They’re not easy to love, but they’re certainly easy to fall for. Between the gold buttons and the scrupulous neatness and that slight whiff of sketchiness, there are many reasons to love a ship captain. Here are our favorites!
(Please note: We’ve left pirates off this list. We haven’t forgotten them—they’re just being saved for another day.)
Horatio Hornblower, The Horatio Hornblower Series
Captain Hornblower is certainly dashing enough in C. S. Forster’s swashbuckling novels. But it was the A&E movies that really brought the hero to life, starring the heroically jawed Ioan Gruffold. Sadly, the TV series ended before we ever reached the meat of his adventures, including his own, proper command and his great romance with Lady Barbara. But we did get to see all sorts of brilliant naval thinking and charismatic leadership — both key qualities in qualifying an officer as dashing.
Nat Eaton, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Elizabeth George Speare)
This Newbury-Award winner is a classic gateway to grown-up romances. Upon her beloved grandfather’s death, Kit Tyler is forced to leave tropical Barbados for dreary Puritan Connecticut. The witchcraft rumors start quickly and intensify when she begins keeping company with Hannah, an old Quaker woman. Through Hannah, she meets brave-but-slightly-rakish Nat Eaton. Unlike the pinch-faced locals, he respects Kit’s independence, and he eventually rescues both her and Hannah from torch-wielding townspeople. She’s courted by the town’s resident rich boy, but it’s clear she and Nat are a true match. Many a teen has swooned over their eventual declaration of eternal love.
Gryphon Meridon, The Hidden Heart (Laura Kinsale)
Gryphon Meridon doesn’t have a commission in His Majesty’s Navy, much less a command. Thanks to a villainous cousin, he’s also poor as a church mouse and deeply damaged by the tragic loss of his family. But he does have the deed to a ship and the loyalty of his men, and with a little panache that’s quite enough to succeed as a dashing merchant marine captain. Part of what makes Hidden Heart so memorable is how Kinsale uses Gryf’s position as a narrative device to make her characters travel from South America to England to the South Pacific and back to England. That taste of the wider world is a nice change of pace from the insularity of many regencies.
Lucky Jack Aubrey, Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian)
Granted, Lucky Jack Aubrey is a fighting captain, best suited to life on the high seas and prone to disaster when on land. He can’t manage money worth a hoot and he’s always hooking up with the wrong woman. That doesn’t make his naval skill any less impressive or the man himself any less dreamy. In fact, he seems to perform best when he’s back is against the wall, and there’s no enemy that can pin him down.
Derek Sutherland, Captain of All Pleasures (Kresley Cole)
Many of the captains on this list date from the grand era of oceangoing heroes, the Napoleonic Wars. Kresley Cole’s debut novel took a slightly different tack and set Captain of All Pleasures during the Great Circle Race from England to Australia. Rather than a frigate or a man o’ war, Captain Derek Sutherland commands a clipper ship, one of the lightening-fast style vessels popular in the 19th century. He’s a drunk and a rake and high-handed and magnificent.
Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, That Hamilton Woman!
These days he’s been relegated to the history books, but in his own time Nelson was among Britain’s most revered public figures. Wellington might have put a stop to Napoleon for once and for all, but Nelson gave his life destroying Boney’s navy at Trafalgar. His tactical skill and ability to deliver results made him valuable to the Navy, but he also inspired devotion and even love from the men who served under him. And if you’ve seen That Hamilton Woman!, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, you’ll know that he was wrapped up in a scandal and eventually tragic love affair with Emma Hamilton. He rapidly advanced beyond the rank of captain, but he deserves a place on this list, nonetheless.
Hal Lindsay, The River Devil (Diane Whiteside)
Unlike the rest of the men on this list, Hal Lindsay plies the Mississippi rather than the Seven Seas. The former Union officer served with honor in the Navy during the Civil War, but when the novel opens he’s navigating the Big Muddy on a riverboat. Heiress Rosalind Schuyler is fleeing an abusive, would-be husband when she’s lucky enough to encounter Hal, who sees through her disguise and takes her aboard. In their ensuing adventures, we watching him pull off all kinds of derring-do, from piloting through treacherous waters to dealing with Kansas City ruffians.
Drew Anderson, Captive of My Desires (Johanna Lindsey)
You know what’s sexy? American egalitarianism. Gabrielle’s pirate father sends her home to England to catch a proper husband. Instead she meets the rakish Yankee Drew Anderson, a captain in his family shipping business. He’s charming but infuriating, promptly causing a scandal that scuttles her chances at a decent match. But he makes up for it with his relatively magnanimous reaction when she takes him hostage and “borrows” his ship.
Nathan, Marquess of St. James, The Gift (Julie Garwood)
Sara Winchester really, really wants her husband Nathan to be a swashbuckling, oceangoing prince charming, the kind of man who’ll sweep her away from England and her overbearing father. The reality is a little different: They were married at the ages of 4 and 14 to settle a dispute between their warring families, and he’s more kidnapping than rescuing her. And then there’s his sideline in piracy. But despite his temper, occasional lawbreaking and sea sickness, it turns out Sara’s romantic image isn’t entirely off base. Nathan turns out to be as profoundly decent and dependable as he is good-looking.
Colin Danvers, One Night of Passion (Elizabeth Boyle)
Desperate to avoid betrothal to the lecherous Lord Harris, Georgie Escott puts on her most scandalous dress and goes looking for a man to ruin her. She finds Colin Danvers, recently disgraced and chucked out of the Royal Navy. After a single night, they part ways until a year later, when she finds herself on his rather well-run ship. Appearances, it turns out, were deceiving — the supposed rake is head-over-heels for Georgie and, what’s more, the court-martial was just a front for vitally important spying operations. A Captain and a spy — double dose of dashing!
Frederick Wentworth, Persuasion (Jane Austen)
One for the Janeites! Frederick Wentworth is the great love of Anne Elliot’s life, but she turns him down when her family decides a penniless naval officer just won’t do. They go their separate ways, both heartbroken. Fast forward a few years, and Frederick is now a captain, esteemed by the Admiralty and flush with cash from the Napoleonic War. He keeps a cool head in a crisis, and he’s remarkably gracious to the Elliots considering his shabby treatment years before. And most of all, he’s as constant as the sun:
"I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
Who did we forget? Did we leave off a modern exemplar of the form, perhaps? Add your personal favorite in the comments.
By day, Kelly Faircloth covers innovation and technology. She spends the rest of her time reading and writing about books. Her work has appeared at io9, Inc and The Big Money, and she blogs intermittently atwww.NoKindaLady.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyFaircloth.