring adventure reveals itself to be moving story about family, loyalty, acceptance, and justice. {more}

On my way across the deck, I passed a dozen or so men taking their ease. They smoked, scratched scrimshaw, threw knives at rats, and one of them played a maniacal tune on a gourd instrument with keys made of hammered metal. Even as they lounged, they scanned the horizon for a corsair ship named La Colette, which, it seemed, had made a considerable impression upon them. It was clear they did not wish to encounter the ship again. — Eli Brown

Dark Voyage - Alan Furst

Dark Voyage
> Alan Furst

In this seafaring spy thriller, it’s 1941, and the Dutch freighter Noordendam — disguised as a ship from neutral Spain — has been conscripted into service by the British. At the helm is Eric DeHaan, the quintessential good man in bad circumstances. He’s a seaman, not a spy, with an abiding love for the ocean and the items on two carefully stocked shelves in his quarters: ‘a forty-book library, his wind-up Victrola, and an album of records in thick paper envelopes.’

Nothing clarifies allegiances quite like wartime, and when questioned about his political leanings, DeHaan replies, ‘I believe in kindness. Compassion. We don’t have a party.’ His crew is a melting pot of nationalities — Jews, Russians, Spaniards, Greeks, Brits, Dutch. All are outcasts in one way or another, and all are treated with tolerance, compassion, and value by their captain.

As the ship makes its way from North Africa and the Mediterranean to the chill of the Baltic Sea, there are moments of breathless tension. The calm acceptance with which DeHaan accepts these dangers — as his due, as a part of life during the war — makes them all the more dramatic. {more}

He grew prouder of his crew as the evening wore on — there was none of the usual griping and bitching, no tales of thievery or fistfights. Nothing quite like danger, he thought, to cure the bullshit of daily life. — Alan Furst

Into the Storm - Tristram Korten

Into the Storm
> Tristram Korten

In the fall of 2015, Hurrican Joaquin crashed into the Bahamas and devoured two cargo vessels: the American El Faro with 33 souls aboard and the Haitian Minouche, a smaller, older freighter served by a dozen sailors. Both ships and the entire crew of the El Faro were lost to the sea.

This is the well-told true story of those doomed ships, the brave Coast Guard swimmers who executed the search-and-rescue operation, and the human foibles that drove the vessels into the hurricane’s destructive path. Using extensive interviews and the ships’ Voyage Data Recorders, veteran journalist Tristram Korten leads us through the actions and decisions made by the captains of both freighters.

The parallel and contrasting stories of these ships is a page-turner — a respectful, sobering, and suspenseful examination of one of the largest U.S. maritime disasters. It’s a moving tale of necessary bravery, loyalty and brotherhood, and the unrelenting power of nature. {more}

Many of the men, in a very Haitian way, were already accepting their fate as God’s will, and were asking their mates to deliver messages of love to their families if they happened to survive. Gelera, whose religious devotion would be hard to match, also trusted that whatever happened would be God’s will. But he couldn’t resign himself to doom for a simple reason: He was responsible for everyone on his ship. It was his duty as captain to keep them alive, and it would be his legacy if they perished. This, perhaps, was an even greater motivating force than his own survival. A captain who lost his crew would leave a stained memory on this earth. — Tristram Korten

Death by Water - Kerry Greenwood

Death by Water
> Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher is a heroine we can believe in. An independent lady-detective in 1928 Melbourne, she’s an equal-opportunity lover and prone to wearing pants (all the easier to shimmy up a drainpipe). She keeps a pearl-handled pistol in her evening bag, and she is not here for any of your nonsense.

In this adventure, she’s sailing from Melbourne to New Zealand on a luxury cruise ship to catch a jewel thief. And, probably, to crack some skulls and break some hearts along the way.

As the ship glides west through the Tasman Sea, life aboard takes on a rhythm of gourmet meals, top-shelf cocktails, cheap wine, dancing, flirting, and midnight dalliances. There are also sexy jazz musicians, an attempted drowning, blackmail, a sneaky tomcat, beastly husbands, haunting stories of shipwrecks, and a dramatic Māori war dance. {more}

Phryne was angry. The only way that an informed observer could tell was that her lips were a little tighter and her winged nostrils flared as though she was smelling out her prey. Phryne in that mood made Dot uncomfortable. Her employer was about to happen to someone. — Kerry Greenwood

The Last Cruise - Kate Christensen

The Last Cruise
> Kate Christensen

The glamorous 1950s ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage — a retro cruise from Long Beach to Hawaii and back — before heading to the scrapyard. It should be a dream getaway for the guests onboard. Gourmet food, string quartets, no cell phones, no children. What could possibly go wrong?

As the story opens, we meet three characters on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure: a former journalist who’s now a middle-aged farmer in Maine, a newly-promoted Hungarian chef with plenty to prove in the kitchen, and an elderly Israeli violinist who’s onboard to entertain with the rest of her quartet.

Although the sea is smooth and the pieces are in place for an elegant experience — dressing for dinner, polite conversation over cocktails — a fog of unease settles over the narrative. There’s a sense that something is coming, although no one is sure what or when.

As the ship cruises across the expanse of the Pacific, external and internal forces collide, and the true character everyone aboard — the passengers, the crew, the ship itself — is revealed. {more}

The rich and famous of the era booked suites and dined on filet mignon and oysters Rockefeller at the captain’s table, danced the cha-cha and the tango to hot bands in the ballroom, drank martinis and cognac in the Starlight Lounge, smoked cheroots in the casino… Gene Kelly made a splash in the ballroom for a dazzling night, squiring several starstruck matrons around the teak parquet floor, dipping one so low her diamond brooch fell off, then famously dipping her again at the end of the dance so he could pick it up again and hand it back to her… Her last cruise will be a celebration of the glorious era of glamour and elegance, a theater of nostalgia. — Kate Christensen

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

Moby Dick
> Herman Melville

You probably think you know the story: This 700-page novel from 1851 is about Ahab’s obsession with the whale. The first line is ‘Call me Ishmael,’ and it’s a book you were supposed to read in high school.

That is all technically true, but Moby Dick is so much more.

Melville’s writing is a time machine that transports us back to the back-breaking, dangerous work of hunting a whale in the 1800s. We have the honor and the privilege of spending time hanging around on the ship, watching men do their work, and getting the feel of what it was like to be asea in the 19th century.

Melville takes us on a ride, and it is a tough voyage. But when you finally turn the last page, you will know how to crew a whaling ship, you will have felt the salt wind on your face and the bracing thrill of the harpoon hunt, and you will never forget this timeless tale of obsession, hubris, and the undeniable call of the sea. {more}

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. — Herman Melville

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

Dead Wake
> Erik Larson

In 1915, there wasn’t a luxury liner tougher or faster than the Lusitania, and she was crossing from New York to Liverpool with a record number of souls aboard. The world was in the throes of WWI, but Captain William Thomas Turner had confidence in his ship’s abilities — and faith in the gentlemanly rules of warfare that had protected civilian vessels throughout his career.

But then several elements, ‘myriad factors, large and achingly small’ — hubris, ambition, politics, fog, and deadly secrets — converged to produce a great tragedy.

With his unerring eye for the most moving and relevant details, Larson makes real people of everyone involved, from the passengers on board the fated ship to the behind-the-scenes players in British intelligence, on German U-Boats, and at the White House.

Awash in glamour and unrelenting suspense — even though we know the sad truth of the events — this book is gripping from the ship’s optimistic beginning to its tragic end. {more}

There were parents sailing to rejoin their children, and children to rejoin their parents, and wives and fathers hoping to get back to their own families, as was the case with Mrs. Arthur Luck of Worcester, Massachusetts, traveling with her two sons, Kenneth Luck and Elbridge Luck, ages eight and nine, to rejoin her husband, a mining engineer who awaited them in England. Why in the midst of great events there always seems to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history. — Erik Larson

Journey Into Fear - Eric Ambler

Journey Into Fear
> Eric Ambler

The story begins in Istanbul, where we meet Graham, a somewhat nerdy armaments engineer who’s frantically trying to disentangle himself from a late-night flirtation with a cabaret dancer. He’s a good husband, thinking of his wife, and all he wants is to get back home to England.

He boards an Italian freighter to begin the probably tedious, maybe dangerous journey home. That’s when circumstances spin dangerously out of his control.

As he tries to lie low, he’s drawn into encounters with the other passengers on board: the femme fatale from the nightclub and her husband (!), Nazi assassins, and several people — harmless or not? — who may not be entirely honest about their identities.

Written with a brisk pace, snappy dialogue, and shades of noir, this is a tidy spy novel that takes advantage of the drama inherent in tight spaces during tense times. {more}

But you couldn’t get away from danger! It was all about you, all the time. You could live in ignorance of it for years: you might go to the end of your days believing that some things couldn’t possibly happen to you… but it was there just the same, waiting to make nonsense of all your comfortable ideas about your relations with time and chance… — Eric Ambler


Don’t miss Episode 06 of our podcast The Sea: Tales of Poets and Pirates. It features more on the books we love featuring the sea and a fascinating chat with an American who spent eight years sailing around the world with his family.

Top image courtesy of Vidar Nordli-Mathisen.

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