The Greatest Stories of the Sea


Here are the top 10 famous sea stories with plenty of atmosphere, adventure and excitement. Runners-up include the Bounty Trilogy, Forrester’s Hornblower saga, Ed Beach’s Run Silent, Run Deep and Tom Heggen’s Mr. Roberts.

10. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Updating the Bounty mutiny, ex-navy man Wouk refashioned Bligh as neurotic petty tyrant Queeg, driving the Caine’s crew to mutiny during a dangerous storm. Though Navy lawyer Greenwald stands up for Queeg at book’s end, we still know what a rule-happy, inflexible screw-up Queeg is.

9. Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling

Far from the Imperial India he knew so well, Kipling for a time lived in Vermont. Here he penned one of the most beloved boys’ sea tales, full of the briny atmosphere of the North Atlantic fishing grounds. Falling off an ocean liner, spoiled rich brat Harvey Cheyne learns to be a self-reliant young man fishing on the “We’re Here” from Gloucester, Mass.

8. The Sea Wolf by Jack London

The flip side of Captains Courageous, Wolf Larsen, a psycho sadist hunting for his hated brother, lords it over the Ghost, a hell ship if there ever was one, as Humphrey Van Weyden, surviving a ferry wreck, finds out. Larsen would have Bligh and Queeg for breakfast.

7. The Death Ship by B. Traven

Yes, the same guy who gave us Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The nameless narrator ships on the Yorikke…and soon wishes he hadn’t. A chilling allegory that would give Joseph Conrad nightmares.

6. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Heyerdahl tried to prove that South American Indians could have migrated to Polynesia. The odyssey of him and his crew on a balsa raft stands with Slocum’s voyage (see above) as one of the all-time great true-life sea epics.

5. The Open Boat by Stephen Crane

“None of them knew the color of the sky.” Has any other sea story an opening line like that? Crane, a war correspondent in Cuba, lived the story he so memorably tells here, a concentrated little epic of survival at sea.

4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Jules Verne gave a new twist to the sea story by placing it underwater, aboard the submarine Nautilus. And Captain Nemo was one of the first of many brooding antiheroes to come. Verne proved the wonders of this world were enough for science fiction.

3. Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana

Shipping aboard a New England clipper for health reasons, landlubber Dana discovers the grim truth of shipboard brutality. His classic uncovered the hellish underside of 18th Century ship life.

2. Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

Canadian Slocum became one of the last of the great American seaman, by sailing his sloop, the Spray, in an unaided circumnavigation. His book is still one of the greatest true-life sea adventures ever penned.

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Once shipping aboard a Yankee whaler, Melville was inspired to write the greatest book about whaling. When the Pequod leaves Nantucket to hunt mad Ahab’s object of revenge, the book smells of whale oil. Long, yes, but the three-part climax is the stuff of legend.

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  2. Keith Watabayashi on

    Personally I really like "Billy Budd" by Melville but I guess that is more about spirituality and society more than it's about the sea.

  3. What about The Hunt for Red October? Or the novel that pre-dated the Titanic with a – get this – largest ever oceanliner called the Titan that hits an iceberg and sinks despite being billed as "unsinkable"? How's that for ominous?