During the Golden Age of Sail, many of the great wooden ships that crossed oceans and decided the fate of nations carried a library on board. Filled with religious texts, adventure novels, or whatever else the captain and crew decided to bring along, the ship's library provided both guidance and entertainment. In their free time, or when the wind was down, sailors could read to themselves or their mates, making reading an integral part of the maritime experience. Nowadays, boaters with the space to stow books can use their ship's library to build a collection for their voyages. There are many things to do at sea, but nothing is quite as relaxing as sitting at anchor with a book and the world quiet and peaceful around you.
In this guide, we have assembled an essential group of maritime books. They come from a range of genres and authors; some are filled with practical knowledge, others with adventure, and others with the lore and history of humanity and the sea. All will teach you something about the ocean and help you on your journey to becoming a better mariner.
Books to Bring While Sailing
U.S. Chart No. 1 - Though the U.S. Government no longer publishes Chart No. 1, it can still be acquired through several publishers and a NOAA publishes a free PDF version on their website. A longstanding fixture of the boating world, Chart No. 1 is the ultimate and official guide to reading and understanding chart terminology.
Chapman Piloting by Elbert S. Maloney - The first book on our list is one of the most useful. Now in its 67th edition, Chapman Piloting has been a trusted reference for mariners since 1917. It contains a wealth of information for both sailors and power boaters, from anchoring guidelines to boating rules to weather to GPS and radar. And if that were not enough, the U.S. Coast Guard also officially recommends it.
The New American Practical Navigator by Nathaniel Bowditch - Often referred to simply as "Bowditch" after the name of its original author, this volume has both practical use and historical importance. It was first published as a correction to British navigational tables, which contained innumerable errors, and was designed so that everyone aboard a ship could learn navigation. The current editions have been revised for today's technologies, so it remains useful for the modern sailor.
First Aid at Sea by Douglas Justins and Colin Berry - Injuries can happen at sea, and being caught unprepared when you are miles away from land could be quite dangerous. This book provides concise and well-organized information, so you can read up in moments of quiet and use it as a reference in case of emergency. As a side note, it is always a good idea to get some first aid training. The function of a book like this should be to remind you of what you have been taught, and to help those members of your crew who have not been trained to learn some of the basics.
The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford Ashley - Whether you are operating a six-foot dinghy or a hundred-foot yacht, knowing how to tie the necessary knots is an absolute necessity. If you want to go even further, The Ashley Book of Knots is an encyclopedic guide with thousands of knots that are practical, ornamental, and somewhere in between. You can get everything from the basics to the most elaborate, and if you have always wanted to make a Turk's Head bracelet (the woven rope bracelets that sailors often wear) now you can.
The Twelve Volt Bible for Boats by Miner Brotherton and Edwin Sherman - A respected source of knowledge, this Bible contains all the information on small-boat electrical systems that you could hope to know.
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana - Many books about the lives of ordinary sailors were not written by sailors themselves, but by curious outsiders or those who longed for the adventure of the sea. Two Years Before the Mast is an exception to this rule; its title stems from the fact that its author, Richard Henry Dana, sailed "before the mast" — that is, not as a mate or other officer, but as a simple sailor. If you are curious about real life under sail, this book is an excellent and exciting source.
Folklore and the Sea by Horace Beck - As you may have had a glimpse of in our article on sailors' superstitions, seafaring life is rife with lore and superstitious custom. This book is filled to the brim with stories of sailors' beliefs and customs, often straight from the mouth of sailors themselves. The author was both an anthropologist and a professional sailor, so he is able to weave the stories together in both areas of his expertise. If you would like to learn more about seafaring customs and their origins, this is the book for you.
The Ocean Almanac by Richard Hendrickson - Though it is not an almanac in the strictest sense of the word, Ocean Almanac is filled with every kind of fact and story relating to the sea and marine life that you could imagine. Ghost stories, shipwrecks, information on military ships, different types of whales and sea creatures — all of this and much more is contained in this massive tome. It is a good selection if you want some variety in your reading, or if you are looking for both fanciful stories and factual writing.
Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan - If you are looking for a thrilling read, survival stories are the way to go, and the sea provides aplenty. Adrift is one of the most well-known examples of the genre, dealing with a man who spent the titular 76 days afloat on a life raft and survived to tell the tale. This is a real edge-of-your-seat story, so you may want to avoid starting it just before bed.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville - Maybe including Moby-Dick on the list is a cliché, but the fact remains that it is one of the greatest works of nautical literature (and literature in general) of all time. Melville was a sailor himself, and knew the ins and outs of seafaring life. In addition, some of the book is based on an actual historical event: the sinking of the whaleship Essex by an enraged sperm whale. It may get dense at times, but it truly is worth the read, especially for boaters.
The Horatio Hornblower series by C.F. Forester - The series is one of the absolute classics of nautical literature. The main character begins as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, and rises through the ranks throughout the course of the series. It has been read and recommended by greats like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill, and has inspired the development of characters in a variety of genres — including the captains of the USS Enterprise.
Master and Commander (first in a series) by Patrick O'Brien - You may have seen the movie of the same name that came out a few years ago. The battles are based off of historical engagements and the characters have become beloved fixtures in the world of maritime literature. The author includes an impressive amount of detail about all aspects of wartime life at sea, all of which is contained in a plot with more action and adventure than the movie could possibly contain.
In addition to the specific volumes above, consider purchasing a cruising guide that covers your specific area of boating. Nigel Calder and Don Street, two authors and sailors who have written a plethora of useful articles and books on boating, have material on this subject and many others.
The number of books written about all aspects of the maritime experience is, of course, enormous. This list is a primer, a solid foundation for a ship's library. As you spend more time at sea and become more familiar with maritime culture, you will find books that suit your particular taste and serve your particular purpose. As always, happy sailing — and happy reading!