Cast Adrift: How Does a Landlubber Write Sea Stories?

I have been a confirmed landlubber since the mid 70s. Not so coincidentally, Jaws was my favorite movie for years. I have no excuse for that. It just is what it is. Perhaps that movie is one of the reasons I live about as far away from an ocean as one can get in North America.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
author: Peter Rimar

I don't actually live in Rugby, ND, but it's
at most a day trip for me.
I can swim, in case you’re wondering. I just prefer not to be in a situation where I might actually need to swim – especially if there might be man-eating fish lurking about. Luckily, no man-eating fish where I am. (I’ve heard of Northern Pike biting people, but I’ve never heard of anyone actually being eaten by one.)

So why do my second and third books take place at sea? As importantly, how do I carry that off with any sort of authenticity if I’ve never actually been at sea?

Update: I'm currently working on book four. While it starts in Paris during the French Revolution, most of the story takes place on a ship. 

First the “why.”

I write stories about courageous men and women. To me, there is nothing more courageous than setting foot on a masted ship in the 18th century and then casting off, sometimes for months at a time. Setting the water and man-eating sharks aside, there are other dangers such as scurvy and the British for my heroes and heroines to consider.

In addition to courage, every one of my characters has an independent, even rebellious, streak. My books are set during the American Revolution. Rebelliousness sort of comes with the territory. Still, it always seems to me that life at sea in the 18th century take independence to a new level. As soon as your ship casts off, you’re cut off from civilization as you knew it. Landlubbers like Amanda Blakely, my heroine in Caution to the Wind, have to learn a new set of laws, a new culture and a new language all at once – or suffer the consequences.

Now the “how.”

It helps that I enjoy reading stories set on tall ships. Yes, I watched the movie Master and Commander and the A&E miniseries Horatio Hornblower, but I would have done that for Russell Crowe and Ioan Gruffud alone. I actually read the complete series as well. I’ve just started James L. Nelson’s By Force of Arms, the first book in his Revolution at Sea series.

Quick aside to romance writers. Don’t read Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forrester for romantic inspiration. They way they write female characters makes me wonder if they didn’t harbor some animosity toward our kind.

When I first read the Master and Commander series, more commonly referred to as the Aubrey/Maturin novels by readers, I picked up a copy of PatrickO’Brian’s Navy. This is an excellent reference book for writers because it shows the layout for various ships in the English Navy in the early 1800s. It also includes a lot of details about daily life in the Navy that can help lend authenticity to your work – or explain details if you’re reading someone else’s.

Luckily, I’m writing for a (mostly?) female audience who is more concerned about the romance than how exactly you "furl a sail" or what's involved in "running out the guns." While I strive for accuracy and authenticity, I can stop short of making it sound like a technical "how to" for sailing in the 18th century.

Finally, despite my aversion to deep water hazards, I have actually set foot on a ship. A couple summers ago, I went to the Tall Ships festival in Duluth and toured the Pride of Baltimore II, a small schooner of the type that might have sailed during the War of 1812. It’s no coincidence that Caution to the Wind takes place on a schooner. This experience gave me a feel for what my characters might see during their adventures and made it much easier to write.

During my tour, the ship was safely tied up at dock. Perhaps next summer I’ll find the time to go out on one of the chartered tours and feel what it’s like to actually be out on the water. It would probably be Lake Superior, and not the ocean, but close enough. I'll do fine as long as I don’t start humming the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Bon Voyage!



  1. thanks for sharing.

  2. Loved this article, MJ. You're absolutely right-- there is a danger inherent in trying to remain authentic... you may end up boring your intended audience! I think one way around this might be to work the romance angle by including a scene where one character is showing the love interest how various parts of the ship function-- and then have that part or function become important later on in the story.

    This would serve a couple of purposes: you are allowing your hero and heroine to bond, you are introducing technical elements to the audience and explaining what they do, so when these techinical thingamajigs ultimately FAIL during the thrilling third act, your audience knows what the full extent of the danger is. Of course, nothing needs to go wrong with the ship, but you know as they say, if you show a gun in a story, somebody better do some shooting at the end!

    There used to be a freighter in dry dock in Duluth-- I can't remember the name of it right now, but it was fascinating. If you really want to try something cool, head out to Bayfield, Wisconsin and cruise the Apostle Islands. Just don't sing Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in front of those superstitious sailors!

  3. Oh, and you had to go an mention Edmund. Now that song'll be stuck in my head all day!
    It's tricky to balance the need to get the details right with actually telling a story. They say 'write what you know', but if authors kept strictly to that, literature would be awfully boring.

  4. Update: The USGS has just updated the geographical center of North America to be a small town called Center, North Dakota. (The name makes you wonder if they weren't ahead of the USGS.) I'd keep the Rugby sign up if I were them.