have no seafaring experience, what to read in order to write about it?
March 11, 2014 4:33 AM   Subscribe

Please help me understand seaworthiness so I can write about it.

I would like to write about being adrift at sea, circumnavigation of timeless oceans with a sail boat and other variations adventures involving trading fleets, escaping blockades, etc.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of ship navigation is naught. Are there recommendations on what I can read in order to better grasp the technical concepts that I can use in fictional writing? For now I'm thinking examples in fiction would be more helpful.

posted by wallawallasweet to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin series is pretty much the superlative example of this, for the Napoleonic era at least.
posted by runincircles at 4:46 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Have you browsed through some sailing books/manuals at the library? This is nonfiction, but Dougal Robertson's Survive the Savage Sea is as gripping and suspenseful as any novel and gives a great idea of what the emotional toll of being a castaway for over a month is like as well as the practical aspects necessary to survive.
posted by lharmon at 5:04 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You should also check out "A Sea of Words" - it's basically a small encyclopedia explaining all the nautical and historical background of the Aubrey-Maturin series, so you can look anything up that is unfamiliar.
posted by Vortisaur at 5:14 AM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: Not fiction, but you should read Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World. Actually, everybody should read it. Also, Lansing's book on the Shackleton expedition. The voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a jury-rigged lifeboat is more far-fetched than anything a writer of fiction would come up with.
posted by mr vino at 5:24 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ferenc Maté's books on sailing are excellent (some novels, some practical non-fiction)
posted by chavenet at 5:41 AM on March 11, 2014

"Seaworthiness" refers to the condition of a vessel. Seamanship is the word you are looking for.

I think this is somewhat time and place dependent.
posted by three blind mice at 5:50 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There was an interesting post on the blue just the other day:

Text-Book of Seamanship, 1891, is an updated age of sail textbook...

It doesn't go into escaping blockades, it's a technical manual on how to handle a ship circa 1891, but might contain some interesting details (especially the terminology).
posted by three blind mice at 6:01 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, the Aubrey-Maturin series are great books that describe the nautical world (and specifically of its period) really really well.
I would also recommend Joseph Konrad (anything but Heart of Darkness) because he also wrote about boat-life really well.

There's a certain ephemeral quality about being on boats/on the ocean that is hard to convey. The second half of Life of Pi does a pretty good job.

Also 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (this edition, though expensive is a superlative translation - the rest are shit, poop, dreck, worthless) and (of course) Moby Dick.

I would also watch "Master and Commander," the movie based on the O'Brien books: people I know who have spent lots and lots of time on boats who didn't like the movie still appreciated how well it depicted what it's like to be on the ocean.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:31 AM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez is a very fun read, covers a lot of seafaring topics from the view of an amateur observer, and also is an example of writing about sea faring.
posted by colin_l at 6:34 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is river, not ocean, navigation, but is also a thrilling read, and covers a lot of navigational and boat-maintenance issues.
posted by colin_l at 6:36 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Absolutely read Justin Scott's The Shipkiller - every detail of sailing a 40-foot boat in the open ocean is accurate as of 1970, and it's also a tour-de-force of thriller writing and exactly covers your list of themes.
posted by nicwolff at 6:42 AM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: Two Years Before the Mast is an autobiographical account of one man's experience as a merchant sailor around America in the 1830s. It discusses not just technical matters but covers in depth the daily experiences of life on a wooden sailing ship.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:01 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing the Aubrey-Maturin books, if you're at all interested in sailing and the early 19th century. They are incredibly detailed when it comes to descriptions of how sailboats actually work (mostly large, man of war-type ships, but occasionally smaller vessels). They're also an absolute pleasure to read.
posted by crookedneighbor at 7:03 AM on March 11, 2014

Do you want historical seamanship or more recent accounts of sailing? I realize it's old-fashioned of me, but I've always felt C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series is better than Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin.
posted by easily confused at 7:03 AM on March 11, 2014

I'd have to second Moby Dick .. All the deviations into the minutia of sea-going and what not definitely provides a deeper look, if you can get through it.
posted by k5.user at 7:55 AM on March 11, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all for the suggestions thus far-I'm adding them to my to-read list!

I really enjoyed 'Master and Commander' so I'll definitely look into Aubrey-Maturin, and also found inspiring portions of David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns..."
posted by wallawallasweet at 8:59 AM on March 11, 2014

Many of Joseph Conrad's books have a nautical setting, and having spent a great deal of his time at sea, his experiences are probably pretty authentic.
posted by althanis at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: There are lots of books by people who spent weeks and months adrift at sea. Also chronicals of circumnavigations and yacht races. Check your library.

I'd suggest After The Storm by John Rousmaniere. It has stories of castrophes with analysis of why they happened and , especially, the aftermath, both public and psychological.

Kenneth Roberts wrote several books about adventures at sea, and gives a more American perspective than O'Brien.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:52 AM on March 11, 2014

Another thought that is not obvious. Crossing oceans in small boat has always meant under sail. This is still true for the most part. Small powerboats don't carry enough fuel.

The Serpent's Coil is about hurricanes at sea, mostly from a steamship perspective.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:56 AM on March 11, 2014

You're not asking for movies, but the recent Robert Redford movie All is Lost is a realistic depiction of a modern solo sailor having a very bad time of things.

And also the "Swallows and Amazons" series by Arthur Ransome are a delightful set of children's books that (mostly but not entirely) take place on boats on inland lakes and the open ocean. The protagonists are 1920's British children given permission to take various adventures which go wrong/right in interesting and instructive ways.
posted by richyoung at 2:15 PM on March 11, 2014

Best answer: I can't tell if you've got a specific time period in mind, but I really enjoyed the book Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, about the author's experience sailing around the world alone at age 18 (in 1985).

Also nthing the Aubrey-Maturin series, and some companion books: A Sea of Words, which is a glossary of sorts, and Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, which is one of the funniest cookbooks I own (I've never actually made any of the recipes).
posted by lollymccatburglar at 5:27 AM on March 12, 2014

Best answer: I want to second Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. Like Moby Dick, it has the advantage of being written by an educated crewman-- books written by officers are great, but crewmen tell different tales. It also has one of the best descriptions I've ever read about the tacking evolution of a large square-rigged ship. Dana was a Harvard student who took time off (2 years) to join a fur-trading ship to help his eyesight. IIRC he ended up as a lawyer, and among other feats was part of the prosecution team in the trial of Jefferson Davis.

Moby Dick has some great stuff as well, but it definitely concentrated on the elements of seamanship that are peculiar to whaling.

I've read a good bit of Conrad, but none of them stand out as far as elements of ship-handling. "Typhoon," maybe, "Lord Jim." "Heart of Darkness" talks about steam-powered riverboats.

My last suggestion is "The Riddle of the Sands," by Erskine Childers, a novel from 1903 that's an early example of spy fiction as we know it today. The narrator is invited to do some small-boat fowling in the German Frisian Islands (sand islands on the North Sea-- there are also Dutch Frisians) with a schoolmate who had a strange encounter with another yachtsman who seems to be more than he claims. I suggest you find all 5 maps and copy them out or bookmark them, as I referred to them frequently. At the risk of spoiling, the book alarmed the British naval establishment by publicizing a critical weakness in English coastal defense, ultimately resulting in changes that were almost put to the test 40 years later.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:45 PM on March 13, 2014

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