May 20 2011 5:00pm

The 11 Most Dashingly Romantic Ship Captains!

IoanGruffudd as Horatio HornblowerThey’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.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George SpeareNat 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.

The Captain of All Pleasures by Kresley ColeDerek 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.

Captive of My Desires by Johanna LindseyDrew 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!

Persuasion by Jane AustenFrederick 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 Follow her on Twitter @KellyFaircloth

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I really wanted to use this picture for Hornblower:

but held myself back because the rest of Team H&H would never let me live it down. But it doesn't count if I post an Archie/Jamie Bamber pic in the comments, now does it?

Anyway, great post, Kelly! Gotta love those sexy sailors.

I don't believe I've read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which is just sad, I know. So I'm totally gonna get on that! You know. At some point.
Leigh D'Ansey
2. Leigh D'Ansey
Hey, my WIP hero is a ship's captain so this is a timely post for me - thanks!
Susanna Fraser
3. Susanna Fraser
Mmm, Ioan Gruffudd. He's so pretty. However, I tried reading the Hornblower books after watching the A&E movies and couldn't get into them at all.

Jack Aubrey and Frederick Wentworth I love, though.
Leigh D'Ansey
9. Darlene Marshall
For me it's all about the nautical naughtiness, writing pirates, smugglers and privateers. But it's hard to make my fictional characters measure up to real heroes like David Farragut, the first admiral of the USN, who at the age of 11 foiled a mutiny by English prisoners aboard the USS Essex.

When they say it was the age of "iron men in wooden ships" they weren't kidding.
Leigh D'Ansey
10. ksb36
No list is complete without Captain Mal Reynolds. ;)
Leigh D'Ansey
11. donna ann
while james mallory's brothers-in-law are certainly worthy of this list, james is still my fave (lindsey, gentle rogue). agree with nathan (the gift) as well. great heroes = great books :)
Olivia Waite
12. O.Waite
I'm a Wentworth girl all the way and have been for years -- especially once I found the film version with Ciaran Hinds. Mmm.

Always wanted to date a dude with a boat, but never got to until I met this one tall dark-haired captain at a karaoke bar. We were married less than two years later. Just last night we flew back from a week of sailing a catamaran in the tropics.

So yeah, ship's captains. :D
Kelly Faircloth
14. KellyFaircloth
Glad folks enjoyed the list! It's best accompanied by the song "Brandi": (hopefully that link works in the US, and goes to the right song!)

And I'm hoping Captain Mal can appear another time -- I thought about including space ship captains, but decided they deserved a list all of their own!
Leigh D'Ansey
15. Pauline Baird Jones
Georgette Heyer's Beauvallet! What could be more dashing than taking on the Inquisition and all of Spain to rescue his lady love?
Leigh D'Ansey
16. Sheila J
Giving away my age here, but before Ioan Gruffold played Horatio Hornblower on the TV series there was the gorgeous, talented, and unforgettable Gregory Peck. Oh, those brown eyes!
Leigh D'Ansey
17. SusanS
You know, I'm glad you didn't use the picture of Horatio/Archie. Only because that is the scene where we see that Archie was shot and later....
Lynne Connolly
18. Lynne Connolly
Wait - you missed a couple out. One is a really big omission!
Aubery of Frenchman's Creek. A French pirate who loves Dona beyond bearing. There was a fabulous TV version starring the son of Alain Delon. If you haven't read it yet, go and get it now, without delay, do not pass Go, etc. It's by Daphne du Maurier.
For me, he beats all the others hollow.
And what about Captain Blood? Sabatini knew how to do a swashbuckling hero!
Olivia Waite
19. O.Waite
@lynnec: Oooh, Captain Peter Blood! Good call. :)
Leigh D'Ansey
20. daisymae
Captain Evans Hoyt...I think he is such a Sweet man and I'd Love to get to know him better....a little bit of innocent flirting isnt going to hurt...Who says the Captain cant date a passenger..?? A Relationship has to begin somewhere....
Leigh D'Ansey
21. Alex Moon
You know .. I have read (and re-read) ALL of the Forester, O'Brian, Stockwin, Parkinson, etc series, and found them them all wonderfully historical, rather accurate in detail, and great old friends. I just could NOT stomach the British attempts at Ioan Gruffeld as Hornblower. Nothing about that series adhered to the actual storyline. Too many liberties taken, too many characters playing out-of-character, unrealistic situations. Sigh ! Entertainment for teenagers, perhaps.
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