They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end. Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. Psalms, 107:23-30, KJV
The ships have gotten bigger and bigger, but there are fewer and fewer people that earn their living from the sea. How many people do you know that travel upon the water for their livelihood? It is sort of like farming; once nearly everyone made their living from the land, but we are down to one or two percent at this point. The jolly tar and salt-sea sailor are endangered species.
If there are fewer people than ever plowing the oceans, still the literature of the sea holds us in its grip. At the moment I am in the process of building a book list, Adventures on the High Sea. I knew there were going to be a lot of good candidate books when I started, but even so I have been taken aback by just how many there are. It seems every time I cast my mind to the list, I have thought of four or five more that I had overlooked.
What is it that holds our fascination so long after we have separated ourselves from the sea other than when we, lemming like, go down to the sea in summer, to wash away some of our city living and reconnect to that ancient body of water?
They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.
D.H. Lawrence "Whales Weep Not!"
Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Perhaps it is the ancestral sea from which we all emerged. It is said that the chemistry of our blood, in its mineral elements, matches that of the sea. Perhaps it is that for so many thousands of years we never strayed far from the shore. For the first twenty thousand years after emerging from Africa, modern man survived by living close to the shoreline, gathering sustenance from land and sea.
We are as near to heaven by sea as by land.
Last words of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (see Thing Finder)
Perhaps it is simply that the sea lends itself to great stories. A tale set at sea combines confined spaces on open waters, hierarchical control of the ship yet at the mercies of the unpredictable elements, the struggle for survival not only against the elements but often against fellow man, and the chance for nobility to be displayed in the face of peril (See Thing Finder for the story of the HMS Birkenhead). And always the peril, the ever-present danger.
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. . . . He who would go to sea by choice would go to hell for recreation.
Samuel Johnson in Boswell's Life
A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for.
Grace Murray Hopper
A great ship asks deep water.
Herman Melville uses this primeval attraction of the sea at the very beginning of his novel to launch Moby Dick.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
Whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul;
Whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing
before coffin warehouse,
And bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;
And especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me
that it requires a strong moral principal to prevent me
from deliberately stepping into the street,
and methodically knocking people's hats off - then,
I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can
There is plenty of material for a speculative dissertation, but whatever its source, the tie between man and sea still exists, still fascinates. Stories, true and fictional, are still being written. Below is the barest smattering of books to do with the sea. Check out the book list Adventures on the High Sea for a more complete and ever growing list.
Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone
The Little Ships by Louise Borden
Arabella by Wendy Orr
The Edmund Fitzgerald by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen
The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon
Shipwrecked The True Adventures of Japanese Boy by Rhoda Blumberg
Powder Monkey by Paul Dowswell
The Story of the H.L. Hunley and Queenie's Coin by Fran Hawk and illustrated by Dan Nance
Midshipman Bolithio by Alexander Kent
The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer
Endurance Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
In the Heart of the Sea The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk