Atlantic by Simon Winchester

TitleAtlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
AuthorSimon Winchester
TypeNon Fiction.
FinishedNovember 22, 2022
My Rating★★★★★

Forget all that nonsense about the Dos Equis commercial dude being the most interesting man. The most interesting person in the world is Simon Winchester; he’s been almost everywhere and knows almost everyone. While out on a boat on the way to South Georgia (in the South Atlantic) to study nesting albatrosses, a British naval destroyer, the HMS Northumberland,  rushed up on them and ordered Winchester’s ship to stop and be prepared for boarding to see if they have been illegally fishing. Turns out Winchester knew the captain. Instead of searching the boat, the captain of the destroyer puts on a high speed display of the capabilities of the state of the art destroyer. [Page 358]

The Atlantic Ocean formed 195 million years ago

“The great continent unzipped, though not like a fly on a pair of pants. It was an inelegant, jerky process, rather like watching a camel getting to its feet, went one part of the ocean opening, then another far away, then a portion of the middle, then another section in the distance, and then back to the middle again. The first waves of water washed the shores of eastern Canada and northwest Africa as they pushed apart from each other, almost at the very beginning of the Jurassic…”

Page 17

And will end in about 170 million years

“…there is agreement that in the end the world will have one continent, it will be surrounded by one sea, and all of the oceans that currently exist, the Atlantic included, will have long since ben consigned to history.”

Page 414

This book covers what has happened and will happen in that 365 million year span. Winchester organizes the book according to the ages of man monologue spoken by Jaques in William Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. [Act II, Scene VII, Line 139] : Infant, School-boy; Lover; Soldier; Justice; Slipper’d Pantaloon; and Second Childishness. [Preface, Location 452]

Winchester describes the geological, geographical, physical, historical, meteorological, commercial, and political impacts of the Atlantic Ocean. Man first ventured into the Atlantic along the African coast to harvest a type of sea worm which yielded a deep purple fluid for making dyes. But it took thousands of years before we sailed beyond view of the European or African coastline. He gives credit to Leif Erikson as the first European to reach North American; Erikson, whose mission was to build relations with the inhabitants of America rather than converting and killing them,  is a much more sympathetic historical figure than Columbus.

Any story including humans includes war. Naval tactics grew through the battles between nations, pirates, and slavers. 

“The war against the slavers and the ceaseless campaigns against the pirates did indeed help influence naval tactics by offering instruction to professional sailors in two very basic areas of oceanic fighting. These sailors became more adept at using the seaborne gun, which was in any case changing fast in its design and legality; and it also had an impact on just where in the sea the fights with this type of weapon would take place.”

Page 212

Have you had Chilean sea bass at home or in a restaurant? Winchester documents the rebranding of the fish.

“…there is the Patagonian tooth fish, which for some reason escaped the notice of the Russians and East Germans – until, that is, about 1988. That was shortly after this rater large (up to seven feet long), long-living (a tooth fish can live to fifty), exceptionally ugly, and exceptionally tasty fish was rebranded, given the newly invented name of the Chilean sea bass, and began to find itself appearing on the menus of white-linen fish restaurants in North America and Europe.”

Page 356

And of course Winchester covers the impact of climate change on the Atlantic. I did not realize the ramifications of the impacts on the currents that flow between the four bordering continents. But the largest impact will  be the rise of the sea level. 

“There are currently some forty climate-change-related construction schemes under way in oceanside cities around the world, most of them in the Atlantic.”

Page 389

“[T]he Netherlands, above all all others, is currently moving fast to ensure that the rising ocean beyond its massive seawalls does not wash the nation out of existence.”

Page 386

Before 2016 I would not give a second thought to a non-fiction account of either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. But I tagged along with some friends a few years ago to hear Simon Winchester give a talk. I was floored at his curiosity, eloquence, and story telling ability to start reading Pacific that week. That led me to The Perfeftionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World and now Atlantic. His books capture that same feeling I got when seeing him in person back in 2016. I’ve included extended quotes from the book in an attempt to give you a flavor of his style and knowledge. Do yourself a favor and read this book and/or any other of Winchester’s stories.

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