The best books about shipwrecks

6 authors have picked their favorite books about shipwrecks and why they recommend each book.

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In the Heart of the Sea

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Like many with an interest in the Age of Sail, I already knew the story of the whaling ship Essex, partly through the novel it inspired—Moby-Dick, one of the foundation works of modern American literature. In the Heart of the Sea offers so much more. It has a fascinating insight into the economic importance of whaling, as well as the process of hunting such enormous animals in tiny rowing boats. I also learnt a great deal about Nantucket Island and the unique community that grew up there in the 19th century. The story of the Essex itself is very well told, steadily building up the tension even for a reader like me who knew the outcome. A great read that delivers knowledge in a highly-entertaining package.  


Who am I?

I have a passion for ships and the sea which I try and bring to my writing. I was first drawn to the Age of Sail by earlier novelists in the genre who opened my eyes to a fascinating world. I went on to study the 18th-century navy at university, I sail myself whenever I can, and have always loved the sea. When I decided to give up a well-paid job in industry to try my hand as an author, there was only one genre for me.


I wrote...

The Captain's Nephew

By Philip K. Allan,

Book cover of The Captain's Nephew

What is my book about?

1795 - In a world torn apart by revolution and war, Alexander Clay, a young naval officer, dreams of promotion. Self-made, clever, and talented, he is a man ready for this new age. But Clay will need all his wits to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. How can he win the hand of the beautiful Lydia Browning and what dark secrets have the crew brought with them into the wooden world of his ship?

A Night to Remember

By Walter Lord,

Book cover of A Night to Remember: The Classic Account of the Final Hours of the Titanic

After the sinking of the Titanic, public interest in the disaster ended abruptly with the all-consuming tragedy of the First World War. It wasn’t until 1955 when Walter Lord wrote the definitive account of the sinking, A Night To Remember, that interest in Titanic was reignited across the world. Lord had sailed on the Titanic’s sister ship Olympic as a child and developed a fascination with the Titanic, collecting old newspaper cuttings and memorabilia. His parents thought him very odd.  

Lord carried his preoccupation with Titanic into adult life. While working in an advertising agency in New York in the 1950s, some forty years after the sinking, Lord realised that many survivors would soon be reaching the end of their lives and would no longer be able to tell their stories. He took out advertisements inviting survivors to get in touch, interviewing sixty passengers and crew.

A Night To Remember…


Who am I?

I’m a former national newspaper editor and magazine publisher – and the grandson of Jock Hume, a violinist in the Titanic’s band. Jock, who was just 21 years old, had been playing on passenger ships since he was sixteen. His body was recovered ten days after the sinking, 40 miles from the scene the wreck. His family couldn’t afford to bring him home to Dumfries in Scotland, so he was buried alongside 121 other unclaimed Titanic bodies at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My book is the story of Jock’s life, his death…and the previously untold scandal of the aftermath of the sinking.


I wrote...

And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

By Christopher Ward,

Book cover of And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

What is my book about?

It’s the story about what happened after the Titanic sank.  As the band played on deck, 1,500 men, women, and children were swept into the ice-cold water of the North Atlantic. More than 1,200 were never seen again. What happened to them? Ward uncovers the scandal of how the cable-laying ship Mackay-Bennett, which sailed from Halifax to recover bodies, enforced a class system that mirrored the Titanic’s own class structure on board.  He finds uncomfortable parallels with contemporary corporate life: the cover-ups, the failure of anyone at the top to take responsibility. 

Ward’s book, which became a Sunday Times bestseller, inspired a Discovery Channel documentary, Titanic: The Aftermath, which tells the story of Jock’s short but daring life, not unlike that of Jack Dawson in the film, Titanic. Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, described Ward’s book as ‘a heart-breaking story, wonderfully told’.

The Sinking of the Eastland

By Jay Bonansinga,

Book cover of The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy

Jay Bonansinga is best known as a horror writer – he took over the Walking Dead novels when Robert Kirkman “handed him the keys to the Jaguar”, as Jay charmingly puts it. He brings that visceral immediacy and intensity to his nonfiction as well. This is his book on the sinking of the Eastland as it was being loaded with passengers for a picnic excursion. On July 24, 1915, this tragedy claimed more lives than the Chicago Fire. Nearly 10,000 people could only stand by and watch helplessly as the overloaded Eastland rolled, righted itself, then counterbalanced and rolled to the other side, sinking in the Chicago River. Jay tells the story of the people (many of them immigrants) who lived this history, and brings their stories to life once more.


Who am I?

Sylvia Shults is a librarian by day, a ghost hunter by night, and the “hostess with the mostest ghosties” of the Lights Out podcast. During her twenty-plus-year career in libraries, she has managed to smuggle enough words out in her pockets to put together several books of her own, including 44 Years in Darkness, Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, and Spirits of Christmas. She sits in dark, spooky places so you don't have to, and shares her experiences of her brushes with the other side of the Veil.


I wrote...

Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays

By Sylvia Shults,

Book cover of Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays

What is my book about?

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring... but are you sure about that? The dark winter nights can hold many secrets, along with tales of both horror and hauntings. In this chilling book, Sylvia Shults has gathered over 120 tales of Yuletide Spirits, Holiday Horrors, and Christmas Catastrophes that give a new meaning to the "dead of winter."

These pages include rollicking legends of holiday helpers with dark sides; gripping accounts of Christmas season fires, train wrecks, and disasters; winter tales of phantoms and haunted houses; and a collection of Christmas spirits that are sure to send a shiver down your spine Hearkening back to the days of the paperback anthologies of the 1960s, you'll be delighted when you unwrap this package on Christmas morning and start turning page after page of eerie and frightening tales. It's the perfect collection for the spookiest time of the year.

Far Tortuga

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of Far Tortuga

Peter Matthiessen was considered one of America’s great wilderness writers. Yet in an interview, before he died in 2014, Matthiessen identified Far Tortuga as his personal favorite of all the books he had written. In this novel, Matthiessen offers a fictional account of his participation on one of the last turtle hunting voyages in the Caribbean. Drawing on his experience on the said voyage in the 1960s, Matthiessen vividly displays his keen observation skills with his depictions of the Caymanian turtle hunters and the challenges of this last generation of turtlemen. 


Who am I?

Although my Midwestern roots in southwest Michigan situated me far away from the sea, I am now an expert on small islands and remote communities in the greater Caribbean. As a result, I grew to understand that much of the everyday lived experiences of island people must contend with the sea. As a result, I have spent the last two decades studying topics such as migration, fishing, and even conservation as related to small islands from the better-known Cayman Islands to the lesser-known San Andrés and Providencia Islands. I am a history professor at the US Naval Academy.


I wrote...

The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making

By Sharika Crawford,

Book cover of The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making

What is my book about?

Illuminating the entangled histories of the people and commodities that circulated across the Atlantic, Sharika D. Crawford assesses the Caribbean as a waterscape where imperial and national governments vied to control the profitability of the sea. Crawford places the green and hawksbill sea turtles and the Caymanian turtlemen who hunted them at the center of this waterscape. The story of the humble turtle and its hunter, I argue, came to play a significant role in shaping the maritime boundaries of the modern Caribbean.

Nights of Ice

By Spike Walker,

Book cover of Nights of Ice

Spike Walker is another writer that has inspired me. Working at sea in Alaska is to tempt fate amid the savage spectacle of nature in raw form. Men are trapped on boats for weeks and even months. Even a safe journey can drive men to the edge. However, in Alaska, disaster can arise at moment’s notice—and often does. Walker tells Alaska sea stories better than anyone. In Nights of Ice, he shares seven amazing stories of disaster and survival. The stories come alive, as Walker has worked on the edge himself. Now he tells some of the greatest Alaskan sea stories ever.

Who am I?

I have worked and lived at sea for months at a time, and I have many memories of the sea, good and bad. I have lived through extreme Alaskan storms, fished in remote coves, and worked beyond exhaustion over and over. Working at sea taught me some important lessons about life and the possibility of sudden death. I experienced the romance of the sea from a young age, and it has inspired my writing.  


I wrote...

Hostile Takedown

By Roger Weston,

Book cover of Hostile Takedown

What is my book about?

CIA Director Will Harlock has a secret: Working off-the-books, using the CIA as a cover and also working from an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, he reigns over the Firm--the smallest, most elite, and most secret intelligence organization in the world. With a handful of eclectic agents, he oversees an operation to discover what is behind a secret cargo that poses huge danger to the public. America’s future is at stake. Will America survive—or will it crash and burn like the Roman Empire?

Titanic

By John P. Eaton, Charles A. Haas,

Book cover of Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy

If Walter Lord’s book is the definitive account of the sinking, this large-format encyclopaedic volume, almost large enough to sink a ship, is the definitive story of the Titanic, from the drawing board to the bottom of the ocean, with nothing omitted between the two events. It is an epic work of research so comprehensive that it deserves a wholly new category of publishing: more than a book, Titanic – Triumph and Tragedy, is a museum.

First published in 1986, it was updated in the 1990s to include new information and photographs following the discovery of the wreck, which Eaton and Haas, both acknowledged Titanic experts, had seen for themselves from a submersible. 

The book’s structure is that of a sequential archive illustrated by more than a thousand contemporary photographs, including Harland & Wolff’s original architectural plans and engineering drawings. It moves from the launch in Belfast to life…


Who am I?

I’m a former national newspaper editor and magazine publisher – and the grandson of Jock Hume, a violinist in the Titanic’s band. Jock, who was just 21 years old, had been playing on passenger ships since he was sixteen. His body was recovered ten days after the sinking, 40 miles from the scene the wreck. His family couldn’t afford to bring him home to Dumfries in Scotland, so he was buried alongside 121 other unclaimed Titanic bodies at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My book is the story of Jock’s life, his death…and the previously untold scandal of the aftermath of the sinking.


I wrote...

And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

By Christopher Ward,

Book cover of And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

What is my book about?

It’s the story about what happened after the Titanic sank.  As the band played on deck, 1,500 men, women, and children were swept into the ice-cold water of the North Atlantic. More than 1,200 were never seen again. What happened to them? Ward uncovers the scandal of how the cable-laying ship Mackay-Bennett, which sailed from Halifax to recover bodies, enforced a class system that mirrored the Titanic’s own class structure on board.  He finds uncomfortable parallels with contemporary corporate life: the cover-ups, the failure of anyone at the top to take responsibility. 

Ward’s book, which became a Sunday Times bestseller, inspired a Discovery Channel documentary, Titanic: The Aftermath, which tells the story of Jock’s short but daring life, not unlike that of Jack Dawson in the film, Titanic. Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, described Ward’s book as ‘a heart-breaking story, wonderfully told’.

The Watch That Ends the Night

By Allan Wolf,

Book cover of The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

The Watch That Ends The Night tells the story of the Titanic through the voices of those who were there. I read this after I had written my own most recent book and was struck with how similarly Allan and I approached historical catastrophes. Both books are multi-voiced and contemplate the same issues of privilege and class distinctions. Like me, Allan chose to listen to nature and endow her with a voice of her own.


Who am I?

Technology advances, scenery changes, but the human heart remains the same. As a writer, I hope to honor lives unnoticed or forgotten and have found that writing in verse affords me the truest, most uncorrupted pathway into the human heart. Each of the verse novels I’ve written or recommended here is spun from the strongest threads of time, place, and character. My hope is that the spare words within each book will build bridges across time and culture, and that those of us willing to open our hearts and cross these bridges will help create a more tolerant and peaceful world. 


I wrote...

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown

By Ann E. Burg,

Book cover of Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown

What is my book about?

My most recent book, Flooded, Requiem for Johnstown, tells the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. Johnstown Pennsylvania was a working-class factory city. Above the soot-soaked streets, an elite fishing and hunting club, built on a pristine man-made lake, drew America's wealthiest business barons. Though repeatedly urged to fix the deteriorating dam that held the lake, club members disregarded these warnings. When heavy rains came, the dam collapsed and plunged the city into chaos.

While set in a different century and told through the experiences of characters whose daily lives were much different than our own, the events which unfolded in Johnstown reflect the same attitudes and issues we face today. History has much to tell us if we are listening.

Albatross

By Deborah Scaling Kiley, Meg Noonan,

Book cover of Albatross: The True Story of a Woman's Survival at Sea

When sharks are circling your life raft, I do not recommend drinking seawater to quench your excruciating thirst. In Albatross, five people find themselves adrift at sea in a small life raft with no food or water. When one of the sailors drinks seawater we see how that can dehydrate the brain and cause hallucinations. Suddenly the sailor blurts out that he is going to get his car to get some beer, and he steps out of the life raft. The sharks are waiting.

Albatross is not only a story of mistakes made, but also of courageous decisions by two survivors, Deb Kiley and Brad Cavanaugh. It is hair-raising, insightful, and might just keep you off the water.


Who am I?

I've always been fascinated by the toughest survivors, the ones where I say to myself, “I could have never got through that.” Then I’m curious about how they endured: what mindsets and techniques did they use to fight on? When I became a writer I focused on this niche, with my first book Ten Hours Until Dawn which was followed by several other true survival and rescue tales. I became obsessed with researching where the survivors made the correct decisions and how they got trapped by bad ones. When my book The Finest Hours became a Disney movie I was deluged with people sharing their own survival stories. 


I wrote...

A Storm Too Soon: A Remarkable True Survival Story in 80-Foot Seas

By Michael J. Tougias,

Book cover of A Storm Too Soon: A Remarkable True Survival Story in 80-Foot Seas

What is my book about?

A Storm Too Soon, one of seven survival books by the author, is a fast-paced true story that took place on the ocean during one of the most explosive storms ever recorded. Seventy-foot waves batter a tattered life raft 250 miles out to sea in one of the world’s most dangerous places, the Gulf Stream. Hanging onto the raft are three men, a Canadian, a Brit, and their captain, JP DeLutz, a dual citizen of America and France. The waves repeatedly toss the men out of their tiny vessel, and JP, with 9 broken ribs, is hypothermic and on the verge of death. The captain, however, is a tough-minded character and now he’s got to rely on those same inner resources to outlast the storm.

Titanic Survivor

By Violet Jessop,

Book cover of Titanic Survivor: The Newly Discovered Memoirs of Violet Jessop who Survived Both the Titanic and Britannic Disasters

Violet Jessop’s story is remarkable in that she survived not only the sinking of Titanic but, four years later, the sinking of Titanic’s identical twin, Britannic, which went to the bottom in 55 minutes, its watertight compartments proving to be no more watertight than the Titanic’s. But at least Britannic had an excuse – she had been requisitioned as a hospital ship and hit a mine ferrying wounded soldiers home from the war in Europe.

Violet had been a stewardess on board the Titanic and had volunteered for service as a nurse when war broke out. Understandably, she was somewhat disconcerted to discover she was being posted to a ship which, in every respect, was the same as Titanic. She consoled herself with the thought that lightning never strikes twice.

There were about a thousand on board Britannic when she foundered, many of them wounded, but remarkably only 28 people…


Who am I?

I’m a former national newspaper editor and magazine publisher – and the grandson of Jock Hume, a violinist in the Titanic’s band. Jock, who was just 21 years old, had been playing on passenger ships since he was sixteen. His body was recovered ten days after the sinking, 40 miles from the scene the wreck. His family couldn’t afford to bring him home to Dumfries in Scotland, so he was buried alongside 121 other unclaimed Titanic bodies at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My book is the story of Jock’s life, his death…and the previously untold scandal of the aftermath of the sinking.


I wrote...

And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

By Christopher Ward,

Book cover of And the Band Played On...: The Enthralling Account of What Happened After the Titanic Sank

What is my book about?

It’s the story about what happened after the Titanic sank.  As the band played on deck, 1,500 men, women, and children were swept into the ice-cold water of the North Atlantic. More than 1,200 were never seen again. What happened to them? Ward uncovers the scandal of how the cable-laying ship Mackay-Bennett, which sailed from Halifax to recover bodies, enforced a class system that mirrored the Titanic’s own class structure on board.  He finds uncomfortable parallels with contemporary corporate life: the cover-ups, the failure of anyone at the top to take responsibility. 

Ward’s book, which became a Sunday Times bestseller, inspired a Discovery Channel documentary, Titanic: The Aftermath, which tells the story of Jock’s short but daring life, not unlike that of Jack Dawson in the film, Titanic. Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, described Ward’s book as ‘a heart-breaking story, wonderfully told’.

Titanic

By Nicola Pierce,

Book cover of Titanic: True Stories of Her Passengers, Crew and Legacy

Nicola Pierce’s Titanic: True Stories of Her Passengers, Crew and Legacy details not only Titanic’s story, but her sister’s tragedies. It questions whether Bruce Ismay was really a villain and poses the idea that he might be a hero; it critically examines Captain Smith’s behaviour the night of the sinking. It follows the events of the Carpathia and Californian, lending insight into what happened on both ships that night, reminding us the Titanic didn’t just hit an iceberg: She was trapped in an iceberg field. It finishes on the Mackay-Bennett, the funeral ship sent to ferry back as many of Titanic’s dead as they could, reminding us that the tragedy didn’t end on the 15th of April, but would continue for months on end – and for many, years. 

Pierce’s novel was one of my biggest sources for my book. I’d heard of the Mackay-Bennett funeral…


Who am I?

I’m a bibliophile who loves dogs and prefers the country to the city. I’m the kid who yelled at my kindergarten teacher because she hadn’t taught me to read by the end of the year. That same tenacity followed me when, at seven years old, I learned that James Cameron was making a movie based on the Titanic. With righteous fury, I yelled at my befuddled parents, before asking why they had not told me about this ship. I pleaded with my parents to take me to see the movie for my upcoming eighth birthday, and they relented, with my mum buying my first fictional Titanic novel. That’s how my Titanic obsession began.


I wrote...

The Light In The Darkness: A Titanic Novel (Book One)

By Carla Louise Robinson, Olivia Designs (illustrator),

Book cover of The Light In The Darkness: A Titanic Novel (Book One)

What is my book about?

I’ve read almost everything I can on the Titanic. I’ve collected special edition non-fiction books. I’ve watched everything there is. I’ve played every game I can. And no matter how compelling the story I always felt let down, because almost all Titanic media peddled things I’d long learnt were myths. I hated that Bruce Ismay was branded a coward, when that was the furthest thing from the truth. I hated that the characters in any story always seemed to know the ship was sinking, that wasn’t the truth at all. The engineers, along with Lead Fireman Fred Barrett, fought to save that ship. I wanted people to know why the Californian didn’t respond, and that even if they’d heard the SOS, they wouldn’t have reached the Titanic in time.

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