Cynan Jones's top 10 books about the hostile ocean

Shipwrecks, storms and unlucky fisherman – the mysterious power of the ocean is a haunting and reliable inspiration for writers. Here are some of the best tales of humans at sea, spanning fiction and incredible true stories

I live a few miles inland from the Welsh coast, near Aberaeron, and see Cardigan Bay every day. I usually know in my gut if the tide is in or out. I’ve netted the pools, know the beach here like the back of my hand and, when I can, spend hours on the cliff path. And there is the sea, always. Facing me. Asking questions, which are the beginning of stories. Like the story of Cove, my latest novel, about a man hit by lightning at sea.

I’ve been fishing and sailing, and kayak inshore, but most of my travel on the sea has been by book, not by boat. Here are 10 stories, not only about our battle with the elemental power of the water, but also about the riddles found in the currents and the sea’s hold over us.

1. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s enduring classic is the book I’ve reread most often. It is a simple story of a Cuban fisherman who has gone 84 days without catching a fish – until he hooks a giant marlin, far out off the coast of Florida.

It is an ancient, religious, fundamental story of epic struggle, of stubbornness against energy. It is also, for me, an example of the individual will to recognise achievement, regardless of witness. That said, every time I’ve read it, it’s affected me differently. That is its key power.

2. Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel García Márquez
Told from the perspective of 20-year-old seaman Luis Alejandro Velasco, and attributed to him when first published, the story was ghostwritten by García Márquez and presented in 14 instalments in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador in 1955. Márquez’s name was not associated with the story until it was published in book form in 1970, with its full title: The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor: Who Drifted on a Liferaft for 10 Days Without Food or Water, Was Proclaimed a National Hero, Kissed by Beauty Queens, Made Rich Through Publicity, and Then Spurned by the Government and Forgotten for All Time.

3. Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn
This is not a typo! These last few Christmases I’ve committed to reading a big book I should have read before – The Count of Monte Cristo, East of Eden and the utterly extraordinary Moby-Dick.

It was during a conversation about Melville’s masterpiece that Geoff from Pen’rallt Gallery bookshop in Machynlleth handed me Moby-Duck. Although sometimes waterlogged with too much writing, this book follows – or rediscovers – the plastic ducks and other bath toys that were washed overboard from a container ship in the Pacific in January 1992, revealing all manner of things about ocean currents and the habits of the sea.

George Clooney in the 2000 film adaptation of The Perfect Storm.
George Clooney in the 2000 film adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm. Photograph: Warner Bros

4. The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
When warm air from a low-pressure system collides with a flow of cool, dry air generated by high pressure, and this coincides with tropical moisture provided by a hurricane, the situation is ripe for a “perfect storm”. Such a storm is at the centre of this true account of the disaster that beset the Andrea Gail and its crew, out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, on a late-season fishing expedition in 1991.

Rarely has a book battered me with so many astounding facts and figures – how much power a lightning strike delivers, how long trawl lines can be, the numbers behind waves … I read this book a long time ago, but it remains vivid in my mind.

5. Close to the Wind by Pete Goss
This list wouldn’t be right without an account of a sailor travelling around the world single handedly. And there are many. But I have Simon from Aberystwyth Centre bookshop to thank in helping me choose this startling account of bravery during the gruelling Vendée Globe race, during which Pete Goss turned his boat into the teeth of a hurricane and sailed into it to rescue a fellow competitor. I’ll let Goss tell you the rest.

6. A Mile Down by David Vann
Vann’s account of his attempt to skipper a luxury charter yacht works because his writing is so good, honest and pragmatic. He is blunt about his failings, lucid – in retrospect – at the blindness of his plan, and his physical writing is compelling. This book, really, is about ambition as an ocean: a place of escape and loss and possibility. Vann’s ambition is to prove to himself that he will not repeat his father’s suicide, which hangs over the book like a dark cloud on the horizon.

7. Pincher Martin by William Golding
I (shamefully) had never heard of Pincher Martin. Then, in the space of 10 days, three people recommended it to me once they heard I had written a book about a man alone at sea. I bought Golding’s book straight away.

Happily, it was quickly clear that Golding’s third novel was nothing like my story. The narrative bulges and shrinks like the anemones Martin is reduced to eating and there is an ebb and flow in reality, with Martin dismissing terrifying events as hallucinations, as he fights to hold on to his sanity.

As the story continues, Martin also feels the drag of guilt, and an undercurrent of greed and personal ambition – to tell any more would be to spoil a virtuoso twist.

Jacques Cousteau with one of his underwater research vessel, the bathyscaphe Calypso, in Puerto Rico.
Jacques Cousteau with one of his underwater research vessel, the bathyscaphe Calypso, in Puerto Rico. Photograph: Thomas J Abercrombie/National Geographic/Getty Images

8. The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau

At night I had often had visions of flying by extending my arms as wings. Now I flew without wings …

As a child, I was fascinated by Cousteau’s account of his first scuba dive, off the French Riviera in 1943. What intrigued me most was his lyrical description of the life – and experience of being – under water. I was determined to be a natural historian when I grew up. Returning to The Silent World as an adult, however, I’m also struck by the basic human achievement, and the understanding that Cousteau and Parisian engineer Émile Gagnan did it all during the second world war.

9. Orkney by Amy Sackville
The draw of the ocean is often physical. But to act on that draw, for most of us, an emotional pull is needed too (much like acting on physical attraction to someone).

That emotional pull is at the centre of this elusive, poetic story about an ageing professor’s honeymoon by the sea with the beautiful young pupil he has married. The book is full of space and light, but – much like the ocean – Sackville’s writing is also brooding and hypnotic

10. Harpoon at a Venture by Gavin Maxwell
Better known for his later work Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell’s account of his attempt to set up a basking shark fishery off the Hebridean coast of Scotland is extraordinary. Once you navigate the discomfort of reading about the slaughter of big animals, and Maxwell’s stalwart upper-class approach to such an endeavour, this is a book full of wit, humility and a surprisingly modern respect for the environment.

  • Cove by Cynan Jones is published by Granta at £9.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £8.19.
Cynan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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