BOOK REVIEW: ‘Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean

Author: Dag Pike

Total Number of Pages: 222

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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In Winds, Currents and Wild Seas, the introductory chapter to this volume, the author describes a close encounter he had with a storm in the North Atlantic [or ‘Western’] Ocean. He concludes ‘…The experience taught me to observe due reverence and respect for the Western Ocean, a wild stretch of sea that for centuries has been both a route for commerce and a barrier to trade’. Although the Atlantic Ocean actually has two sections (‘North’ and ‘South’) this book is primarily about its Northern section and, delivered with ‘Due reverence and respect’, it details mankind’s battle with what the author terms ‘The world’s Toughest Ocean’. It is a fascinating read.

The volume is prefaced with an Acknowledgements section in which the author thanks those who assisted him in its writing. Unusually, he also thanks ‘…The millions of people who have crossed the Atlantic in a variety of ships and boats…’; for this Reviewer, a nice touch. The twelve Chapters forming the main part of the book then follow. The previously-mentioned Chapter 1 (Winds, Currents and Wild Seas) acts as both a precis for the volume and a scene-setter for what is to come. In addition to the author’s personal narrative (and as the title suggests), it also details the geographical and atmospheric phenomena which contribute to the whole ‘Toughest Ocean’ appellation. Effectively, it acts as a base for what follows.  The geography and phenomena thus established, Chapters 2-9 narrate the maritime history of the ocean, and traces the exploration and exploitation of the North Atlantic Ocean over many centuries. The technological developments that occurred during this period are also explored, while the at-times bizarre attempts by individuals and groups to cross the ocean under their own power and for their own reasons are also investigated and assessed. Chapter 10 (An Ocean in Turmoil) returns again to the theme of the North Atlantic’s weather and waves, with the author’s personal experiences again adding a human touch to the narrative. Perhaps inevitably, Chapter 10 is followed by another Chapter (Number. 11) titled Disasters on the Atlantic. Within this the expected names appear (RMS Titanic being one such example), together with other, lesser known, vessels, their common theme being that they all fell victim to the ocean’s wrath. Chapter 12 (The Future) is the final part of the volume’s main section. In it the author reflects on future possibilities and liabilities associated with the Atlantic Ocean, offering his thoughts about the sea, ship design and human nature while so-doing. A Select Bibliography placed after Chapter 12 records the sources used when writing this book, while a six-page Index completes it.  The volume contains a large number of monochrome prints, and black and white and colour photographs (some sourced, the majority not), together with an assortment of Maps, Plans Diagrams, Charts and Tables that relate to the narrative. While informatively captioned, the existence the Maps, plans etc. is not noted on either the Index or Contents pages. Unusually, and  although there is a ‘local’ map (Captioned ‘The North Atlantic Ocean stretches from the Tropics to the Arctic’) there is no Mercator-type expanded global map to precisely-fix the Atlantic Ocean’s location on Planet Earth. For this reviewer, it is an unhelpful omission. Unfortunately there is also no Glossary to enlighten non-maritime readers as to the meanings of the nautical terms that the book contains. What (for example) is an ‘Astrolabe’ (page 29)? In the absence of an informative description, a reader cannot know.

While well written and informative, for this reviewer, this book was let down in several areas. Numerous unsourced quotes appear within it (Alain Gerbault’s on pages 102-103 being but one example), but with no supporting citations, their authenticity is inevitably suspect, and they have little value to researchers. The Index should also be treated with some caution. A random ‘Index’ search for La Dauphin (page 27) and  Mary Celeste (page 195) found nothing, while curiously, although the Flying Enterprise (page 197) was also missing from the Index, her captain (Curt Carlson) appears within it. As these ‘errors’ were found during a random search, there is no way to know what else may be missing, and (at least for this reviewer), the authority of the Index is now in doubt. Small grammatical errors were also noticed.

This volume is eminently readable, there being no doubt that the author of knows his subject. As a result (and despite the previously mentioned ‘failings’), it is likely to have broad appeal. It likely to be of interest to both Historians with an interest in ‘Things maritime’ and the ‘Weekend sailor’ who just wants to read and learn more about the ocean at his doorstep.  Those who love ‘ships and the sea’ in a more general way are also likely to find this book of interest, while a reader looking for something for a wet Sunday afternoon, will probably find it worthy of their attention. Ship modellers may also find some of the images of use.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent I have given this volume an 8.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Taming the Atlantic: The History of Man’s Battle with the World’s Toughest Ocean’