7 Books About Disasters at Sea

More reasons to avoid cruises

Shipwreck off Nantucket (Wreck off Nantucket after a Storm) ca. 1860–61 William Bradford American
Shipwreck off Nantucket ca. 1860–61 by William Bradford.
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In this era of air travel, it’s hard to fathom what it must’ve been like when boats were our only option for long-haul transportation. Air travel may often be messy and inconvenient, but imagine weeks or months trapped on a ship. The relentless roiling under your feet. Violent bursts of weather. Not to mention the constant threat of a slow, agonizing death by drowning. Catastrophe is always at hand and, since you are bobbing along the earth’s surface like a floating toy in a bathtub, salvation is usually far from hand. 

The Deep by Alma Katsu

The closest you can get to this heady mix of dread and hardship is a good book about the good ole seafaring days. Alas, most lists of such books seem to regurgitate the same titles and authors: Patrick O’Brien, he of the Master and Commander series (which always sounded a little BDSM to me); or, for those into thrillers, the late Clive Cussler. Classics, like Moby Dick, Billy Budd, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Odyssey, or modern classics like Life of Pi or The Perfect Storm.  So, I set myself some rules: I wouldn’t include any of the above, nor would I include other books about the Titanic (though if I were, it would be to include The Ship of Dreams by Russell Gareth, a fabulous non-fiction account that came out shortly after I’d finished writing The Deep.) 

In my novel, The Deep, mysterious happenings begin to affect the passengers on the Titanic. It’s not clear to stewardess Annie Hebbley who is to blame: con men, or the supernatural. Four years later, on the Titanic’s sister ship the Britannic, Annie is confronted by the ghosts of the past and must come to terms with her role in the tragedy that fateful night.

Here are 7 books about disasters at sea:

Fiction

We, the Drowned

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen

Stories about ships and the sea are often in reality about life transitions. This is true of Jensen’s We, the Drowned, first published in Danish in 2006 and out English in 2010. It also includes all the things we have come to expect in historical novels of the sea: world-travel in exotic locales, miraculous feats of derring-do, introspection, and—because books about life at sea tend to be men’s books—war, violence, and regret. A great epic tale where the sea is a metaphor for life.

The North Water by Ian McGuire

A bookseller pressed this novel into my hands after I’d finished an event for The Hunger, my reimagining of the story of the Donner Party, saying, “After hearing you talk about your book, I think you’ll like it.” I’m glad she did. To serve on a whaling ship in the 1850s meant you had few other options. The work was dangerous, the environment unpleasant (a huge understatement), and the company undesirable. Characters in this highly acclaimed 2016 novel are products of their time: rough, unscrupulous, irredeemable. While shocking in places, if the reader perseveres, they will be rewarded with a taut story and masterful writing.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

I read Simmons’ 2007 novel after I’d finished writing The Hunger, only because I’d heard my book compared to it so often. After reading it, I understood what a great compliment that was. The Terror is an amazing piece of historical fiction, a reimagining of the story of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage. It has everything you’d want in a story: painstaking historical degree effortlessly sewn into the fabric of the story; strong writing; unforgettable characters. Given that supernatural elements are always tough to pull off in a novel as realistic as this, Simmons has done an extraordinary job, creating something that is as beautiful as it is mystical. 

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

This novel, published in 1998 to much acclaim, is a great one to pick up after you’ve finished The Terror, as it’s the tale of a fictional group dispatched to find out what happened to the doomed Franklin expedition. Like many books of the sea, it is really about men’s ambitions: the hubris to think the sea can be tamed and that you are the man who will do it.

Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Like many people, I’d read anything written by Erik Larson, but his treatment of the sinking of another great ship? Yes, please. Many people have tangled the Lusitania and the Titanic together in their minds and it’s not hard to see why: the Lusitania was sunk only three years after the Titanic, and both claimed similar numbers of fatalities (1,500 on the Titanic, 1,200 on the Lusitania). Like the Titanic, the Lusitania’s sinking has been shrouded in rumor and conspiracy. It deserves to have Erik Larson set its record straight.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

While Moby Dick may be the first book to come to mind when one thinks of seagoing adventure, the real-life event that inspired Melville was the capsizing of the whaling ship Essex. Historian Philbrick captures that heart-stopping story in this 2000 work, the basis for the movie by the same name and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction.

Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash

Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash

For many of us, few periods in history are as exciting as the end of the Age of Discovery. Dash’s 2002 book provides a little bit of schadenfreude for anti-colonialists, telling the tale of what happened when the Dutch East India company sent the wrong man to safeguard the treasure stored on its flagship, the Batavia, resulting in a shipwreck and a murderous descent into madness. 

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