A Brief History
On September 1, 1952, The Old Man and the Sea, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ernest Hemmingway novel, was first published. Many great novels have centered on ships and men at sea. In the Marine Corps we used to say, “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is the fairy tale starts ′Once upon a time,′ while the sea story starts ′This is no sh*t!′ ” Here 10 great sea stories involving the tales of sailors and seamen and their ships are listed. What tales would you add to the list?
10. The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk, 1951.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning fictional story of a mutiny against a captain whose crew believes he is nuts would rank higher if it were not so depressing. Humphrey Bogart played Captain Queeg in the movie (1954) and did such a great job that he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
9. The Raft, Robert Trumbull, 1942.
This book is a true story of 3 U.S. Naval aviators who had to ditch their plane early in the Pacific War (World War II) and their subsequent struggle for survival as they waft on an 8-foot by 4-foot inflatable raft for 5 weeks. Of course they probably survived for this book to be written, but any more details are left to you to find out in the 213 pages of the book.
8. HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean, 1955.
MacLean got his inspiration for this book while serving in the Royal Navy in World War II during which time he made a couple of arctic voyages. This story is a tale of the harrowing conditions sailors experienced on the arctic convoys, fighting the weather even more so than U-boats or bombers. After reading this novel, arctic convoy duty will not sound romantic anymore.
7. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway, 1952.
Hemingway wrote this tale of an old Cuban fisherman who goes out on his small boat alone to fish with a handline. Down on his luck, the fisherman needs a decent catch to survive, and he manages to hook the fish of a lifetime. His battles with the enormous fish, his victory and then the long trip back to as sharks take bites off of his mighty marlin have an aura of sadness that is hard to describe. At least he manages to impresses the townspeople with the carcass of the giant fish.
6. Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen, 1982.
This great movie was based on a 1973 novel by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim. It gives a powerful and compelling depiction of life at sea that captures the closeness and squalor of the conditions on a U-boat during World War II and especially the terror and hardships the men went through. You may never want to go on a submarine after watching this, but you will have a bit more respect for those who do. Recommendation: Watch the German-language version with English subtitles. It gives a better feel for the urgency and despair in the voices of the officers and men. Honorable mentions to Run Silent, Run Deep by Edward Beach and The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy.
5. The Horatio Hornblower Series, C.S. Forester, 1945-1966.
This epic 12-book series details the career of a Royal Navy officer from midshipman to admiral during the Napoleonic Wars (mainly). Forester (a pen name) also wrote The African Queen (1935), another good boat book that was made into a classic movie (1951).
4. The Odyssey, Homer, c. 800 B.C.
While Odysseus and his men make their way back to Greece after the Trojan War, they experiences a nightmarish 10-year voyage in which they visit all sorts of magical lands and encounter all kinds of natural, supernatural and “whatevernatural” entities that hinder their journey. The egotistical Odysseus (Ulysses as he is known in Latin) makes things harder than they have to be, and he ends up being the only one to make it home. Many parts of the story have made their way to film, including an exceptional television version starring Armand Assante in 1997.
3. Mutiny on the Bounty/Men Against the Sea/Pitcairn Island, Nordoff and Hall, 1932.
This trilogy follows the men of the HMS Bounty, a medium-sized sailing vessel. In the first book, the HMS Bounty is on an assignment to transport breadfruit trees from the South Seas to the Caribbean. The tyrannical Capt. Bligh (played by Charles Laughton 1935, Trevor Howard 1962 and Anthony Hopkins 1984) pushes and punishes his crew until they can take no more and finally mutiny. The second book chronicles the struggles of Capt. Bligh and his loyal men as they are adrift in a small boat as they attempt to make their way back to England. The final book tells the story of the Bounty mutineers as wanted fugitives and the life they try to make for themselves. All books are based on true events but highly fictionalized. In the three movie versions mentioned above, Fletcher Christian, the main mutineer, is played by Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson.
2. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, 1870.
This novel is the quintessential submarine story and has been made into a movie more than once. Captain Nemo and his ship Nautilus are so famous that the first U.S. Navy nuclear sub was named the USS Nautilus. Verne, a visionary, managed to describe technology that did not even yet exist at the time he wrote the book. Nemo and his ship show up again in another Verne book, The Mysterious Island (another must read). Both books are novels you wish would never end.
1. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851.
Moby-Dick is the story of an enormous and mighty white whale and a peg-legged captain who is obsessed with him. The opening line of the book, “Call me Ishmael,” is one of the most famous introductions ever. It may be a long book, but it is never boring. Incredibly, although the book was not successful for many years following initial publication, it now is regarded as one of the greatest American novels of all time. Even D.H. Lawrence considers it the greatest of all sea stories.
For other interesting events that happened on September 1, please see the History and Headlines articles: “Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Dies” and the “10 Longest-Reigning Monarchs and Heads of State.”
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