I’ve never met a seaman — power or sail — who was worth a damn and wasn’t an avid reader. Winter is here, and it’s a perfect time to sit down with a glass of good scotch and a good book.
1. Boating fiction is a genre all its own. I keep reading and rereading some of these; they never seem to grow old.
• “The Riddle of the Sands,” by Erskine Childers: Written before World War I, it’s a mystery/adventure about a couple young men sailing off the Frisian Islands who stumble onto a plot by German naval intelligence to use these treacherous shallows as a launching site to attack the United Kingdom. It’s as good as any modern thriller, with the addition of the atmosphere and backdrop of this foggy region.
• The “Horatio Hornblower” series by C.S. Forester: These books are easy, enjoyable reads that chronicle the adventures of Horatio Hornblower from a poor orphan, taken on as midshipman in the Royal Navy as a favor to his relatives, to the rank of admiral. He’s the antihero who becomes seasick after going aboard his first ship — and she’s anchored. In the days of fighting sail, he has a fear of heights, and he’s never lucky at capturing prizes. He is an engaging character for whom duty takes precedence over all.
• The Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian: These books follow the adventures of Capt. John Aubrey R.N. and Dr. Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars. Aubrey is brilliant at sea, but a fish out of water ashore. He makes fortunes in prize money only to lose it on land. He has a wife whom he loves and a mother-in-law from hell. The battle scenes in each book are authentic, taken from the logs of actual combatants. The books are exciting, funny and give a valid look into the early 19th century.
2. The following non-fiction works are studies in leadership that hold lessons for those of us who must exercise judgment and responsibility when we cast off from our berths:
• “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin: A fascinating work about Lincoln putting together a cabinet of men who were better educated and, in their minds, better prepared to lead the country. They were his political rivals and rivals of each other. They held him in low regard, yet he forged them into a remarkable cabinet and focused their talents toward preserving the Union through the greatest crises our country ever faced.
• “The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution” by David O. Stewart: This is the story of the men — all with different stakes and agendas — who in spite of their differences (or because of them) manufactured the most extraordinary working document in history. As you read it, the book makes you wonder how our country hung together after winning the Revolutionary War.
• “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America,” by Michael Beschloss: This book describes the issues faced by several presidents who, in spite of serious political opposition and in the face of popular opinion, made difficult decisions, some of which cost of them their political careers. For example, George Washington’s decision not to side with France in the war against England, and Andrew Jackson taking on the Second Bank of the United States. The lens of time proved their decisions correct.
3. Here are a couple of worthwhile non-fiction boating books: “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger, and “The Hungry Ocean,” by Linda Greenlaw. Junger’s book tells the story of the swordfishing vessel Andrea Gail, which was lost in the infamous 1991 Halloween storm. In “The Hungry Ocean,” Greenlaw, who survived that ’91 storm, writes about her time as skipper of a swordfishing boat.
There are many other books describing voyages by outstanding seamen, though their vessels may not be modern. Designs and technology change, but the sea is constant.
This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.