As we remain isolated in this strange spring of 2020, there’s really no better time for curling up with a good book. Our editors have been perusing their bookshelves and getting reacquainted with some of their favorite nautical titles. Here are a few recommendations from executive editor Herb McCormick of what he considers truly wonderful, and somewhat overloooked, maritime-related tomes.
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
On July 8, 1879, with the backing of millionaire newspaper titan James Bennett, the fearless Polar adventurer Captain George Washington De Long and his crew of 32 men set sail from San Francisco on the USS Jeannette. De Long was bound for the Arctic, in search of the Open Polar Sea, which at the time was widely believed to be an expanse of warm, unfrozen water leading directly to the North Pole. De Long was interested in the quest, Bennett for the headlines. As the publisher of the New York Herald, a few years earlier he’d dispatched Henry Stanley to find missionary-explorer David Livingston in Africa, with spectacular success. But perhaps needless to say, the Jeannette expedition went terribly wrong, and Sides’s account of the ill-fated journey is a riveting addition to the long list of literature devoted to the race to the North Pole.
Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone
The late, great Robert Stone was a celebrated novelist whose works won numerous prizes and accolades, none more than Dog Soldiers, the tale of a strange, disaffected soldier in Vietnam that won the National Book Award. It turns out, however, that Stone knew more than a little about sailing and the sea, which is abundantly clear in Outerbridge Reach, the tale of a Naval Academy graduate (and Vietnam vet) named Owen Browne who, through an interesting sequence of events, finds himself competing in a solo around-the-world race (which seems based on the early BOC Challenges). The novel is basically broken into two parts, the first involving shaky marriages and shady characters, sailing magazines (!) and yacht brokers, and the rather fancy lives of New Yorkers and their Connecticut neighbors. But the second half, when the race is on, is when things really start happening, and also when Stone’s great gift as a writer also sets sail.
Coasting: A Private Voyage by Jonathan Raban
In 1982, while the British Navy was sailing off to war in the Falkland Islands, native son Jonathan Raban also set forth on a voyage, but of more modest means: a lap around Great Britain aboard his 40-foot ketch, Gosfield Maid. Raban is a novelist but is perhaps better known for his travel writing (his book about a journey down the Mississippi River, Old Glory: An American Voyage, is marvelous) and Coasting is most assuredly a fine travel book, particularly for those with a passing familiarity with England. But it’s also a fine sea yarn, and a lovely treatise on families, fathers and cultures, as well. Raban penned a series of stories for Cruising World in the early 2000s, and they were all excellent; he’s a fabulous writer. But to be honest, magazines aren’t really his medium, he requires a broad canvas and room to create. In Coasting, he has all that and more: an open horizon, with plenty of stops to experience and contemplate along the way.
Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen
In 1519, as the commander of a fleet of five ships and some 200 sailors, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain, ostensibly to find an oceanic route to the Spice Islands. Three years later, after an odyssey involving starvation, disease, torture, death and sex—oh yes, some of Ferdinand’s lads were plenty randy along the way—a lone ship returned to Spain after recording the first circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan, alas, was nowhere to be seen, having succumbed in the Philippines to the point of a spear from islanders who had no interest in his attempts to convert them to Christianity. Bergreen’s incredibly detailed account of it all is nothing short of masterful, and ultimately is a testament to both the wondrous age of discovery, and the blinding obsessions of the discoverers that drove it.
The Ship and the Storm by Jim Carrier
Before purchasing his Allied Seabreeze yawl and sailing it across the Atlantic—he wrote several articles for CW on his refit and voyaging—Jim Carrier was a veteran newspaperman and columnist for the Denver Post, among many other journalistic endeavors. Carrier employed his considerable reportorial expertise in tracking down and telling the remarkable story of the windjammer Fantome, which was lost at sea in 1998 while trying to outrun Hurricane Mitch. Carrier’s tale veers on and off of several related avenues, addressing the head-boat charter business, how it affects the islands (and islanders) where it operates, and of course the ambitious sailors who are drawn into it for the sheer love of the sea. The Ship and the Storm has just been released as an audiobook, and can be downloaded for free with an Audible trial (audible.com) or purchased online for $24.47.