Adventures on High Seas: The Books To Read

Across the world, anywhere between 22-25 lakh seafarers work on merchant cargo ships, passenger ships and other types of ocean-going vessels. That’s a lot of people working on the high seas at any given point in time, and despite all the advances made in recent years in maritime safety and technology, accidents can and do happen. Things can and do go spectacularly wrong, and for ships caught unawares in a full-blown sea storm, there’s no mercy. People can go missing at sea. People lose their lives. On the high seas, situations can change dramatically very quickly – for ships caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be a high-risk environment.

Where danger lurks, you’ll also find incredible true stories of human courage and resilience. When nature attacks, man can often be puny and, in many ways, helpless. But the human ability to fight back tooth and nail, in the face of adversity, can be quite astonishing. Men who chose to fight back have survived storms that tore entire ships apart, they survived weeks and months alone, in tiny boats, with little or no food and water, and lived to tell their story to the world. Seamanship and courage seem to go hand in hand. For those who may be interested in reading some of these true stories of bravery, here’s part one of our list of the books you should read.

Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, by Rachel Slade

‘On 1st October 2015, Hurricane Joaquin barrelled into the Bermuda Triangle and swallowed the container ship El Faro whole, resulting in the worst American shipping disaster in thirty-five years. No one could fathom how a vessel equipped with satellite communications, a sophisticated navigation system, and cutting-edge weather forecasting could suddenly vanish – until now. Relying on hundreds of exclusive interviews with family members and maritime experts, as well as the words of the crew members themselves, whose conversations were captured by the ship’s data recorder, journalist Rachel Slade unravels the mystery of the sinking of El Faro. As she recounts the final twenty-four hours onboard, Slade vividly depicts the officers’ anguish and fear as they struggled to carry out Captain Michael Davidson’s increasingly bizarre commands, which, they knew, would steer them straight into the eye of the storm,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Taking a hard look at America’s ageing merchant marine fleet, Slade also reveals the truth about modern shipping – a cut-throat industry plagued by razor-thin profits and ever more violent hurricanes fuelled by global warming. A richly reported account of a singular tragedy, Into the Raging Sea takes us into the heart of an age-old American industry, casting new light on the hardworking men and women who paid the ultimate price in the name of profit,’ it adds.

El Faro’s entire 33-person crew was lost, mostly because the captain made bad decisions. But there is more to it. The stories behind the story include corporate mismanagement, chain-of-command traditions, personalities, low morale, job insecurity, and regulations that allow ‘grandfathering’ of existing equipment. Slade did extensive research and comes at this story from many angles. She is sometimes brutally honest in her assessment of the people and organizations that were responsible. There is a very personal slant to this story and Rachel spent time with El Faro families and dedicates much of the book to telling their stories,’ says BoatUS. ‘This well-crafted and gripping account lays out the circumstances which led to the deaths of 33 crew members of the container ship El Faro when it sank east of the Bahamas in 2015 during a hurricane. Journalist Slade frames the tragedy with a meticulous review of all the ways in which it could have been avoided. This is a painful and poignant narrative,’ adds Publishers Weekly. ‘A powerful and affecting story, beautifully handled by Slade, a journalist who clearly knows ships and the sea,’ says The New York Times.

Into the Raging Sea is available on Amazon

A Voyage For Madmen, by Peter Nichols

‘In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held and never before completed: To single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death. Gorgeously written and meticulously researched by author Peter Nichols, this extraordinary book chronicles the contest of the individual against the sea, waged at a time before cell phones, satellite dishes, and electronic positioning systems. A Voyage for Madmen is a tale of sailors driven by their own dreams and demons, of horrific storms, and of those riveting moments when a decision means the difference between life and death,’ says the publisher’s note.

A Voyage for Madmen is a book about boats and the sea, about wind and waves and frightening, lonely places. But more than that, it is about sad, heroic characters, and Nichols does characters like a novelist does. It is a wonderful yarn, told with passion,’ says The Guardian. ‘A well-detailed, fast-paced chronicle of the 1968 Golden Globe race, in which nine men attempted to sail nonstop around the world alone. Nichols chronicles each competitor’s boatbuilding obstacles and progress at sea, and he attempts to delve into the psyches of these sea-obsessed men by drawing on their personal logs. He reveals the shocking risks these men take – separation from family, loneliness, bankruptcy, and death – for Golden Globe glory. [The author] shows us what the combination of isolation, malfunctioning boats, and fear of drowning can do to a man,’ says Kirkus. ‘It is a dark and gripping tale, and although entirely factual in content, reads with the fluid ease of the very highest quality of fiction writing. Indeed, the actions and behaviour of these men, and certainly some of the craft in which they attempted the circumnavigation make one wish this were fiction. On closing the cover on the final page, one knows that one has experienced a masterpiece of not only nautical literature; there is something here for anyone with an inquiring mind, if they have an interest in the sea or not,’ adds DuckWorks.

A Voyage For Madmen is available on Amazon

Eight Men And A Duck: An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island, by Nick Thorpe

‘[The book documents] Nick Thorpe’s unlikely journey to sail 2,500 miles from northern Chile to Easter Island on the Viracocha, a boat made of reeds. Captain Phil Buck’s desire to test the waters in this pre-Incan boat was twofold: To reopen the controversial migration theories of Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed his boat the Kon-Tiki from Peru to Polynesia in 1947, and to have one heck of a time in the process. With a crew that includes a tree surgeon, a jewellery salesman and two ducks, Thorpe embarks on an unnerving Pacific voyage that is by turns fierce and farce: From the bungled phone call that triggered a naval rescue alert to the constant race against the inexorable sinking of the soggy hull. A story of high tides and even higher stakes, Eight Men and a Duck is a tale of friendship, fate, and the unlikely distances people will travel for true adventure,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Told in Thorpe’s addictive, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek style, the account is nearly unbelievable; from the trials of actually getting the boat launched to the final moments of the Viracocha at Easter Island. Once underway, the craft practically sailed herself for much of the journey. A good thing, as the electronics and generating system failed, one right after the other, and the sails were a pure experiment. Most of the drama comes from the interaction of the eight men and their duck mascot, together 24 hours a day for a month and a half. Thorpe’s maiden voyage as an author is wholly absorbing and completely irresistible,’ says Kirkus. ‘Thorpe’s British self-deprecation and eye for detail legitimize his passing comments on his fellow crew members, providing comic relief in an often claustrophobic text. A master of tension, Thorpe mingles storms, bruised egos, paranoia, food shortages, botched launchings, lamented loved ones and utterly inept seamanship into a tale of triumph against the odds. It’s a warm, wonderful book, a story of enthusiasm superseding expertise in which fate smiles favourably,’ adds Publishers Weekly.

Eight Men And A Duck is available on Amazon

A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean, by Sarah Outen

‘4,000 miles of unpredictable ocean. 500 Mars bars. 124 days of physical exertion. 3 Guinness World Records set. 1 incredible journey. On 1st April 2009, 23-year-old Sarah Outen embarked on an ambitious solo voyage across the Indian Ocean in her rowing boat, Dippers. Powered by the grief of the sudden loss of her father and the determination to live life to the full, Sarah and her tiny boat successfully negotiated wild ocean storms, unexpected encounters with whales and the continuous threat of being capsized by passing container ships. Along the way she broke two oars and lost 20kg of bodyweight before arriving in Mauritius. She became the first woman and the youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean. Life-affirming, funny and poignant, Sarah’s salty tale of courage and endurance will inspire the taste of adventure in everyone,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘People who don’t know much about expedition life, its highs and lows, or about ocean rowing will enjoy the thorough account of her four months alone at sea. I focused more on imagining how wonderful it must be to be in the middle of an ocean, alone, on a night bursting with stars, or a calm, flat day with not even a ripple. Moments like that would make the terror of capsizing thousands of miles from land worthwhile. I think! A Dip in the Ocean is an honest book about the ‘happiest and saddest and most challenging and rewarding’ adventure of Sarah’s life so far,’ says Alastair Humphreys, who’s himself the author of two excellent books on his around-the-world journey by bike.

A Dip in the Ocean is available on Amazon

Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska’s High Seas, by Spike Walker

‘When the fishing vessel La Conte sinks suddenly at night in 100mph winds and record ninety-foot seas during a savage storm in January 1998, her five crewmen are left to drift without a life raft in the freezing Alaskan waters and survive as best they can. One hundred fifty miles away, in Sitka, Alaska, an H-60 Jayhawk helicopter lifts off from America’s most remote Coast Guard base in the hopes of tracking down an anonymous Mayday signal. A fisherman’s worst nightmare has become a Coast Guard crew’s desperate mission. As the crew of the La Conte begin to die one by one, those sworn to watch over them risk everything to pull off the rescue of the century,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘In Coming Back Alive, Walker has crafted his most devastating book to date. Meticulously researched through hundreds of hours of taped interviews with the survivors, this is the true account of the La Conte’s final voyage and the relationship between Alaskan fishermen and the search and rescue crews who risk their lives to save them,’ it adds.

‘Walker paints the history, geography, and citizenry of Alaskan fishing towns with great warmth and evocativeness, and then turns his attention to extreme weather in the Gulf of Alaska. It’s a triple-digit universe: Waves over 100 feet, winds over 100 miles per hour, squall lines hundreds of miles in length. Unless you are in the maw of such a hellacious storm, the next most realistic thing is for Walker to describe it to you. Don’t be surprised if tears of relief flood your eyes after finishing any number of these death-dealing stories,’ says Kirkus. ‘Walker tracked down and interviewed the La Conte’s survivors and other participants in the operation, and his portrayal of the fringe existence of commercial fishermen juxtaposes society’s typical disdain for them with the loyalty and stoicism of these five men,’ adds Publishers Weekly.  

Coming Back Alive is available on Amazon

Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea, by Steven Callahan

‘Steven Callahan shares his dramatic tale of survival at sea in this undeniable seafaring classic. His engrossing first-hand account reveals how he survived more than a month alone at sea, fighting for his life in an inflatable raft after his small sloop capsized only six days out,’ says the publisher’s note. ‘Drifting halfway across the Atlantic and learning to live like an aquatic caveman showed me time and again that I am less an individual than part of a continuum, joined to all things and driven by them more than I am in control of my own path. Although the sea was my greatest enemy, it was also my greatest ally. I know that the sea is indifferent, but her richness allowed me to survive. In giving up her dorados [a type of fish, also called mahi-mahi], she was giving up her own children, so to speak, in order that I might live,’ says Callahan.  

‘Written in a diary format and with many illustrations sketched by the author, Adrift grabs the reader like a hook in a fish, with such clarity and earnestness that the story will linger after the last pages are turned. Callahan suffered much, as is expected, and his survival is extraordinary. His powerful will to live becomes purely instinctual as he leaves behind his reason and his sanity as the effects of starvation and dehydration, exhaustion and loneliness begin to take their toll. Callahan spent 76 days drifting across the Atlantic, and every second undoubtedly felt like an eternity, but reading Adrift is such an immersive and absorbing experience that the book is over way too soon. Out of his misery, a master tale of adventure is born,’ says Summit Daily.

Adrift is available on Amazon

Fatal Forecast: An Incredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea, by Michael J. Tougias

‘On   the   morning   of November  21,  1980, two  small  boats  set out  for  Georges  Bank,  a  lucrative but perilous lobster fishing ground off the coast of Cape Cod. The National Weather Service had forecast typical fall weather, and the young, rugged crewmen aboard the Sea Fever and the Fair Wind had no reason to expect that this trip would be any different from the dozens they’d made earlier in the season. But the only weather buoy in the area was malfunctioning, and the National Weather Service had failed to reveal this critical detail. And as the two small boats headed out to sea, a colossal storm was brewing to the southeast, a furious maelstrom that would batter the boats with sixty-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. A true story of catastrophe and survival at sea, this is a vivid moment-by-moment account of seventy-two hours in the lives of eight young fishermen. Most amazing is the story of Ernie Hazzard, who spent more than fifty terrifying hours adrift on the stormy open sea. Gripping and heart-pounding, Fatal Forecast is an unforgettable true story about the collision of two spectacular forces: the brutality of nature and the human will to survive,’ says the publisher’s note.

‘Located 100 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Georges Bank offers rich grounds for fishermen, but its deadly waves and currents keep many away. Eighteen hours into the journey, stormy seas assailed the Fair Wind and the Sea Fever; both crafts were taken by surprise, and while their increasingly terrified crews engaged contingency plans, a slew of mayday signals from other boats closer to shore threw the Coast Guard into a frenzy. Tougias sets sail for another passionately recounted peril-at-sea adventure, this time adrift on the unpredictable waters of the Atlantic in 1980. A blustery seafarer’s delight, rendered with gusto,’ says Kirkus. ‘As he narrates this dramatic, pared-down account of what happened to a pair of small fishing boats caught in the path of the devastating November 1980 storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Tougias smartly leavens his spare narrative with similar worst-case scenarios that resulted when other seamen miscalculated the sea’s wrathful power,’ adds Publishers Weekly.

Fatal Forecast is available on Amazon

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