Here we go, in no particular order, the books that should be on any sailor's bookshelf. I've grouped them very loosely; first novels, then books based on races, cruises, expeditions or life at sea and finally a few essential reference titles.

sailing books

Most sailors will enjoy reading about their passion, so a book makes a perfect gift.

Sailing fiction

We Didn't Mean to go to Sea
Arthur Ransome

Not as well known as Swallows and Amazons (which is probably the best place to start with Arthur's Ransome's great series of tales if you haven't read them - see our guide to boaty books for children), but this was definitely the most inspirational book of them all for me. The children are staying in Pin Mill, Suffolk and are offered a sail on Jim Brading's yacht as long as they don't venture beyond the Orwell and Stour estuaries. However Jim has to row ashore for engine fuel and fails to return (he is hit by a bus and ends up in hospital). The fog closes in and the yacht's anchor drags. Eventually the children hoist the sails and end up sailing to Holland.

Sailing books: Riddle of the Sands

The classic war-time thriller by Erskine Childers.

The Riddle of the Sands
Erskine Childers

This early example of an espionage novel is immersed in the world of pre-war sailing. It starts with Carruthers (a minor official in the foreign office) joining his friend for a 'yachting holiday' in the Baltic. I love how the story opens as his illusions of a fully crewed cruise on a glamorous yacht are firmly dashed by the reality of a budget cruising boat. As well as a great plot, the books gives a real insight into the social changes of the time, as well as being set in area that anyone who has sailed on the east coast or the Dutch coast will find familiar. Well written, it's always enjoyable to re-read this sailing classic that was also a huge influence in the whole the genre of spy fiction.

Captain’s Courageous
Rudyard Kipling

The story of a rather spoilt rich boy on a cruise liner, who falls overboard and is picked up by a Grand Banks trawler. The fishermen save him, but their catch is their livelihood and he has to learn some valuable lessons about life. By the end of the tale he is no longer a boy, but a young man. A brilliantly written novel to make you smile and cry. It's a great illustration of how being on a boat forces people together and has the power to bring out the best in people.

sailing books: fulcrum files

Mark Chisnell's riveting Fulcrum Files.

Fulcrum Files
Mark Chisnell

Living as I do in Hamble, and having such a love for Riddle of the Sands, I really rate this book. It's not a sequel to Riddle of the Sands, but is set at the outbreak of the war and the hero has read Erskine Childers' novel, which comes in rather handy. As with Riddle of the Sands, there's a good dose of fact underpinning the story, which involves a hero who doesn't quite fit with the social elite, and a romance running through the tale alongside the main espionage-style plot. I read it in one sitting and have enjoyed re-reading it since, especially by a warm winter fire.

Warwick Collins

Based back in the days of the Cold War, in the first in a trilogy of thrillers based on the world of the America's Cup, the Soviets have challenged for the America's Cup. The Russians win the first three races, until the novel's hero discovers that the US boat has been sabotaged by its own bosses. A very enjoyable read.

Games of Sails
Carol Cronin

Based on the world of Olympic sailing this is a well-written and very readable tale that transports you into the competitive world of Olympic racing, with a  splash of romance and a feel good ending. To describe this book as a 'romance' doesn't really do it justice. I loved the main characters in the book, the way they spark off each other from the start simply works and the story progresses in a way that isn't predictable and keeps you guessing.

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

We couldn't fail to include this classic tale of Captain Ahab's obsessive quest for revenge. It draws you right back in time to the days of commercial whaling and the realities of life at sea, written from the author's own experience at sea.

Titles based on life at sea

Cradle of the Deep
Joan Lowell

This story of a girl growing up on a working sailing ship is a wonderful read with sad and funny moments that ring so true. One of my favourites was when she couldn't understand why she wasn't growing hairs on her chest. A real insight into live onboard in the days of working sail, and of a girl growing up in a man's world.

Saga of a wayward sailor
Tristain Jones

The summer I was 17 I met a twinkly-eyed young chap who changed my life when he recommended this book. My whole family read it and it inspired my father to give up his day job and make his hobby his livelihood.

sailing books Maiden

Tracy Edwards tale changed the face of females in sailing.

Tracy Edwards

I am of a generation that was hugely inspired by Tracy Edwards stunning success with her all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now Volvo Ocean race), so this book has a firm place on my bookshelf.

Sailing Alone Around the World
Joshua Slocum

The memoir by the first person to sail alone around the world has provided inspirational reading for many generations. Slocum completed his incredible journey aboard the sloop Spray between 1895 and 1898.

The Magic of the Swatchways
Maurice Griffiths

The romance of the estuaries and creeks of England's east coast are explored in Griffiths' most successful book. The book tells of cruising in various yachts around the East Coast's shoal waters, describing the peace and solitude of the creeks at night in a bygone era.

Two Years before the Mast
Richard Henry Dana

This vivid account of life as an ordinary working sailor in the days of working sail is full of drama and transports you right back in time. Especially riveting are the passages describing rounding Cape Horn - it certainly made me appreciate my warm bed!

Essential sailing reference books

Racing Rules of Sailing 2017-2020
World Sailing/RYA

With a new edition of the Rules out (as happens every four years), it's time to refresh and update your knowledge. The RYA, as the World Sailing, Member National Authority for the UK, makes ‘National Prescriptions’, (which are variations to certain areas within the rules) and publishes them together with other addenda in this very handy, pocket sized, waterproof publication. This publication also uses coloured pages to quickly identify and access the section on ‘When Boats Meet’ to help racers keep out of trouble.

For other good boaty reads, see Best boating books for children and Top powerboat books.

Written by: Gael Pawson
Gael Pawson is the editor of Yachts & Yachting Magazine and the founder of Creating Waves. A keen racer, she has sailed all her life, and started writing about the subject whilst studying journalism at university. Dinghies and small keelboats are her first loves, but she has cruised and raced a huge variety of boats in locations across the world.