They that Go Down to the Sea in Ships

A fit of September blues, accompanied by September skies. (That means grey; where I come from September skies are famous for their particularly beautiful deep blue colour.) My September blues, however, are not merely due to the fact that summer is over; my plans for rowing up the Thames à la Three Men in a Boat are over too. For reasons I don’t want to discuss here not only we didn’t succeed in following the Three Men upriver this summer, we didn’t even have a holiday. Maybe better luck next year?

So – for a while at least – this is the last post in the Upriver series. And what better way to wind up and lighten the September blues at the same time than to immerse ourselves into some books set on boats (and envy the people who get to sail on them)?

Happy reading! 🙂

Sailing ship DSCN0013

They that go down to the sea in ships that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

(Psalm 107: 23-24)

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

Most people remember this book for the espionage story; and with reason. But the espionage story is riding on top of a beautiful evocation of sailing a small boat among the sandbanks of the Frisian islands.

The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair Maclean

What could be more relaxing than going on a luxury cruise liner with a particularly elite clientele sailing the Caribbean? But the SS Campari‘s cruise  is anything but relaxing: first it’s searched by customs from top to bottom, then a coffin comes on board and a steward disappears in mysterious circumstances… When the radio officer is found murdered, it becomes obvious that the ship is not merely unlucky; and the first officer of the SS Campari races against time to unravel the plot.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

To paraphrase a cliché: fact is better than fiction. Only recently I wrote about how many novels about the Royal Navy are based on the heroic acts of real people. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, the first of a series of books about Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, the doctor and spy Stephen Maturin, set during the Napoleonic Wars, is one of those books; it freely borrows the exploits of Lord Cochrane, the commander of HMS Speedy. Of course, if you prefer a first hand account, you can always just go straight to Cochrane’s autobiography: Life of a Seaman.

The Happy Return by C. S. Forester

Forester’s first and – in my opinion –  best novel about Captain Horatio Hornblower. It’s 1808 and Hornblower, in command of a 36-gun frigate, is sent to Latin-America to aid a local landlord in rebelling against Spain. Unfortunately, the local landlord is a raving lunatic, there’s a 50-gun Spanish warship off the coast and the shifting alliances back in Europe leave Hornblower in a fix…

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montserrat

The story of a Royal Navy corvette on Arctic convoy duty during Second World War. Rather grim and gritty, but then it was written by a man who served in the Navy during the war. It’s not the only one about the topic either; you could also try HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean.

Unbroken: A Story of a Submarine by Alastair Marsh

Unlike The Cruel Sea, this one is not a novel. The true story of the Second World War submarine HMS Unbroken, as written by its captain. The kind of sailing you’ll never want to do: through minefields in the Mediterranean, hunting and being hunted. And a visit to HMS Alliance in Portsmouth (built in 1945) can give you a fair idea of how very uncomfortable it would have been to sail on one of these submarines even in peace time.

The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake

Talking about first hand accounts, bear in mind that sometimes they are… eh, not so well written. That the author uses his memoirs to settle an account or two with his contemporaries or to justify and promote himself usually goes without saying; but even so, Drake’s account of his voyage around the world requires the reader to bite his tongue. Having said that… it is Drake’s own account of only the second round-the-world trip and it’s only 160 pages (mercifully). Couple it with a visit to the replica Golden Hinde in London, and then marvel that he ever got across the Atlantic, never mind around the Horn and all round the world.

Ulysses Found By Ernle Bradford

I wrote a whole post about this one… why don’t you just read it? 🙂

The historian and sailor Ernle Bradford retraces the travels of Homer’s Ulysses in this book.

Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare

I have to be honest here – I haven’t actually read this one yet. I read some excerpts and it looked promising, so it’s on the pile. 🙂 It’s an account by a journalist who joined the crew of a container ship to see what seafaring life is like nowadays – based on the excerpts I read, it’s not very glamorous! But those who love the sea…

We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome

And finally, to finish off with some children’s books, in case you want to spread a love of reading and boats… Not to mention I just saw the latest incarnation of Swallows and Amazons in the cinema: what can I say? The script writers evidently didn’t think Swallows and Amazons was good enough and spiced it up with a spy story. (The idea must have come from the fact that Arthur Ransome was, supposedly, a spy.) But if they thought Swallows and Amazons lacked excitement, perhaps they should have filmed We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea or Peter Duck instead.

In We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea the Swallows get swept out to sea from a foggy harbour when their anchor drags. A rising gale then prevents their return to harbour and instead they get blown across the North Sea all the way to Holland. The beauty of the story is in the description: a group of scared, sea-sick children are trying to survive a gale on the North Sea. Of course, it’s still Ransome, so the four Walkers duly display all the admirable character traits and sailing skills that ensure their survival.

If We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea is – within reason – realistic, you couldn’t say the same about Peter Duck: The Swallows and the Amazons, commanded by Captain Flint, sail to the Caribbean in search of buried treasure and… would you believe it?… fall in with real pirates. This book has it all, from hurricanes to pirate attacks, and it’s ever so much better written than anything by Enid Blyton.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

After Peter Duck, so obviously influenced by Treasure Island, we can’t bypass this one. It’s such a classic that if you haven’t read it as a child, you got to go and read it now – like all genuinely good children’s literature, it’s perfectly enjoyable for adults too. And no, no matter how many film adaptions you’ve seen, it does not replace reading the book!


If any of you want to invite me for a cruise in your beautiful yacht among the Aegean islands next summer, I’m sure I will be able to find the time! (Just saying.)

More book lists for those of you who are in need of recommendations: 
⇒ Books That Transport YouJust One More Page
Or why not visit some historic ships?
⇒ The replica of the Golden HindeHMS Belfast served on the Arctic convoys during World War II
⇒ The submarine HMS Alliance

5 thoughts on “They that Go Down to the Sea in Ships

  1. belshade

    Some great sea books there – the kind you can read and re-read time and time again. Have just recently finished “The Riddle of the Sands” for the fourth time at least. What a pity Erskine Childers came to such a sad end. Des.


    1. I have re-read most of these books several times too. Not Drake though. 🙂 In fact, the first time I read it, I gave up about two-thirds through – at the episode of the sleeping Spaniard by the roadside with several sacks of silver. Because people just go around with sacks of silver and Drake only took the silver because he wanted to spare the poor man of having to carry it any further!… Yeah, right. 🙂 So I only just finished reading the book, after about a gap of a year or more.


      1. Lol, I’m not usually as such, but I grew up in a small port town and so vaguely interested in maritime history. Also becoming more broadly interested in history from recent moocs (poetry and creative writing and art-based slant to history interest, mainly).

        Liked by 1 person

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