The best books on sea voyages gone badly

Linda Collison Author Of Water Ghosts
By Linda Collison

The Books I Picked & Why

The Shadow-Line

By Joseph Conrad

Book cover of The Shadow-Line

Why this book?

Ships and boats are good settings for conflict; physical, sociological, and psychological.

No wind to drive the ship, a sick crew, and a mentally unstable first mate beleaguered by the ghost of the previous captain are trials the young captain must deal with. As in all of Conrad's fiction, there is plenty of insight into the human condition revealed through the characters and felt in the subtext. I classify it as a coming-of-age at sea story, drawn from Conrad's own experiences. "Coming-of-age" does not mean "young adult" in my life dictionary. It may continue well beyond the teen years.


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Life of Pi

By Yann Martel

Book cover of Life of Pi

Why this book?

This narrative starts out in the real world, and it feels like an actual narrative. It starts off slow and deliberate – but wait for it! I loved how the narrator caught me off guard and made me question his reliability. This book left me with questions, like, who is Richard Parker and what really happened out there on the lifeboat? Which version of the story is true? Are they both true? Thought-provoking fiction set at sea, with psychological, philosophical, and spiritual elements, told by a teenage boy. 


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A High Wind in Jamaica

By Richard Hughes

Book cover of A High Wind in Jamaica

Why this book?

Five British children are sent to England by ship after a hurricane destroys their Jamaican home. On an ocean crossing without their parents, the ship is taken by pirates, who eventually pass the children to a steamship, bound for England. Emily, a ten-year-old, comes of age on the journey. Not physically or sexually, but she becomes conscious and self-aware. Much of the story is seen through her eyes, and the events she chooses to forget or adapt. Great psychological fiction, and a dark, coming-of-age set at sea.


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In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon

By Joan Druett

Book cover of In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon

Why this book?

Studying the journals of the surviving crew, the historian of this real-life nineteenth-century tragedy pieces together the situation aboard the ship that set sail out of Massachusetts for the whaling grounds of the North Pacific. What happens aboard makes the literary Captain Ahab's monomaniacal actions seem heroic in comparison. Druett's true-crime-at-sea story provides a brutal counterpoint to the American epic, Moby Dick, and calls to mind The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, a true account that is said to have inspired Melville. I pick Druett's account because of its historical true-crime approach, and because it is a lesser-known account.


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Shackleton's Boat Journey

By Frank Arthur Worsley

Book cover of Shackleton's Boat Journey

Why this book?

A real-life survival story written by Captain Frank Worsley, one of the participants. Six men, part of the 1908 Shackleton expedition that was shipwrecked in Antarctica pack ice for fourteen months, set off in an open boat across eight hundred miles of ocean to South Georgia Island for help, leaving the rest of the crew on Elephant Island awaiting rescue. There are a lot of books on sea adventures gone bad, but Shackleton's Boat Journey is my favorite because it is told by one of the survivors. Frank Worsley's account demonstrates how teamwork, fortitude, endurance, and luck work together to save them from disaster.


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