By: Lana Haffar
Grime, putrid and ancient, coats your shoes and your lungs. The wind bites and the salt spray stings your face and arms. Below you, the water churns in primordial agony. Around you, sunburnt tourists in cargo shorts enjoy a perfectly temperate afternoon. But to an eight-year-old, that catamaran in San Francisco Bay is a vessel. As I stood at that prow, I was Nemo, Ahab, Barbarossa, manning the ropes and conquering the unconquerable. In doing so, I joined a grand imaginative tradition of seafaring intimately linked with storytelling.
Water, in its vitality and power, spawned flood myths in countless global cultures. One of the oldest recorded narratives, The Tale of a Ship-Wrecked Sailor, dates back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. And high school classrooms everywhere still wade through Homer’s Odyssey. But though humans have been grappling with the seas for millenia, nautical fiction as a modern genre coalesced during the era of Western colonialism, when a dirge of British and American novels flooded the literary landscape. Classic novels of the period, such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1740), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot (1821), are imbued with the hallmark attitudes of imperialism. As the crews of these ships journeyed abroad, they battled “savage populations” and led with their sword points. They were voyeurs in “foreign lands,” brave conquerors who delighted European audiences with their colonial authority. Figures of hypermasculinity stood at the prow, subduing the elements and effeminizing their enemies. Yet, despite these troubling themes, the novels themselves are complex. I believe there’s texture in them worth exploring. But if nautical fiction epitomizes male dominance, white supremacy, and imperial exploitation, what, then, is the modern reader to do with the genre?
“…I realized that these writers had pulled a fast one on me! I was not on Marlowe’s boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness; rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank making horrid faces.” – Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child.”
When Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse barreled onto screens in 2019, I was once again reminded of my love for all things maritime. From rereading Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn” to watching Ben Stiller’s exploits on a Greenlandic fishing vessel in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), fantasies of joining a crew of deckhands and dockworkers buoyed me in low moments. The freedom was intoxicating. If I could just charter a ship, raise the sails, and leave everything behind, I wouldn’t have to trudge to algebra, apply to college, and join the rat race. Among the brine and the bilge, I would find myself. To this day, I’m happiest when I’m on a boat, feeling the waves crest under me. Always, though, the admonition: this dream does not love you back. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her Unabridged Journals:
“My consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers … all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl … My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them … I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”
For many, this naval fascination has barriers to entry. Though Moby-Dick, 20,000 Leagues, Treasure Island, and the like are lauded as universal, bucket-list books, if you can imagine yourself on the threatening end of a ship crew’s flintlocks and cannonballs, true immersion can be harder. For non-white readers with intimate family ties to recent colonial histories, what incentive is there to root for the captain whose victory depends on brutal subjugation? And in a genre that often prizes violent domination over female-identified characters, such as sirens, goddesses, and even the ocean herself, is reading maritime fiction not a reminder of constant vulnerability?
These concerns are real and consequential. And yet, we read on, we read about swashbuckling and storms, about men battling waves and whales and undergoing metamorphoses. We admire clever language and analyze latent themes. Because just like water, our identities are malleable. In our boundlessness, our assigned societal roles don’t constrain us. We are all equally entitled to the allure of the sea, and one can saturate these existing texts with personal symbolism that feels true and relevant. In a decolonial voyage, we can seep into a text and absorb only that which suits our own soul.
Contemporary writers continue to see rhetorical potential in the sea. Adrienne Rich, in her poem “Diving Into the Wreck” (1973), likens a scuba expedition to an exploration of gender identity. Her solitary narrator states,
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.
Expanding on the tradition of nautical fiction as a genre of adventure, Rich treats this endeavor with gravity and mystery, as gripping as Nemo’s trials on the Nautilus. Like the hardened sea captains of old, the poem’s narrator prepares to take the lonely plunge into the unknown depths of their psyche.
Caden Bosch, the protagonist of Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep (2015), takes a plunge of his own. Aboard a ship destined for the deepest point in the ocean, Caden wrestles with shipmates and sea monsters. Gradually, Shusterman reveals that Caden is actually struggling with his burgeoning schizophrenia, and his mental odyssey is a method of rationalization. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) plays with reality and unreality as well, operating as both a naval adventure and a psychological one. With all the physical elements of a maritime saga—a wreck, a raft, an island—Pi also reckons with faith and self-identity in the mode of naval protagonists, like Captain Ahab, before him.
The versatility, flux, and raw power of the ocean, as well as the challenges it throws at us, serve as imaginative fodder for endless new stories. In animation, films such as Ponyo (2008) and Moana (2016) have drawn from established folklore to highlight non-Western seafaring traditions and maritime myths. And retroactively, creators can insert themselves into narratives that have previously excluded them. We all fell in love with Elizabeth Swann and Anamaria in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and just by their presence, a map of future possibilities unfurled. Most recently, the HBO series Our Flag Means Death promises a comedic take on the Golden Age of Piracy, complete with a diverse cast of emotionally complex shipmen. By adopting the charms of nautical fiction—the settings, the clothing, the drama—and transforming them for personal use, we expand the value of the genre.
Increasingly, there are reminders that life on the water is brutal. Broiling in the sun, dehydrated, weakened—the protagonists of maritime books knew filth and pain. This pain is no less relevant now, as boats perilously transport refugees across the Mediterranean. Or as floodwaters destroy communities and turn land into sea. Just like the truth of seamanship, this stuff is biting and cruel. But it generates books like David Eggers’ Zeitoun or pivotal moments in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. When the tides rise, so does human creativity. It’s no merry fantasy, no Mutiny on the Bounty, but its function is the same: to survive and overcome.
Because that’s a true constant: we’re good at adaptation. To draw from Whitman, as we “ebb with the ocean of life,” there is bounty to be found in the narratives of others, historically complicated as they may be. In reading nautical works, part of our mission may be navigating the complex emotions that arise. But if little Matilda can excitedly read out the words, “Call me Ishmael…”, poised to become Ahab herself, then there may be something to find for us yet. Our own white whales; our own quests. And as we are continually reminded of the universality and necessity of the high seas, and the threat that their power holds, we’ll prepare for new voyages, both in literature and beyond.