- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2010


By Simon Winchester
Harper, $27.99, 512 pages

Do oceans have biographies? One does now, thanks to Simon Winchester’s new book, “The Atlantic.” Mr. Winchester contends that the Atlantic Ocean is similar to living things in that it has had a birth and eventually will have an end. Both are described, as well as what has happened in between thus far.

The Atlantic was born in the breakup of the great Pangean supercontinent roughly 195 million years ago and is a relatively new ocean by the standards of our planet’s history. It likely will die when that great land mass comes together again to form a new Pangean supercontinent a few hundred million years hence; enjoy it while you have it.

Man’s exploration and exploitation of the Atlantic have been ongoing only for a millennium. Mr. Winchester makes a strong argument that Leif Eriksson’s voyages to the New World were as momentous as those of Columbus nearly 500 years later, but he admits that Eriksson never realized he had found a continent; he thought what he called Vineland was merely a large island. Columbus understood that he had found something that was not Asia, but it took later explorers to realize that two entire continents bordered a distinct ocean that would be christened the Atlantic.

Between describing the Atlantic’s birth and impending death, Mr. Winchester briefly chronicles the adventurous sailors who first explored this forbidding mass of water, which once was thought to lead to the ends of the earth. He goes on to describe the titanic sea battles beginning with the Spanish attempt to conquer England with the Armada and ending with the British rebuff of another Latin challenger in the Falklands war of the late 20th century. The British Empire eventually gained mastery of the Atlantic and the rest of the world’s oceans at Trafalgar, which remained the seminal naval battle until Midway, where Americans inherited the mantle of master of the seas.

The reader also will learn a bit about such things as Atlantic commerce, beginning with the Phoenicians and moving along to the present day. Mr. Winchester is also adept at describing the remotest parts of the Atlantic at their most storm-tossed and forbidding best.

Mr. Winchester’s love and fascination for the Atlantic began when he was a teen and booked passage on one of the last great trans-Atlantic liner voyages of the last century to hook up with a Canadian girl with whom he had become infatuated; apparently the fascination with the young lady faded, but the love of the Atlantic stuck. His experiences as a geologist, adventurer and reporter contribute to making his work an interesting and informative read.

Mr. Winchester was stranded in an ice floe on an academic expedition to Greenland and interned as a British spy during the Falklands war. His Argentine naval-officer warden while he was imprisoned later contacted him and took him to dinner to apologize for rubbing it in when an Argentine-launched anti-ship missile sank the HMS Sheffield, the first sinking of a British warship since World War II. Mr. Winchester’s yarns are not just sea stories; they are documented adventures.

If there is a weakness in this otherwise delightful book, it comes with the author’s discussion of climate change. He does not necessarily take a stand on the issue, but it detracts from the overall theme that man is a small and fleeting presence on this great body of water. Extreme global warming, whatever its cause, might marginally expand the Atlantic through polar-cap melting; nuclear winter might fleetingly cool it for a few decades. But it somewhat diminishes the author’s theme that the Atlantic was here before us and likely will be here after we are gone.

Mr. Winchester has a decidedly Northern European and British bias, particularly regarding the Eriksson-Columbus issue. However, he apparently has gained an affinity for the New World. In the near future, he will be sworn in as an American citizen, appropriately aboard the USS Constitution, which was never defeated in its battles with his native country. The British loss is America’s gain, but, after all, we are close allies.

However, the book hovers about a question that looms over us today. In many ways, Americans see the Atlantic and Europe as past, while we view the Pacific and its Indian Ocean sister as the future. Like it or not, we are an imperial power, and we cannot afford to downplay either theater.

Mr. Winchester is an accomplished storyteller who can blend science, economics and history into a fantastic yarn.

Gary Anderson is an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a retired Marine Corps officer.

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