- Book Club
Set sail with these 10 books about epic ocean voyages
From solo trips around the world to family sojourns in the Pacific Northwest, these tales of high-seas adventures will inspire you.
Fifty years ago, Robin Lee Graham cruised into the Los Angeles harbor and made history, becoming at the time the youngest person to sail solo around the world.
The mariner was only 16 years old when he set forth nearly five years earlier, on July 27, 1965. His vessel: a 24-foot sloop called Dove. During his 1,739 days at sea traversing 30,600 nautical miles, Graham faced hurricanes, broken masts, crushing loneliness, a near collision with a freighter, and tedious weeks wallowing in the doldrums. But there were also moments of unparalleled beauty and long sojourns exploring fascinating destinations. He attended a memorial for a queen in Tonga, dived for shells in Fiji, safaried in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, hiked on lunar-like Ascension Island, ate piranhas in Suriname, and roamed the islands of the Galápagos.
Graham detailed his adventures in three National Geographic articles published between 1968 and 1970. “We sleigh-ride down into the deep trough of a trade-wind sea. Then Dove labors up the following crest, and down we plunge again, day after day, my boat and I,” he wrote in his first article. The teen’s quest captured hearts and imaginations, and readers avidly followed his journey and the challenges he experienced.
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The most dramatic event was his second dismasting in the Indian Ocean. Only 18 hours out of the Cocos Islands, a roaring storm caused Dove’s mast to buckle. Graham almost fell overboard—without his safety harness on—in the attempt to haul the trailing mast and sails back aboard. He sailed under a makeshift rig an astonishing 2,300 miles to Mauritius, off the coast of Africa. “Could I do it? I had no choice,” he wrote. “I had to; turning back against the trade winds was impossible.”
Published in 1972, Graham’s best-selling memoir, Dove (co-written with Derek L.T. Gill), expands on his articles and chronicles his love story with his wife, Patti, whom he met and married along the way. The book not only inspired countless mariners’ dreams but, as Graham also wrote, created “memories [at] landfalls where foreigners seldom set foot.”
Graham is not the only seafarer with an extraordinary story. Here are 10 additional books—the latest installment in our ongoing Around the World in Books series—about adventurous sailors who test their mettle on the high seas.
Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum, 1900. Slocum’s iconic account of his solo trip around the globe—the first person to accomplish such a feat—can be found on almost every sailor’s bookshelf and was a prime inspiration to Graham. Setting off from Boston in 1895 in his 36-foot wooden sloop, Spray, Slocum sailed some 46,000 miles over three years. His wonderfully entertaining tale features close calls with pirates off Gibraltar, breakfasting on flying fish in the Pacific, and visiting with explorer Henry Stanley in South Africa.
Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, by W. Jeffrey Bolster, 1997. Black seafaring wasn’t limited to the horrific Middle Passage. During the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of Black sailors went to sea aboard whalers, warships, and clippers in pursuit of liberty and economic opportunity. They played a pivotal role in creating a new African-American identity, carrying news and information to Black communities ashore and even helping smuggle enslaved people to freedom—such as Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery disguised as a sailor.
The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, by Farley Mowat, 1969. “The five hundred and fifty mile voyage across the center of Newfoundland was a prolonged exercise in masochism,” the Canadian author and naturalist writes in his hilarious account of his travails aboard the Happy Adventure. Beset by constant leaks, a cantankerous engine, and repeated sinkings, Mowat and his ornery wooden sailboat had a riotous time roaming the foggy shores of Newfoundland and the Maritimes in the 1960s.
(Related: 10 books that will take you on real-life adventures.)
The Curve of Time, by M. Wylie Blanchet, 1961. After being widowed, Blanchet turned to the sea, cruising with her five children on long summer sojourns in the 1920s and ’30s along the coast of British Columbia. A pioneer of family travel, Blanchet recalls in lyrical writing the beauty of the unspoiled Pacific Northwest and teaching her children the wonders of the natural world.
Maiden Voyage, by Tania Aebi, 1989. In 1985, Aebi’s father offered the 18-year-old a choice: go to college or sail a 26-foot boat around the world. She chose the boat. From surviving a terrifying collision with a tanker in the Mediterranean to braving a lightning storm off the coast of Gibraltar, her compelling memoir charts her two-and-half-year journey on Varuna as a young woman braving the sea alone with only her cat as companion.
The Last Grain Race, by Eric Newby, 1956. Windjammers once raced to carry grain from Australia to Europe the fastest, and Newby apprenticed aboard Moshulu during the final contest in 1939. Recounting his circumnavigation between Ireland and Australia, Newby captures the last era of big sailing ships.
Swell: Sailing the Pacific in Search of Surf and Self, by Liz Clark, 2018. Reading Aebi’s Maiden Voyage sparked Clark’s own dream to sail the world. Nominated for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2015, Clark has captained her 40-foot sailboat throughout the Pacific for more than a decade. Her memoir weaves together life at sea, her love of the Earth, and her eternal quest for great surf.
Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan, 1986. In 1982, several months after starting his voyage off the coast of Rhode Island, Callahan faced every sailor’s worst nightmare: His boat abruptly took on water and sank, leaving him stranded on a five-foot inflatable raft in the middle of the Atlantic. For the next 76 days, Callahan survived terrifying storms, shark attacks, and lack of food and fresh water while drifting 1,800 miles to the Caribbean.
The Cruise of the Snark, by Jack London, 1911. After reading Slocum’s book, The Call of the Wild author was determined to make his own grand voyage. London designed his dream boat, a 55-foot wooden ketch, and departed San Francisco in 1907 with his wife, Charmian, and a woefully inexperienced crew. On their travels through the South Pacific, London taught himself celestial navigation and learned how to surf in Hawaii before ending his trip in the Solomon Islands.
Taking on the World, by Ellen MacArthur, 2002. British sailor MacArthur holds the record for the fastest solo sail by a woman across the Atlantic and has circled the planet in record-breaking time. Her autobiography describes her extraordinary second-place finish (at the age of 24) in the world’s hardest single-handed yacht race, the Vendée Globe, where she faced frigid wind conditions, mountainous waves, and leaden skies in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans.