Top Ten+ Novels Based on Sailing (fiction)

Sailing makes a romantic setting

There are few novels with sailing as a background theme, which is surprising given how romantic sailing is considered to be. Images of sailboats appear everywhere and dreams of sailing off to an uncharted island abound, yet stories tend to be real not fictional.  That's curious to me. I've scoured the pages of amazon and Goodreads to find what I could as the question often comes up, "Are there any good novels with sailing themes."  The answer is, yes, but not many.  As I have not read these all yet, I am simply providing the publisher's descriptions here, mostly as they appear on  From Homer's Odyssey to Christine Kling's Circle of Bones, one thing for certain is that this is an eclectic collection, much like the collection of characters one is likely to encounter at sea.

I'm also working on a listing of sailing movies, which of course might have been based on either novels or true stories, so perhaps we'll be adding a few to this list.

The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service - 1908

by Erskine Childers

The Riddle of the Sands is a gripping story of espionage and treachery.  Two English lads take a yachting holiday in the Baltic and discover a German plan to invade England.  It is one of the first spy novels written and is often credited for setting the stage for the atmosphere in the prelude to WWI.  It is intricate in its detail of the North Sea Coast and calls for an understanding of sailing, tides, and offshore islands.

Robert Erskine Childers DSC (25 June 1870 – 24 November 1922), known as Erskine Childers, was the author of this influential novel and an Irish nationalist, who was executed during the Irish Civil War. He was the father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Hamilton Childers. He was a yachtsman of some repute. Asgard was Childers's last, and most famous, yacht. In June 1914 he used it to smuggle a cargo of 900 rifles and 29,000 rounds of ammunition to the Irish Volunteers at the fishing village of Howth. It was acquired by the Irish government as a sail training vessel in 1961, stored on dry land in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol in 1979, and finally become an exhibit at The National Museum of Ireland.

Lord Jim

by Joseph Conrad
One of Joseph Conrad's greatest novels, Lord Jim brilliantly combines adventure and analysis. Haunted by the memory of a moment of lost nerve during a disastrous voyage, Jim submits to condemnation by a Court of Inquiry. In the wake of his disgrace he travels to the exotic region of Patusan, and as the agent at this remote trading post comes to be revered as 'Tuan Jim.' Here he finds a measure of serenity and respect within himself. However, when a gang of thieves arrives on the island, the memory of his earlier disgrace comes again to the fore, and his relationship with the people of the island is jeopardized. This new Broadview edition is based on the first British edition of 1900, which provides the historical basis for the accompanying critical and contextual discussions. The appendices include a wide variety of Conrad's source material, documents concerning the scandal of the Jeddah, along with other materials such as a substantial selection of early critical comments.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (Hornblower Saga) – 1998

by C. S. Forester 
The year is 1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Horatio Hornblower, a seventeen-year-old boy unschooled in seafaring and the ways of seamen, is ordered to board a French merchant ship and take command of crew and cargo for the glory of England. Though not an unqualified success, this first naval adventure teaches the young midshipman enough to launch him on a series of increasingly glorious exploits. This novel-in which young Horatio gets his sea legs, proves his mettle, and shows the makings of the legend he will become-is the first of the eleven swashbuckling Hornblower tales that are today regarded as classic adventure stories of the sea. Only three are shown below, but they are all worth having and reading.

Master and Commander (Aubrey & Maturin #1)

by Patrick O'Brian

The beginning to the sweeping Aubrey/Maturin series and inspiration for the film starring Russell Crowe. This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.

A Salty Piece of Land –  2005

by Jimmy Buffett  
In 'A Salty Piece of Land', Jimmy Buffett weaves a mesmerising tale that combines humour and emotional reflection. After all, one man's cathedral is another man's fishing hole. And in Jimmy Buffett's world, paradise is just a state of mind.

A groovily laid-back, ramblingly anecdotal, sun-soaked bit of Caribbean escapism is one that his Parrothead fans will relish like another chorus of "Margaritaville." Tully Mars, a 40-ish ex-cowboy turned guide at the Lost Boys Fishing Lodge island resort, undertakes various sojourns around the Caribbean, to Mayan ruins, a jungle safari camp, a spring break bacchanal in Belize. Nothing much happens—"That day, we spent the rest of the daylight hours on the shallow waters of Ascension Bay and the lagoon amid incredible natural beauty unlike anything I had ever seen before" is about as busy as it gets—except that Tully meets a parade of colorful natives and expatriates, including a Mayan medicine man, a British commando and a 103-year-old woman who skippers a sailing schooner and wants to restore a historic lighthouse on Cayo Loco, the titular island. The characters are all hospitality entrepreneurs, and Buffett (A Pirate Looks at Fifty) also gives them shaggy-dog anecdotes, tidbits of Caribbean history and desultory life lessons to relate. There are glimmers of plot—bounty hunters, loves lost and found—but mostly Tully has little to do but savor the accommodations and atmospherics of tourist locales while the sea washes him with waves of love, happiness and maturity as infallibly as the tides. This book is as cheery and tropical as Buffet's music. 

The Naked Truth - 2017

by Daria Blackwell

Jessica and Xander sailed off in search of adventure. Sailing across oceans on their own boat was exactly the kind of restorative voyage the Lynches craved. They quit their high powered jobs, sold their house, and cast off the lines. 

But their adventure sets Jessica on the course of a murder trail. On finding no evidence – no bodies, no signs of struggles – their quest to answer unasked questions begins. Tormented by helplessness, Jessica experiences bizarre dreams within which lay the clues that evaded the professionals. 

Intriguing twists of plot are served up in exotic islands settings as sailors Jessica and Xander Lynch try to uncover the naked truth behind the trail of murders they encounter. 

The Naked Truth is set in the Atlantic Islands and the Caribbean. The description of crossing oceans as a lifestyle is based on the author’s experience. Everything else is fiction.

Stormchild: A Novel of Suspense – 2011

by Bernard Cornwell 
“Bernard Cornwell is to the yachting adventure novel what ex-jockey Dick Francis is to the racetrack thriller.” — Orlando Sentinel
The New York Times bestselling author of The Fort, the Saxon Tales, and the immensely popular Richard Sharpe novels, Bernard Cornwell has been called, “perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today” (Washington Post). He demonstrates another side of his extraordinary storytelling talents with Stormchild, a contemporary tale of danger on the high and treacherous seas. The gripping story of a man who has lost almost everything in his life and now must race across perilous waters aboard his sloop Stormchild in a desperate attempt to rescue his daughter from the clutches of a shadowy cult and its mad leader. As relentlessly exciting as a Tom Clancy thriller, Stormchild is a masterwork of suspense from one of today’s most versatile and accomplished popular novelists.  One of a series of novels set in sailing adventures. 

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals

by Robert M. Pirsig
In this best-selling book, his first in seventeen years, Robert M. Pirsing, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, takes us on a poignant and passionate journey as mysterious and compelling as his first life-changing work. Instead of a motorcycle, a sailboat carries his philosopher-narrator Phaedrus down the Hudson River as winter closes in. Along the way he picks up a most unlikely traveling companion: a woman named Lila who in her desperate sexuality, hostility, and oncoming madness threatens to disrupt his life. In Lila, Robert M. Pirsing has crafted a unique work of adventure and ideas that examines the essential issues of the nineties as his previous classic did the seventies.

The Wanderer

by Sharon Creech, David Díaz (Illustrations)
The sea, the sea, the sea. It rolled and rolled and called to me. Come in, it said, come in.

Sophie hears the sea calling, promising adventure as she sets sail for England with her three uncles and two cousins. Sophie's cousin Cody isn't sure he has the strength to prove himself to the crew and to his father. Through Sophie's and Cody's travel logs, we hear stories of the past and the daily challenges of surviving at sea as The Wanderer sails toward its destination -- and its passengers search for their places in the world.

The Great Wide Sea

by M.H. Herlong
Ben, Dylan, and Gerry are still mourning their mother's death when their dad decides to buy a boat and take them on a year-long sailing trip. Tensions flare between Ben and his father, but they gradually learn to live together in close quarters. But one morning, the boys wake up to discover their father has disappeared and they are lost. What happened to him? Where are they? And what will they do when a treacherous storm looms on the horizon? M. H. Herlong spins a gripping tale of adventure, survival, and the bonds of brotherhood.

The Odyssey

by Homer
Literature's grandest evocation of life's journey, at once an ageless human story and an individual test of moral endurance, Homer's ancient Greek epic The Odyssey is translated by Robert Fagles with an introduction and notes by Bernard Knox in Penguin Classics. When Robert Fagles' translation of The Iliad was published in 1990, critics and scholars alike hailed it as a masterpiece. Here, one of the great modern translators presents us with The Odyssey, Homer's best-loved poem, recounting Odysseus' wanderings after the Trojan War. With wit and wile, the 'man of twists and turns' meets the challenges of the sea-god Poseidon, and monsters ranging from the many-headed Scylla to the cannibalistic Cyclops Polyphemus - only to return after twenty years to a home besieged by his wife Penelope's suitors. In the myths and legends retold in this immortal poem, Fagles has captured the energy of Homer's original in a bold, contemporary idiom.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

by Herman Melville
"It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships' cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it."

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author's lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

This edition of Moby-Dick, which reproduces the definitive text of the novel, includes invaluable explanatory notes, along with maps, illustrations, and a glossary of nautical terms. 

Run Before the Wind (Will Lee Novel) Paperback – 2005

by Stuart Woods 
Will Lee ran from a life of Southern wealth and privilege to spend a peaceful summer on the coast of Ireland. But there is no peace in this beautiful, troubled land... Restless and dissatisfied, Will dreams of shipbuilding and sailing on crystal-blue waters. Then an explosion of senseless violence drags the young American drifter into a lethal game of terror and revenge. Now Will Lee must run for his life from a bloody past that is not his own.

Drift: A Sailing Adventure -- 2013

by Frankk Fatt 
The exciting adventure story of a man's epic sailing voyage. Frankk constructs Camus-like imagery about Hemingway-like encounters, along with the thrill and terror of gales and bar crossings, rogue waves and perilous port entries, from a time long before GPS navigation. It's also a story about how the little catamaran Kathleen helped reshape the author's outlook. This is handled with an amusing mix of 'bravado before the mirror', with a healthy dose of extraction of the urine. The story moves along, slowing at the important bits, dwelling at the crucial. Just like at sea, tension builds from the most placid situations, and the mysterious perils of life out there pulse throughout. The tale is told in the lucid detail. Drift is the exciting first novel by Frankk Fatt.

Circle of Bones - 2013

by Christine KlingFormer marine Maggie Riley has just set sail for the Caribbean, ready for a little R&R on her forty-foot boat before starting a work assignment in Dominica.

Then Cole Thatcher appears. Sexy, naked—and possibly nuts—Cole turns out to be an archaeologist searching for the wreckage from a World War II submarine that may hold millions in gold coins and classified documents from a powerful inner circle of the secret society Skull and Bones. Maggie has enough skeletons to deal with, but when she learns her own past may intersect the Bonesmen’s, joining Cole in the hunt for the sub may be the only course to uncover a hidden truth.


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