January/February 2011

Cover painting by Marti Cormand


HAVING DECIDED to write a book about the Atlantic, Simon Winchester found himself with a problem that took several years to resolve. There are vast uncharted expanses of anecdotes, histories, statistics, and observations about that great sea mass, but the question of how to organize them seemed as unfathomable as the thing itself.

The solution was in his hand luggage all along. A poetry anthology called Seven Ages had accompanied him on many journeys, and its inspiration — Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” speech, listing the seven ages of man — became Winchester’s own. It works.

The infant is represented in chapter one, in which the Phoenicians, driven by their desire for purple, make their first tentative journeys beyond the Mediterranean. They had overfished the murex snails at home in what is now Lebanon and found a new supply around what are now Morocco’s Iles Purpuraires.

The stories continue, through the schoolboy stage (hydrographic surveys), the lover (sea paintings and literature), the soldier (Atlantic warfare), and so on to the last chapter, “second childishness,” in which Winchester movingly discusses the “strange things” happening in the Atlantic today. The changing winds, the hurricanes, the receding of the ice.

This last chapter is framed by an adventure he and five other geology students had when on a Greenland expedition in early September 1965. They were cut off by ice, surviving on barnacle goose, polar bear, and ten packets of Weetabix until a boat arrived, a day’s walk away across treacherously shifting ice floes. Two of the students became Greenland experts, observing how, in the 1990s, the ice stopped arriving in that fjord in late August and now scarcely appears before October. No students would be cut off by ice there today.

This book is about looking at the gaps between. Not just between the continents of Europe and North America, and Africa and South America, but between ways of thinking and conceptualizing. How we have sometimes seen the ocean as a friend, sometimes as a tyrant, and sometimes we simply have not seen it as an ocean at all.

On almost every page is a fact to read out loud and share: the word aloof comes from the mariner’s term a luff, keeping away from the lee shore; it was the observation of similarities between basalt columns in Canada and the High Atlas in North Africa that led to our theories about Pangea and the breaking up of the continents; the first European recorded to have been born on the American continent was Snorri Thorfinnson, a Norseman, born in 1004 on Vinland, in New Brunswick; the North Sea is now officially the Atlantic too, which means the Thames is an Atlantic river.

Sometimes Winchester is the companion, whispering to you to imagine what things might have been like, how things might have felt. And sometimes he is the traveler, walking fifty miles in Spain, being imprisoned in Patagonia, traveling on a packet boat to South Africa, writing a message in a bottle to a drowned sailor on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Just occasionally his metaphors are clumsy — continents unzipping “not like a fly on a pair of pants” might have been improved — but usually they are delicate and telling. There are many lasting images, but the most tender for me was of the lambs on the basalt cliffs of the tiniest uninhabited Faroe Islands, their precarious, almost Little Prince-like existence on those elevated island peaks, innocents high above the imponderable seas.