Simon Winchester




Date Reviewed:

July 10, 2020

hat a great book Atlantic is. It collects a host of interesting stories about the Atlantic ocean, it is full of history, geography and science. It seems every other page serves up a surprise, a piece of information that I had not known before

Here is an example of the surprising information: on December 6th, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax harbor. One was the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship carry a cargo of high explosives. The Mont-Blanc caught fire, which resulted in such a devastating explosion that 1800 people died and the entire north end of the city was leveled. When the Manhattan project was underway during WWII, researchers were sent to Halifax to study the effect of enormous explosions on a city, to see what amount of destruction an atomic bomb might cause.

In the warm ocean waters exists a blue-green algae called Prochlorococcus. This creature is so tiny that 100,000 can exist in a single cubic centimeter of sea water, but it is so abundant that it might be the most common creature on earth. Yet its existence was entirely unknown until a grad student discovered it in 1986. It is estimated that Prochlorococcus produces 20% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. If anything threatened the existence of these creatures, it would have dire implications for all animal life on our planet.

In the thirteenth century, an enterprising company of merchants set up the Hanseatic League - a network of trading around the Baltic and North sea whose primary commodity was salt fish. The successful Hanseatic League was highly profitable and lasted 400 years. (When we visited Norway, we saw the UNESCO preserved row houses of the Hanseatic traders on the Bergen waterfront.) London was the western-most port in the Hanseatic league. So reliable and trustworthy were the easterling traders that Londoners used the word easterling to mean solid reliability - this was eventually shortened to the word "sterling", which is still used today.

At the end of the last ice age, an enormous lake was created from the melting ice. These waters were trapped behind dams of glacial ice, eventually the accumulated amount of lake water was equivalent to the volume of fifteen Lake Superiors. This proglacial inland sea was called Lake Agassiz - it stretched across Manitoba, Ontario, North Dakota, Minnesota and Saskatchewan, covering 170,000 square miles. When the ice dams melted and the water burst free about 8000 years ago, a tremendous outpouring of water caused sea levels around the world to rise by about a meter. Proto-civilizations as far away as the Black Sea were forced to retreat back from the shore, which may be the source of Biblical tales about the Great Flood.

Atlantic is full of information like that. Winchester covers pirates on the Spanish Main, the laying of the Trans-Atlantic cable, the collapse of the "inexhaustable" cod fisheries at the Great Banks, Leif Erikson, the first intrepid Phoenician sailors who left the relatively safety of the Mediterranean waters to venture out onto the dangerous Atlantic waves - they took these risks in search of a mollusk called murex, from which a much-prized rich purple dye could be extracted. Winchester writes about Lord Nelson, the slave trade, the great difficulty that the early European explorers faced trying to sail around the dangerous waters of Cape Bojador in their quest to circumnavigate Africa and find a way to the spice islands. The origins of container shipping are explained, the battle of Merrimac and the Monitor, Samuel Morse's wireless transmitter, continental drift, the Titanic and the Lusitania, whaling, the shipwreck that inspired Shakespeare to write the Tempest, global warming - Winchester covers a lot of ground. I always thought that Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, but actually it was first crossed on a nonstop flight in 1919 by Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who flew a long range Vickers biplane from Newfoundland and crash landed in an Irish bog (while carrying two black cats named Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim and 865 gallons of fuel in the converted bomb bay) after 14 and 1/2 hours of flight. Both were knighted for their deed.

Winchester must lead an extraordinary life. He mentions personal stories at various times through out the book. He tells us how was imprisoned in Argentina during the Falkland Island war. There is a story about being stranded by pack ice on the east coast of Greenland, he and his party were forced to clamber over miles of dangerous ice to reach a small boat that took them back to civilization. Winchester happens to be on a Russian cargo ship sailing into the Falkland islands in 1965 when his ship is hailed by the deputy governor, who turns out to be a long time friend of his. The most interesting personal story is at the very end of the book. There was a tragic ship wreck along the dangerous Skeleton Coast of Namibia during WWII, and Winchester decides to visit the site (for no apparent reason). So a small band of adventures set out on a harrowing journey across desert wasteland. Eventually, they find the remains of the ship wrecks, and nearly come to grief themselves when the rushing tide nearly engulfs their jeep. Winchester should write an autobiography, he must have a ton of stories to tell.

One thing I didn't understand in this whole narrative about the Atlantic, is the absence of discussion of the Pacific. It has always been my impression that as the continents separate and then reform back into Pangea (giving birth to the Atlantic ocean, and eventually leading to its disappearance in a few hundred million years) that the Pacific ocean has always existed. It expands or contracts as the continents slide around the globe, but unlike the Atlantic, I thought that the Pacific was eternal. I see that Winchester has written a book called Pacific - it must be the campaign volume to Atlantic. If it is half as entertaining and informative at this book is, then Pacific will be well worth reading.