Literary Descriptions of Ships
May 1, 2015 9:03 AM   Subscribe

What are some great descriptions of boats and ships from literature? I'm especially looking for descriptions from classic books in the public domain. Novels, stories, plays, poetry etc. are all welcome.
posted by Prunesquallor to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can't get much more classic than Catullus.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 9:04 AM on May 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, Moby Dick has some of that, but Redburn is better.
posted by Melismata at 9:09 AM on May 1, 2015

Not public domain, but Patrick O'Brian's descriptions of Capt. Aubrey's ships are all wonderful:
...he knew [HMS Surprise] through and through, as beautiful a piece of ship-building as any that had been launched from the French yards, a true thoroughbred, very fast in the right hands, weatherly, dry, a splendid sailor on a bowline, and a ship that almost steered herself once you understood her ways.
posted by jquinby at 9:09 AM on May 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

There's a treasure trove on Start in the "Seafaring Life" category. Over in the right-hand column on that page, there's a list of related topics. I found too many good candidates to list here.

Also, Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower (not public domain) has some really detailed descriptions of that ship. (Spoiler alert: It was a dumpy little trash heap!)
posted by mudpuppie at 9:16 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two Years Before The Mast is really excellent, but it depends on which era of boats and ships you're looking for.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:17 AM on May 1, 2015

Joseph Conrad also wrote some wonderful descriptive prose about ships. Here's a sample from Freya of the Seven Isles:
Indeed, Jasper was quite the caballero. The brig herself was then
all black and enigmatical, and very dirty; a tarnished gem of the
sea, or, rather, a neglected work of art. For he must have been an
artist, the obscure builder who had put her body together on lovely
lines out of the hardest tropical timber fastened with the purest
copper. Goodness only knows in what part of the world she was
built. Jasper himself had not been able to ascertain much of her
history from his sententious, saturnine Peruvian--if the fellow was
a Peruvian, and not the devil himself in disguise, as Jasper
jocularly pretended to believe. My opinion is that she was old
enough to have been one of the last pirates, a slaver perhaps, or
else an opium clipper of the early days, if not an opium smuggler.

However that may be, she was as sound as on the day she first took
the water, sailed like a witch, steered like a little boat, and,
like some fair women of adventurous life famous in history, seemed
to have the secret of perpetual youth; so that there was nothing
unnatural in Jasper Allen treating her like a lover. And that
treatment restored the lustre of her beauty. He clothed her in
many coats of the very best white paint so skilfully, carefully,
artistically put on and kept clean by his badgered crew of picked
Malays, that no costly enamel such as jewellers use for their work
could have looked better and felt smoother to the touch. A narrow
gilt moulding defined her elegant sheer as she sat on the water,
eclipsing easily the professional good looks of any pleasure yacht
that ever came to the East in those days. For myself, I must say I
prefer a moulding of deep crimson colour on a white hull. It gives
a stronger relief besides being less expensive; and I told Jasper
so. But no, nothing less than the best gold-leaf would do, because
no decoration could be gorgeous enough for the future abode of his
posted by jquinby at 9:28 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not at all classic, but the posthumously released Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton has some great technical description of the different ships, what they can do and why, how they're sailed, etc.

But, yeah, Conrad.
posted by cmoj at 9:38 AM on May 1, 2015

Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) by Captain Joshua Slocum, the first recorded person to have performed that feat, includes numerous descriptions of Spray, his sloop.

The Riddle of the Sands, a 1903 novel by Erskine Childers which is both a kind of early spy novel as well as a polemic that alarmed the British military vis-a-vis its arrangements for preventing an invasion, centers on two men who were college chums and who were re-united onstensibly for a few weeks of fowling in the German Frisian Islands, aboard Dulcibella, a shallow-water sailboat which the narrator has to learn to operate and navigate in the sandy shallows around the Frisians. Thus, the boat's owner teaches the narrator, and thus the reader, what there is to see and know about Dulcibella.

Tristan Jones, a Welsh sailor who wrote a bunch of fantastic (sometimes literally, but mostly grounded in non-fiction) books about his sailing adventures, describes all of his boats as if they are his companions. "Ice!" is a good place to start, and his boyhood story "A Steady Trade" had descriptions of the lugger he was on.

Conrad, yes. "Freya of the Seven Isles," though, that story broke my heart. Also, whenever you read Conrad writing rings around so many English writers, remind yourself that English is his third language; that's how good he is.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:26 AM on May 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Horatio Hornblower series has excellent descriptions of life in the Royal Navy, and Naval combat with wooden ships
posted by NinjaBat at 10:35 AM on May 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing Conrad. Youth, about a ship on fire.
posted by clawsoon at 10:38 AM on May 1, 2015

If by great you mean extensive, then the Catalogue of Ships that is Book 2 of The Iliad would fit your bill.
posted by TheCavorter at 1:57 PM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Captains Courageous.
posted by gudrun at 11:00 AM on May 2, 2015

The catalogue of the ships is less ship-py than you might be looking for. There are some bits of in the Odyssey (passim) that might suit.
posted by BWA at 12:11 PM on May 2, 2015

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