The Most Famous Ships That Never Were

Recently I participated in a discussion on famous fictional ships. Given enough space, it is an easy task to list all of the noteworthy fictional ships in history. But what if you were space-limited, or could only pick a fixed number -- ten or twelve? What would you pick?

I finally generated my list of the ten most famous fictional ships, after considerable thought. It is a task that is harder than one might think -- try it yourself.

The list that follows considers only ships appearing in novels -- no ships appearing in ancient works, poetry, plays, or movies. This eliminates such worthy contenders as the Argo, Mary Gloster, or HMS Pinafore, but it served as a necessary boundary to keep the list down to a reasonable size. Besides, how does one balance the merits of The Nancy Bell against the Pequod against the Pinafore? Also, real ships that were used in novels were not considered. HMS Centurion, USS Bon Homme Richard, and RMS Queen Mary appear in many outstanding novels, but they are not fictional ships.

Given these guidelines my top ten list (with my justification) includes:

  1. Pequod: Captain Ahab's whaler in the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick. C'mon folks. Is there a more famous nautical novel than Moby Dick? Think of how many English students have suffered through it, and how many nautical enthusiasts have enjoyed it.

  2. Nautilus: Not the REAL submarine -- Jules Verne's vessel from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A classic SF tale that is also a sea story.

  3. Hispaniola: The ship used to seek Captain Flint's treasure in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. Set in the golden age of buccaneering, this novel is surprisingly young -- it was written in 1883. While written for children, it is a delightful tale for kids of all ages. It is one of my favorites, and has spawned more movies, plays and second author sequels than any other nautical novel.

  4. Ghost: Wolf Larson's sealing schooner in Jack London's novel The Sea Wolf. Another classic tale of men against the sea, and perhaps London's finest nautical novel.

  5. USS Caine: The four-piper destroyer converted to a minelayer in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny. Wouk's classic tale of the importance of duty produced one of the most memorable ships in history, to say nothing of a great Bogart movie and other theatrical reinterpretations.

  6. HMS Compass Rose: WWII "Flower"-class corvette in Nicholas Monsarrat's novel The Cruel Sea. Even people that have read the novel are surprised when you remind them that the Compass Rose disappeared in the middle of the novel. Do you remember the name of the second corvette?

  7. USS Walrus: The US Navy submarine that nails "Bungo Pete," in Ned Beach's classic submarine novel Run Silent, Run Deep. Other submarine tales have been written before and since, but none as memorable.

  8. We're Here: The Gloucester schooner in Captains Courageous which recovers Harvey Cheyne from the ocean, and upon which he achieves manhood. Another "children's" novel that can be enjoyed by everyone. Also made into countless movies. My favorite is the one with Karl Mauldin as Disko Troop.

  9. HMS Lydia: Horatio Hornblower's command in the first Hornblower novel that C.S. Forester wrote -- The Happy Return (or Beat to Quarters). This was the frigate in which Hornblower beats the two-decker Natividad -- twice.

  10. HMS Surprise: Jack Aubrey's favorite frigate, and star of several of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, both as a Royal Navy ship and a privateer. While there was a real HMS Surprise during the period, the real ship was a 36. Jack Aubrey's Surprise was a 28.

What ships were culled from this list? Quite a few notable ships. The list below gives ships I considered for the Top Ten, but eventually rejected.

Honorable Mentions: HMS Ulysses (HMS Ulysses), USS Reluctant (Mr. Roberts), HMS Hyperion and HMS Phalarope (Bolitho series), HMS Calypso (Ramage series), HMS Indomitable and Rights of Man (Billy Budd), Dawn Treader (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), Arabella (Captain Blood stories), Polar Star (Arkady Renko novel), USS San Pablo (The Sand Pebbles).

So what do you think? What would you include in a top ten list? What would you drop? Of course, if you want to do this task justice, you really need to do some research -- like reading all of the books just one more time . . . to make sure you have things right. Ah well, any sacrifice in the name of nautical books.

Mark Lardas
Palestine, TX

Copyright 1997 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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