Reading Books from a Mariner's Perpective

I had a friend put down Big Sur for good after two chapters because she found the lack of periods/punctuation hard to deal with. It was just a long run on sentence for her. I was amused by that.

On the subject of novels about Ships & Seafaring, Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey series about the Royal Navy in the Napoleanic Wars often takes up a sizable section of the mariner’s bookshelf. I’ve read and enjoyed every one of the Aubrey books, and O’Brien’s other novels of similar genre (The Golden Ocean and others about Anson’s voyage).

Reading one of those O’Brien books always leaves me with the feeling of being in the presence of a storyteller who must have been thoroughly immersed in the lore of the sea and ships by great, first-hand experience. So, as a counterpoint, I have always found exceedingly fascinating the short letter to the San Francisco sailing communities’ newspaper, “Latitude 38” written by venture capitalist and yachtsman, Tom Perkins. Patrick O’Brien, The Man & The Myth

Anyone who has “sailed with” Patrick O’Brien and Capt. Aubrey and who reads that very insightful little bit of biography by Mr. Perkins will, I think, be as amazed and impressed as I am by the power of the human mind and imagination to create whole worlds out of very little “substance” as we normally think of real world experience. Further reading into O’Brien’s personal history will reveal that he did it by countless hours over many years spent in Admiralty libraries reading the first hand reports and logs of skippers from Britain’s Napoleanic era Navy! An amazing feat of the mind in my opinion!


Tristan Jones - Heart of Oak.

He spent most of his life at sea, first in the British Royal Navy, and then sailing in small yachts for various purposes,

There are also very good books by non-mariners, this is true in general in other fields as well.

Sebastian Junger wasn’t a fisherman or even mariner but “The Perfect Storm” was very good, got a lot of praise from the fishing community.

Done by hard work, research, empathy and writing skills.


Tristan Jones was an adventurous character. He wrote that he had a sailboat trucked on a flatbed to Lake Titicaca in the Andes so he could claim the record of having sailed at a higher elevation than anyone else. I don’t know if it’s true but it should be noted that in his later years, he was accused of stretching the truth in his writings.


The Ramage Novels by Dudley Pope run along the same vein and immerse you in the adventures.




“The Ordinary Seaman” by Francisco Goldman is good.

Who hasn’t sketched out a plan to buy a small ship and run it? I found both the premise and the outcome quite believable.

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The Boat That Wouldn’t Float

is probably Farley Mowat’s best book. Its a hilarious read.

I’ve read many of his books. So of them are a disappointment.


On The Road

is one of the most overrated books ever. So is the author.



I get it.

I’m still upset at the untimely deaths of Thomas Heggen and Richard McKenna. Would have loved reading more from both of those men.

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The type of ship in “Mr Roberts” (by Thomas Heggen) took place on was a Navy AK, the Army version of the same ship was “FS” which is the type ship in “Williwaw” (by Gore Vidal).

In both cases the authors actual served on the ships they wrote about, Vidal in the Army and Heggen in the Navy.

Minor detail but I believe in Navy service they were AKL’s.

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Heggen was on Andromeda and Crater class vessels, I think the USS Howell was used in the movie because it was just easier to acquire and film on as opposed to actively sailing (and much larger) transports.

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That’s interesting. I thought the movie was stretching credulity to it’s limits with the crew size on a ship the size of a AKL.

I guess It didn’t occur to me that there was a book.

Thomas Heggen - Wikipedia

Bewildered by the fame he had longed for, and under pressure to turn out another bestseller, he found himself with a crippling case of writer’s block. “I don’t know how I wrote Mister Roberts ,” he admitted to a friend. “It was spirit writing”. He became an insomniac and tried to cure it with increasing amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs. On May 19, 1949, Heggen drowned in his bathtub at age 30 after an overdose of sleeping pills.

Had a mate who was attached to the Royal Navy when they were filming The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat . The book written in 1951 remains one of the best books of ordinary sailors lives during the Battle of the Atlantic.
The corvette used for the filming was decommissioned and was manned by merchant seamen and at one stage had forgotten to replace the RN white ensign with the merchant navy red ensign. A cruiser affronted by the lack ceremonial acknowledgment from the corvette was making a message by light when the ensigns were swiftly changed.
On another occasion all ships in Portsmouth (UK) cleared lower deck and had to Cheer Ship as a tug towing a barge with camera crew was towed past.

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I though both the book and movie were very good.

Early in the movie there was a scene that made me skeptical about the quality of the movie.

The ship was alongside, lots of activity and in the background the crew on deck was coiling some wire ineptly. Made me think I might have difficulty enjoying the movie

Later in the movie however I realized that this scene was likely deliberate, intended to show the inexperience of the crew.


I like most of Jan de Hartog’s books, especially THE CAPTAIN. “Fancy that!”! He was a Dutch ocean tug captain during WWII.


Same author…the movie “The Key”. Good images of ex RN deep sea salvage tugs and the towing of torpedoed/damaged merchant vsls in the N. Atlantic.

Yes, THE KEY to an apartment. Sofia Loren came with the apartment as live in maid and lover. As one tug captain was killed by the Germans, the key to the apartment was given to the next new tug captain. It’s based on Jan de Hartog’s book STELLA. It’s complete fiction; there was no similar salvage tug operation.

THE CAPTAIN was his first novel. It is fictionalized, but also autobiographical and based upon Jan de Hartog’s own experience starting out as a mate that quickly became a successful captain who survived years of rescue towing during the war.

Farley Mowatt’s stories about the steam tug FOUNDATION FRANKLIN built in 1918 and scrapped in 1949, and Foundation Maritime in GREY SEAS UNDER and THE SERPENT’S COIL are fiction, but based upon real tugs, people and events. Foundation Maritime became Halifax based Eastern Canada Towing which was later bought by Svitzer (Maersk) and is now based in Port Hawksby. Memorial University in Newfoundland has a nice scale model of the tug FOUNDATION FRANKLIN.


Grey Seas Under us a great book!