The best books of true-life sea adventures that will blow you overboard

Why am I passionate about this?

You have to appreciate the intrepid nature of those who ventured out to sea in the days before satellite-enabled navigation, modern weather forecasting, and Coast Guard rescue swimmers. The books I’ve listed span a time of great global exploration occurring simultaneously with the engines of novel economic development. Most of that development was based on the exploitation of human and natural resources. A thread of curiosity through all of these picks is how those individuals most directly involved in its physical pursuit and transport were rarely the same who benefitted from it. But instead lived lives of constant hardship and danger – profiting, if at all, only in the adventure itself.


I wrote...

The Ocean Above Me

By Kevin Sites,

Book cover of The Ocean Above Me

What is my book about?

Trapped undersea in a capsized shrimping trawler, a damaged former war correspondent is forced to confront a deadly secret from his past as he struggles to survive, in this gripping novel of trauma, loss, love, and redemption from the award-winning journalist and author of The Things They Cannot Say, Kevin Sites. 

The Ocean Above Me explores the effects of trauma, the pain of forgiveness, and the light of love that burns in the darkest depths. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt

Kevin Sites Why did I love this book?

Democratically elected captains overseeing multi-ethnic crews in floating meritocracies conducting rogue assaults against an autocratic, kleptocratic, slaveholding world is actually a quite appealing concept.

Yet, this both simplifies and overlooks the often savage and sadistic nature of the violence contained within the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (1650s to 1730s). Johnson deconstructs these complexities through a deep, dive into Henry Every, the 17th Century’s most notorious pirate and his vicious attack on an Indian treasure ship.

His crew was rewarded in rape, murder, mayhem, and financial riches beyond their wildest dreams. I love that the book strips away all our preconception of piracy, both positive and negative, forcing us to consider not just the darker forces of human nature – but also of the social and economic systems that prompted them and which continue to thrive today. 

By Steven Johnson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Enemy of All Mankind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Thoroughly engrossing . . . a spirited, suspenseful, economically told tale whose significance is manifest and whose pace never flags.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
From The New York Times–bestselling author of The Ghost Map and Extra Life, the story of a pirate who changed the world

Henry Every was the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate. The press published wildly popular—and wildly inaccurate—reports of his nefarious adventures. The British government offered enormous bounties for his capture, alive or (preferably) dead. But Steven Johnson argues that Every’s most lasting legacy was his inadvertent triggering of a major shift in the global economy.…


Book cover of Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

Kevin Sites Why did I love this book?

The near-savant brilliance of Charles Wilkes, captain of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), is prominently tee’d up here by Philbrick (one of our greatest writers of lesser-known nautical history), as is his jealous, petty, venal and stubborn mindset which ultimately was his undoing.

Also the primary reason you’ve never really heard of this remarkable scientific voyage that set out to map the entire Pacific Ocean and even named the newly discovered Antarctic continent. I was surprised to learn the Exploring Expedition was much more ambitious than the overland Lewis and Clark trek, scooped up infinitely more specimens of natural history and scientific data – but was nearly completely forgotten in our history books.

Philbrick untangles the perils and personalities to help us understand why. 

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sea of Glory as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Traces the 1838 discovery voyage that resulted in the western world's survey of 87,000 ocean miles, 280 Pacific islands, numerous zoological discoveries, and the finding of Antarctica; a journey that was marked by tragic deaths, the losses of two ships, and controversial court martials. 250,000 first printing.


Book cover of Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early American Frontier

Kevin Sites Why did I love this book?

This is another early American expedition lost to modern memory. In 1810, one of America’s richest men, John Jacob Astor, sent out two expeditions to exploit the riches of the western coast of North America. Unclaimed at the time.

One was to progress overland the other by sea. Both ended in personal and economic disaster. Yet, showcasing moments of heroism and cowardice, selflessness, and greed – but ultimately awakening America to this untapped potential of this rich, rugged, and unforgiving territory.

Stark writes like a novelist weaving rich, character studies Into the narrative that helped invest me in the people and their mostly, unfortunate fates. 

By Peter Stark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Astoria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of The Lost City of Z and Skeletons in the Zahara, Astoria is the thrilling, true-adventure tale of the 1810 Astor Expedition, an epic, now forgotten, three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast. Peter Stark offers a harrowing saga in which a band of explorers battled nature, starvation, and madness to establish the first American settlement in the Pacific Northwest and opened up what would become the Oregon trail, permanently altering the nation's landscape and its global standing.

Six years after Lewis and Clark's began their journey to the Pacific Northwest, two of…


Book cover of Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero

Kevin Sites Why did I love this book?

The story of Robert Smalls is one of the lesser-known fantastic tales of the American Civil War.

Smalls was an enslaved man in South Carolina, but such a skilled boat pilot that he was left in charge of a heavily armed Confederate Navy ship, the Planter, while its captain and crew were ashore in Charleston. Audaciously, Smalls planned to steal away not only the ship, but also its entire enslaved crew and their family members. Seventeen people in all.

On the night of May 13, 1862 he did just that. Disguised wearing the captain’s cap, Confederate flag flying from the Planter’s mast, Smalls steamed toward the Union blockade and surrendered the ship. Lineberry brings Smalls and his intrepid feats to life, which only began with the escape and continued with his war service, operating the re-christened U.S.S. Planter as the Union’s first black ship pilot.

By Cate Lineberry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Be Free or Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, when a twenty-three-year-old enslaved man named Robert Smalls boldly seized a Confederate steamer. With his wife and two young children hidden on board, Smalls and a small crew ran a gauntlet of heavily armed fortifications in Charleston Harbour and delivered the valuable vessel and the massive guns it carried to nearby Union forces. Smalls' courageous and ingenious act freed him and his family from slavery and immediately made him a Union hero. It also challenged much of the country's view of…


Book cover of H. M. S. Bounty: A True Account of the Notorious Mutiny

Kevin Sites Why did I love this book?

In 1789 Lieutenant Fletcher Christian and 18 mutineers turned on the “insufferable” Captain Bligh of the HMS Bounty and set him and 18 loyal crew members adrift in the South Pacific.

The story has loomed so large in popular imagination it has inspired at least 14 books and five films. But the late British journalist, historian, and diver Alexander McKee brought the disparate elements of the story together in perhaps its most accurate, entertaining, and coherent form–way back in 1962.

There’s always more than one side to a story and McKee interrogates them ruthlessly. The journalist in me applauds his efforts to comb through historical records, personal journals, and every piece of flotsam and jetsam he finds to present one of the most compelling true, sea stories ever written.

Not one of villains and heroes, but of the burdens of leadership and the fraying bonds of loyalty within one of the most rigid institutions of the time, the British Royal Navy.

By Alexander McKee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked H. M. S. Bounty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Quality secondhand book


You might also like...

Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

Book cover of Sea Change

Darlene Marshall Author Of Sea Change

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Romance Reader Regency Romance Fan History Buff SF & Fantasy Fan

Darlene's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean, what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best or he’ll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott’s medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley’s life as well as the patient’s. Even if she can save the American privateer's brother there will still be hell to pay—and maybe a plank to walk—when Captain Fletcher learns Charley…

Sea Change

By Darlene Marshall,

What is this book about?

High Seas, #1

David Fletcher needs a surgeon, stat! But when he captures a British merchantman in the Caribbean what he gets is Charley Alcott, an apprentice physician barely old enough to shave. Needs must, and Captain Fletcher takes the prisoner back aboard his ship with orders to do his best, or he'll be walking the plank.

Charley Alcott's medical skills are being put to the test in a life-or-death situation, Charley's life as well as the patient's. Even if she can save the pirate's brother there will still be hell to pay--and maybe a plank to walk--when Captain Fletcher…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Pirates, Thomas Jefferson, and South Carolina?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Pirates, Thomas Jefferson, and South Carolina.

Pirates Explore 87 books about Pirates
Thomas Jefferson Explore 55 books about Thomas Jefferson
South Carolina Explore 48 books about South Carolina