Writing The Waves

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GRANGER COLLECTION

SAILOR BEWARE: A 1697 engraving of Captain Kidd wounding a mutinous gunner

In 1822 a young man named Samuel Comstock boarded the whaleship Globe carrying a trunk full of garden seeds. But Comstock was not a naturalist; he was a psychopath. According to Thomas Farel Heffernan's Mutiny on the Globe, he killed the ship's officers, seized the Globe and sailed it to a remote tropical island, where he planned to found a new kingdom — at which point, presumably, those seeds would come in handy. Not to give away the ending, but when Comstock and his crew finally reached their tropical paradise, let's just say the locals taught them a thing or two about butchery.

There are not one but two books about Comstock's exploits on bookstore shelves this summer — the other is Gregory Gibson's Demon of the Waters — which raises the question, Why is it that we landlubbers can't resist a good sea story, the wetter the better? Nautical narratives have been a cultural fixture ever since Odysseus set sail for Ithaca. Sebastian Junger's best-selling The Perfect Storm made them sexy again, and this summer we're being deluged with nautical tomes.


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Is this just the siren call of escapism? Or is there more to it: a kind of primitive, vicarious therapy? Deep waters seem to lead naturally to deep thoughts, and there's something about gazing into the ocean that makes us look into ourselves. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael heads for the open ocean as a way of dealing with depression. "As everyone knows," Melville observes, "meditation and water are wedded forever." With those fluid thoughts in mind, here are eight of the best and briniest sea books of the summer:

FANTASTIC VOYAGES. On Dec. 31, 2000, six high-performance, state-of-the-art sailboats set off on the first ever all-out, no-limits sailing race around the world. Melville wouldn't have recognized them: today's racing sailboats consist of two ultralight carbon-fiber hulls stuffed full of computers, with a trampoline strung between them for a deck. In Tim Zimmerman's account of the competition, titled simply The Race, stir-crazy, sleep-deprived crews sail these wind-powered funny cars across the sea at 40 knots (about 45 m.p.h.), swerving wildly around icebergs, battling e-mail viruses and pushing the boats to their limits — the vast sails are so powerful that they're constantly on the verge of tearing themselves apart.

Sometimes the greatest journeys are undertaken not by professional sailors but by regular folks, those of us who are, in Melville's words, "pent up in lath and plaster — tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks." Nathaniel Stone had a desk job at a newspaper in New Mexico when he made up his mind out of the blue to row from Brooklyn, N.Y., all the way to New Orleans and back; he took rivers and canals heading south (with the occasional portage where necessary) and hugged the Atlantic seacoast on the return leg. In On the Water: Discovering America in a Rowboat, a chatty, cheerful account of his journey, Stone faithfully records his encounters with bewildered locals along the way, although the best parts are the quieter moments, when you can almost hear the plash of a well-plied oar on smooth black water.

Thad Ziolkowski's On a Wave begins almost the same way: the author, marooned in a Manhattan cubicle farm, is inspired when a chance glimpse of a travel brochure summons up the memory of his younger, cooler days as a semi-pro surfer. His memoir of his surfing years is a sun-bleached 1960s period piece — a wistful, white-collar daydream.

DAVEY JONES' LOCKER. Not all journeys end with a happy homecoming. The Pirate Hunter, Richard Zacks' enthralling new biography of Captain Kidd, begins with the surprising news that Kidd wasn't a pirate after all. He was a bounty hunter, a brash, good-natured Scot hired by the King of England to harass pirates from his 32-gun warship, aptly named the Adventure Galley. At the time — the end of the 17th century — the open seas were a Casablanca of religious, political and mercantile rivalries, where loyalties changed as regularly as the tide. Kidd fell afoul of bad luck and malicious gossip, and he was convicted of piracy on trumped-up charges. He died a pirate's death: hanged twice — the rope broke the first time — and then drowned three times in the Thames, just to make sure.

In the wake of the Titanic disaster, the owners of the luxury liner Lusitania doubled the number of lifeboats on board, but when a German U-boat torpedoed the massive cruise ship one sunny afternoon in 1915, its engines locked at full throttle, making it almost impossible to get the lifeboats into the water. In Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, Diana Preston painstakingly reconstructs the catastrophe. The horrifying scenes she brings to life have the vivid quality of vintage photographs: a card sharp refused to leave a good hand (a pair of kings); the dashing, bow-tied millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt heroically handed children into lifeboats; the captain loudly insisted that no, the ship wasn't sinking; frantic swimmers were dragged under by the ship's trailing radio antennas; a woman gave birth amid the corpses and bobbing wreckage. In all, more than 1,200 people died. Even the U-boat captain who fired the fatal shot looked away in horror.

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