The personal character of the novel's antagonist "Wolf Larsen" was attributed to a real sailor London had known, Captain Alex MacLean. According to London himself, "much of the Sea Wolf is imaginary development, but the basis is Alexander McLean". Captain Alex MacLean, or McLean, was born May 15, 1858 in East Bay, Nova Scotia. He did sail mostly in the Pacific North West with his brother, Captain Dan MacLean. MacLean was at one time the Sheriff of Nome, Alaska. The MacLean Captains maintained their ties to Cape Breton Island despite having spent much of their lives sailing the Pacific Coast and do have living descendants.
London, who was called "Wolf" by his close friends, also used a picture of a wolf on his bookplate, and named his mansion Wolf House. Given that Van Weyden's experiences in the novel bear some resemblance to experiences London had, or heard told about, when he sailed on the Sophia Sutherland, the autodidact sailor Van Weyden has been compared to the autodidact sailor Jack London.
London's intention in writing The Sea-Wolf was "an attack on (Nietzsche's) super-man philosophy." Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are mentioned in the second sentence of the novel as the preferred reading of the friend Humphrey van Weyden visited before his shipwreck. The novel also contains references to Herbert Spencer in chapters 8, 10, Charles Darwin in chapters 5, 6, 10, 13, Omar Khayyám in chapters 11, 17, 26, Shakespeare in chapter 5, and John Milton in chapter 26.
The plot has some initial similarities to Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling in that they each have an idle, rich young man rescued from the sea and shanghaied into becoming a working sailor; however, the two stories differ widely in plot and moral tone.