One of the great books of all time set on a boat Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. Illustration from the C. H. Simonds Co. edition, (date)

One of the great books of all time set on a boat Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. Illustration from the C. H. Simonds Co. edition, 1892.

I was recently invited to talk with ABC 702 radio Mornings program’s Linda Mottram about what might be my top ten ‘books about boats’ of all time. It wasn’t hard to think of a few classics such as The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Thor Heyerdhal’s Kon Tiki, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — all books that resonated with me when I first read them, and stayed with me long after.

A couple of others that I didn’t get the chance to mention — and were not specifically about boats but have hard-to-forget descriptions of amazing, almost mystical boat journeys — were Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Callers to the program were obviously passionate about their favourite books about boats. But what is it that makes such books so popular? It is the narrative journey of an ocean voyage full of adventure? Or just mucking about with boats over the summer holidays? Maybe it’s the struggle against the ocean and nature? The epic survival-against-all-odds story? Perhaps it’s the way a ship can be a microcosm of society? Or how being stuck together at sea makes us see our common humanity?

You can hear the podcast and see callers’ responses on the ABC 702 blog.

A list of some of the books that callers to the program plumped for is below, in no particular order. There’s certainly a few on that list I must read!

But what is your favourite book about boats — and why? Let us know in the comments section.

  • Hungry as the Sea by Wilbur Smith
  • Dove by Robin Lee Graham
  • A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier by Diana Preston
  • Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton
  • Time Storm by Steve Harrison
  • A Flock of Ships by Brian Callison
  • The Lonely Sea and the Sky by Sir Francis Chichester
  • Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl
  • Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson
  • Icebird by David Lewis
  • Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers
  • Barrier Reef Rendezvous by Allan Lucas
  • The Boat That Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowatt
  • Angry as the Sea by  Wilbur Smith
  • Eye of the Tiger by Wilbur Smith
  • Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith
  • Desperate Voyage by John Caldwell
  • Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
  • 1788: The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet by David Hill
  • Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
  • Master and Commander (and the series) by Patrick O’Brian

— Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator


Stephen Gapps

Stephen is a Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. In 2014 he developed the War at Sea - The Navy in WWI exhibition. He was previously responsible for the collection areas of Environment and Industry. In 2015 Stephen developed a display showcasing Australian and Indonesian maritime connections. He has research interests in early colonial Australian history, Pirates and Vikings.

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