Bella Bathurst’s top 10 books on the sea

Author of The Lighthouse Stevensons, the story of the Stevenson family who designed and constructed 97 Scottish lighthouses, Bella Bathurst’s latest book, The Wreckers, deals with the murky, mythic practice of wrecking around the British coast. Here, she chooses her top 10 books on the sea.

1. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

OK, it’s a poem, but so what? It’s long and narrative, and for most readers the Ancient Mariner has superseded both Homer and the Bible as the first and deepest source of all our sea-imagery.

2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The original, and still the best. Melville spent time both on whaling ships and a man-of-war, and it shows. His masterpiece is as much an education in 19th-century shipboard life as it is the story of man against leviathan.

3. The Depths of the Sea by R Wyville Thompson

Before the Challenger expeditions, the deep sea was seen as the dead zone; black, depthless, purgatorial. After the Challenger expeditions, the deeps were revealed to be as rich in life as a riverbed or a tropical jungle. The Challenger’s crew not only brought back evidence of life in the abyss, they changed forever the way we perceive and use the sea.

4. Records of a Family of Engineers by Robert Louis Stevenson

Though this is only a fragment, Robert Louis Stevenson’s brief family biography contains a treasury of fact and anecdote about the northern seas. His family were engineers who built all the Scottish lights, and Stevenson himself trained as an engineer. Part of the beauty of Records is its ambivalence; Stevenson loved and pined for the sea, but he also understood how corroding that love could be.

5. Seven-Tenths by James Hamilton-Paterson

Describing this as a book of essays on the sea is accurate, but reductive. Hamilton-Paterson takes saltwater as a starting point for a book full of strange and beautiful musings on the facts and myths of ocean life, from sonar pings to the deep-sea dead.

6. Coasting by Jonathan Raban

In 1984, Jonathan Raban took a trip around the coast of Britain in a one-man boat. Coasting, his account of that voyage, not only contains some sublime writing on the sea and its meanings, but also offers an acute new angle on our island life.

7. Woman Alone: Sailing Solo Across the Atlantic by Clare Francis

Francis was the first woman to cross the Atlantic singlehanded. Endearingly – and like Ellen MacArthur 30 years after her – Francis’s account of her journey is just as much a record of homesickness, discomfort and fear as it is of courage and lonely skill.

8. The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O’Brian

You can read this fabulous series of novels for advice on the correct use of spankers and futtocks, you can read them for their exuberance and humanity, or you can just read them because they’re compulsive and you fancy Stephen Maturin.

9. Lighthouse by Tony Parker

In the 1970s, Tony Parker – the godfather of British interviewers – went out to the edges of England to find and record the last generation of lighthouse keepers. The result was not only an exceptional insight into a singular breed of men, but an unrivalled depiction of life on England’s extremities.

10. Shipwreck: Photographs by the Gibsons of Scilly, by John Fowles

The novelist John Fowles wrote the accompanying text for this compendium of shipwreck photographs by the Gibson family of photographers. Their images of sailing vessels embayed on the shores of the Scillies or Cornwall are classics, as notable for their melancholy elegance as for their tell-tale details.


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