COURAGE: A Novel of the Sea. By Alan Littell, Illustrated. St. Martin’s Press. 148 pages. $16.95.

It surely was not Vineyard Haven harbor waters lapping the beach near the Mary Guerin Inn in Eastville that inspiredthis thrilling sea tale. But its author, Alan Littell, spent childhood summers there. More likely, his later years as a merchant mariner provided the background for this story of the dangers of the enthralling sea.

Its main character is a 30-something Irish-American named John Driscoll who cannot get the sea out of his blood. Though there is a woman who longs to have him give it up and settle down, he cannot bring himself to do it. World War II has ended and few cargo ships are needed. Jobs for seamen are, accordingly, scarce, but Driscoll finds himself one.It is on a 57-passenger steamer named The City of Tampa bound from New York to Le Havre and Rotterdam.She is hardly a grand vessel, but he will, at least, be back at sea. Little does he know, however, what li es in store on that wintertime trans-Atlantic voyage.

Just about the same time that his vessel, The City of Tampa, is setting sail from Staten Island, a brand new tramp steamer that had gone down the ways on the River Clyde in Scotland inOctober is leaving Narvik, Norway with a cargo of iron ore bound for Mobile in the Gulf of Mexico. Hername is Achilles and she carries a crew of 35. The twovessels are d estined to meet in the North Atlantic in battering winds and seas.

In alternate chapters, each vessel’s journey is recounted and the crews of each introduced. There are seasoned mariners aboard both and youths falling in love with thesea and dreamingof one day being captains themselves.

Littell knows his ships and the sea well. “A parade of lofty combers swept at speed out of the west,” he writes. “Two of the whalebacks rolled under the Tampa’s hull; a third, high as the bridge, higher yet, curled capriciously, smashed down on the bow and plucked the unmanned lookout’s pulpit from its weld: tossing a ton of steel plate over the side-just like that! The ship sank into the trough. She burrowed her snout deep in the sea. She came back heavily, as cataracts swept with abandon down the foredeck and spurted alee.”

Littell, a veteran travel writer as well as a former mariner, writes equally vividly of the land — of Istanbul’s “strutting carpet men bedecked in gold,” of Bremerhaven’s “smell in the streets like the smell of fishing boats after the catch has been hoisted ashore . . . It spread through the city even as the hard winter wind blew south from the sea.”

Courage, a psychological tale as well as an adventure and travel story makes good winter reading — as long as one is before a cozy fire.

— Phyllis Meras