2016-03-03 18.24.02
Sailing on the high seas. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi http://www.carloborlenghi.net/

Eternal Father strong to save
Whose arm has bound the restless wave
Who bids the mighty ocean deep

It’s own appointed limits keep
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in Peril on the sea

— Phil Coulter

As a marine biologist and surfer I have spent a lot of time on and in the ocean. And while surveying the shore, riding waves, scuba diving, or being underwater in a submersible, I have developed a great respect for the sea. She is all-powerful, magnificent, unpredictable, inspiring, and terrifying all at once. And no more so when I am out at sea on a research vessel. Although it isn’t a big part of what I do, the few times I have experienced large seas and strong wind, or faced a step-ladder swell while surfing on an incoming storm, it is terrifying and I have experienced a sense of true surrender. At those moments you face the realization that you are helpless, the sea is in control, that you may die;  all you can do is surrender to its power. It is a completely sublime, humbling but ultimately a life changing experience.

Because of these experiences I have always had an enormous respect for those that face the sea it all its power: fisherman, sailors and explorers. So I have also been fascinated by tales of people facing the full wrath of our oceans, those that have descended into hell on earth and faced death but where someone survived to write about it. So here are a few of my favorite books, in no particular order, of those tall tales, unfortunately all true stories.

The Proving Grounds

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 26: Sayonara competes at the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race December 26, 1998 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Nick Wilson/Getty Images)
Before the Storm: racer Sayonara competes at the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race December 26, 1998 in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Nick Wilson/Getty.
Yacht VC is stranded off the South Coast after being dismasted during 1998 Sydney to Hobart race.
After the Storm: the yacht VC is stranded off the South Australian Coast after being de-masted during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race. They were relatively lucky. Photo: Unknown.

The-Proving-Ground-9780446611855 The Proving Grounds by G. Bruce Knecht is a sailing masterpiece, if one can consider 115 boats racing into a cyclone a work of art. In reality it was a huge disaster: the annual 640 mile yachting race from Sydney to Hobart in 1998 whereby a storm warning was called one hour after the start of the event. Beginning on a picture-perfect summer day, it ended up as one of the biggest sailing disasters in history. Less than 24 hours after the race started the fleet was shredded by hurricane-force winds and 80-ft waves. When it was all over some would be dead while others survived — all changed by the life changing event. It is a gripping tale, well written, insightful, and provides a personal look at the forces that challenge men to risk everything at sea. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Larry Ellison was lying in his bunk, calculating the likelihood that he would die…

Sayonara burrowed deep into each oncoming wall of water. Then, as if remembering it was supposed to float, it bobbed straight up to the wave’s crest. At that point, Ellison began to count–“one one thousand, two one thousand”–as the bow projected out of the wave’s other side, again seeming to defy the natural order of things, until such a large section of the seventy-nine-foot vessel was hanging freely that gravity brought it down. That motion, so sudden that it made Ellison think of a free-falling elevator cab, seemed to continue forever, although he had only reached “four one thousand” when the cycle ended with a violent crash.

This, he kept saying to himself, would be a stupid way to die.”

— G. Bruce Knecht, The Proving Grounds.


In the Heart of the Sea

Scene from In the Heart of the Sea, the movie. Warner Bros. Pictures.
Scene from In the Heart of the Sea, the movie. Warner Bros. Pictures.

The sea has more ways than one to be unmerciful. For the fury and vengeance of the sea can also be rent upon humans through its marine life and by its endless span of ocean. For In The Heart of the Sea, now a major motion picture, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the amazing tale of the whaler Essex, the true story that inspired the legend of Moby Dick. In 1820 the whaler Essex was sent out from Nantucket Island. Even then the traditional “fishing grounds” in the south Atlantic were mostly barren of whales so they headed to a remote spot in the Central Pacific where they encountered a large aggregation of sperm whales; a dream come true for whalers. [From what we know now it was probably a group of females and juvenile males, which means “Moby Dick may have been a female whale defending her young!] Of course you can guess what happened from there but the tale of the Essex’s crew is its own story — one that transcends the story beyond a whale seeking revenge — and lays bare man’s soul when faced with certain death. Philbrick’s fast-paced writing quickly pulls you into this rich, disturbing but authentic tale and he shows how random twists of fate can play out among men at sea.

“Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly and livingly found out.”

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

The Perfect Storm

A satellite image of the Perfect Storm Event, Nov. 1, 1991. Image from NOAA.
The Andrea Gail in the storm: scene from the movie, The Perfect Storm. Warner Bros Pictures.

Perhaps one of the all-time storm stories is The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, also a major motion picture. Driven by the need to have a profitable fishing season the swordfish vessel F/V Andrea Gail heads out from Gloucester to catch swordfish on the Grand Banks and eventually the Felmish Cap, some 575 miles out at sea. Unfortunately they navigate right into a freak of nature: a one-hundred year storm event . For the “perfect storm” of meteorological events involves a nor’easter that merges with a hurricane and ultimately evolves back into another hurricane that twists, turns and ultimately doubles back — its wicked and unpredictable path the very definition of the devil’s sea. Ultimately the storm produced 60+ foot seas and hurricane-force winds; a storm that was “perfect” it that it could not possibly be worst. Junger aptly describes the histories of Gloucester, the decline of the New England fishing industry, and the real motivation for heading out to sea under very unpredictable conditions. In addition to the Andrea Gail he describes the peril of other ships caught in the storm and the heroic efforts of the US Coast Guard in the face of impossible odds. Ultimately, it is an epic tale of man vs. the sea but one that illustrates the absolute power but gross indifference of nature.

“Meteorologist see perfect in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm.” 

― Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea


The Endurance, stuck in the ice in the Weddell Sea. Photo Frank Hurley.
A depiction of Shackleton approaching south Georgia Island in the James Cairns in 1916. Illustration from Ernest Shackleton’s book, South (William Heinemann, London 1919).


Endurance is far and away the best-ever story of ocean exploration, survival, and a depiction of man’s determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Unfortunately it remains an under appreciated story despite its universal themes. Although there are many great books and movies about the expedition (but surprisingly no major motion pictures) I prefer Alfred Lansing’s 1999 book as it remains a classic. Endurance is the story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to pursue the last prize in the history of exploration at that time: the first crossing on foot of the Antarctic continent. Days before the outbreak of the First World War, Shackleton and a crew of 27 set sail for the Antartica to attempt the brutal crossing but end up with a different ordeal that would last for two years. As they approached the treacherous Weddell Sea, they came within 85 miles of their landing site when their ship was trapped in an ice pack and eventually crushed. This story has it all: adventure, heartbreak, unbelievable sailing on treacherous seas, and the infallible leadership of Shackelton, a man who seems to defy the power of the ocean by sheer willpower and simply refuses to be defeated.

“Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.”

Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Additional Resources:


3 responses to “Peril on the Sea: Nautical Nightmares”

  1. Ito this great list, I would add “The Godforsaken Sea” about the Vendee Globe race… All of the craziness of your other choices, but people have to face the sea alone.

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