Top Ten Books about Sailing (non-fiction)

Ocean adventures inspire the spinning of tall tales

Sailing is one of those things in life that so many dream of and few pursue. Those of us who have sailed off across an ocean most often started out in our warm beds absorbed in a book of someone else's adventures on the other side of the world. Their yarns spun our own ambitions and fueled our thirst for the sea. So many authors have been inspired by the sea that there are hundreds of books to choose from.

So why these ten on my list? Because they were the ones that told the stories that I wanted to live or taught me lessons that may one day save a life - my own or a loved one's. And now that I have, I can honestly say that their yarns were well spun. There are few things better in life than reading a good sailing book while sailing! To go off watch, curl up in a secure spot and read about your favourite sailing adventure inspires the next adventure of your own. I always ask, where to next? And there's always someone who has been where I have not and told a tall tale I wanted to experience for myself. The wind in the rigging, the water lapping against the hull, the occasional flying fish, and the crackle of noise on the SSB are perfect accompaniment to make those tales come to life.

The second part of many sailor's dreams is to live the story worth writing about. Now, I am writing my own.  I consider myself fortunate. Do you have a favourite story?

1) Sailing Alone Around the World -- Joshua Slocum

Joshua Slocum's epic solo voyage around the world has been an inspiration to so many. Challenging the notion that it couldn't be done, he sailed off aboard Spray in 1895.  Three years later, he arrived back proving not only that an individual could sail solo around the world but that telling the story could captivate the imaginations of young people everywhere. He was as good an author as he was a sailor. Slocum's was the first cruise for pleasure rather than for profit and instituted a lifestyle choice that continues to this day. It's on everybody's list for good reason. 

2) Sailing to the Reefs – Bernard Moitessier

Bernard Moitessier could have become the first person to sail non-stop, single handed around the world and won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969, but instead he chose to keep sailing and go round again, thereby becoming an instant counter-culture hero! Bernard Moistessier was a thoughtful and poetic sailor and this first book provides insight into the self-reliance required to survive a life at sea, including ship wreck. An inspiring book that is a must read for anyone who enjoys long distance sailing.

3) Wanderer -- Sterling Hayden

This was no ordinary man and no ordinary adventure. I adored this book. Not just for its painful honesty and search for solace, but for its brilliant language. Since its publication in 1963, Sterling Hayden's autobiography has been surrounded by controversy. He was at the peak of his earning power as a movie star when he suddenly walked out on Hollywood, walked out of a shattered marriage, lost every penny, defied the courts, and set sail with his four children in the schooner Wanderer bound for the South Seas. What an amazing act of self-preservation and search for meaningful life. Rebellion against "normal" living, and flight to a romantic life at sea echoes the masters of nautical writing. Except his was not fiction. Brilliant.

4) Once is enough – Miles Smeeton

A first hand account of a disastrous trip around Cape Horn, this is one of the most gripping sea stories of all time! Miles and Beryl Smeeton, along with crew member John Buzzwell and Siamese cat Pwe, set sail from Melbourne bound for England. In a huge sea, their 46 ft ketch Tzu Hang was pitch polled and Beryl thrown overboard. She clung to the wreckage of the mast until Miles and John were able to rescue her. Very lucky to survive, they drifted to the Chilean coast where they spent 10 months making repairs. On their second attempt to make Cape Horn, and without their friend John, they were capsized by a rogue wave and dismasted. They managed to sail 2000 miles to Chile. Beautifully written, this was their only book. 

5) A Voyage for Madmen -- Peter Nichols

In this extraordinary book, Peter Nichols tells the story behind all the participants in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.  In 1968, long before GPS and satellite phones, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the world nonstop. It was a feat that had never been attempted and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men (Robin Knox-Johnston) would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. Another (Bernard Moitessier) decides he cannot handle fame and keeps on sailing before crossing the finish line.  For the others, driven by dreams of glory and demons, the reward was madness, failure, and death. 

6) The Strange and Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst – Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall

Donald Crowhurst set sail on board his vessel Teignmouth Electron in 1968. He was attempting to become the first ever person to sail around the world non-stop in the infamous Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. He rushed to complete the build of his boat and cut corners to make it in time. Hewas ill prepared and his boat was clearly not up to the task. Whether it was the financial pressure of knowing he couldn't win, or fear of failure or solitude at sea, Donald Crowhurst created an elaborate hoax in which he painstakingly plotted his course around the world while sailing in circles. No one knows exactly what happened to him, but his boat was found without him aboard. A powerful book about human frailty.

7) A World of My Own – Robin Knox-Johnston

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is a sailing legend. In 1969, Robin, on board 32 ft Suhaili, became the first person to circumnavigate the world solo and non-stop. This is the story of his ten and a half month voyage that put him in the record books as the winner of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.  An extraordinary tale of courage and bravery at a time when small boats didn't venture across oceans very often, ‘A world of my own’ is gripping from start to finish. His account is honest, humorous and very well written.

8) Close to the Wind -- Pete Goss

This is about as gripping as a sailing story can get. In November 1996, former Royal Marine Pete Goss set out to compete in the Vendee Globe, a single-handed non-stop round-the-world race, aboard Aqua Quorum. Things were not going well. The seas were ferocious, his sails were shredded, the boat was taking on water.  Then, on Christmas Day, he heard a Mayday from a fellow competitor. He turned the boat around and beat 160 miles into hurricane force winds to the assistance of Raphael Dinelli, whose vessel Algimous was sinking. He managed to pluck the barely alive Dinelli from his liferaft and made a friend for life. 

9) The Proving Ground -- G. Bruce Knecht

G.Bruce Knecht tells the harrowing story of the world-renowned Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race gone fatally bad. On December 26, 1998, 115 sailboats crossed the starting line of the famous sailing race. The 630-nautical-mile contest is among the most difficult in the world, a test of strength and endurance. A storm warning was issued one hour after the start. What began as a race for glory rapidly became a fight for survival. No one could have foreseen the tragedy that would befall the competitors, who sailed into a massive cyclone that tore apart the fleet with hurricane-force winds and eighty-foot waves. In this gripping account, the award-winning writer focuses on three yachts and their crews, weaving together an extraordinary story with vivid detail, oversized personalities, and high drama. Most importantly, he offers a glimpse into how people with very different backgrounds responded to something bigger than they were— and how it changed them and the sport forever. The Proving Ground is a true-to-life tale more thrilling than any work of fiction to sailors who have been to sea in storms.

10) Gipsy Moth Circles the World -- Sir Francis Chichester

When 65-year-old Francis Chichester set sail on his solitary,eastward journey around the world in 1966, many believed he wouldn't return alive. But when the former pilot, RAF navigation expert, and lung cancer survivor returned in his 53-foot ketch, Gypsy Moth IV, nine months later, he had made history's fastest circumnavigation - 226 days alone including conquest of the Horn. Gipsy Moth Circles the World captured the world's imagination and became an international best-seller when it appeared in 1967. 

These are my top ten non-fiction inspirational books. See also the top ten fictional books about sailing, the Top Ten instructional books on sailing, and the top reference books for sailing. Also the top 30 sailing movies. If you have something to add to my list, please send me a note.  Thanks.


  1. This is excellent. Thank you. My kids are in a sailing daycamp this summer. I'm trying to find bedtime books on the topic, both fiction & non-fiction. This is a good start.


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