Sailing Ships

Professor J. Holland Rose contrives for his book, Man and the Sea (Houghton Mifflin, $3.00), a motto in neat paraphrase of Vergil; —
Vela virosque cano qui vasta per aequora terras
Invenēre novas et opes mortalibus aegris.
The first two nouns tell in its most succinct form the story of why the wooden sailing vessel keeps to this day so tenacious a hold on the imagination of the race. The ships which men made were in their turn makers of men. They show the man at his best as creator; they show him at his best as the creature of his creation. One reason why there are no bad books about ships and the sea, and especially about the era of sail, is that such books are always the work of writers who appreciate this relationship. The intimate, profoundly disciplinary connection between the sailing ship and the man who either makes or sails it is a basic element in these three otherwise dissimilar books.
Man and the Sea is presented to us by the publishers as ‘a book covering the whole field of maritime exploration from the earliest times to the nineteenth century.’ That is an overstatement of a kind which inevitably results in disappointed readers. Professor Rose, onetime Professor of Naval History in the University of Cambridge, has given his book the really descriptive subtitle, ‘Stages in Maritime and Human Progress.’ He does not pretend to ‘cover’ man’s conquest of the sea. But he does very successfully represent and high-light it by grouping his narrative materials about a handful of arbitrarily Selected topics: the human and timeless reality of Odysseus as an authentic seaman, whether the Phœnicians really circumnavigated Africa, how the search for a vast nonexistent continent in the Southern Hemisphere brought gradually to light the true geography of the Pacific, how Napoleon failed in his attempt to control the sea by land power, how the advent of steam at last suppressed the slave trade — in all, twelve such topical chapters, with the emphasis throughout on great men who were first of all great seamen. Such a book is no satisfying history of the exploration of our globe by Europeans. Rather, it is a useful sort of drawstring put around that immense subject, coaxing it together into a shape for the reader who has devoured the actual literature of exploration without ever stopping to digest his impressions into chronology or coherence.
Gregory Robinson needs likewise a trifle of defense from the well-meant exaggeration of his publisher, who credits him with ‘accurate paintings and drawings’ of twelve historic ships from a one-master of about 1300 to the Bon Homme Richard of John Paul Jones. The careful author of Ships That Have Made History (Kennedy Brothers, $3.75) would be the last to file any such claim. What he has admittedly painted is a series of twelve highly conjectural restorations. For instance, of Pett’sRoyal Sovereign, launched as the Sovereign of the Seas, he says specifically: ‘No contemporary plans or models exist.’ The book is issued rather frankly for the twelve excellent reproductions in color. Nevertheless the author writes with a sardonic wit which deserves readers. One example of his touch: ‘The Indians of Darien conceived the happy thought of putting gold at the ends of their arrows, hoping thereby to tempt the Spaniards to stoop and, thus catching them bending, slay them with the more ease. The story stands as a humorous savage comment on a civilization which has lost its humor.’
The History of American Sailing Ships, by Howard I. Chapelle (Norton, $7.50), is a fruitful and stimulating book, one absorbing to several kinds of reader and indispensable to a few. Yet it too is nothing like so complete as the publisher’s description represents, nor does it pretend to be. There is, for example, no systematic or detailed treatment whatever of the intricate subject of rigging. The volume is essentially a history of cisatlantic hull design, and the field is covered in the only adequate way possible — that is, by the inclusion of innumerable plans to scale, supplemented with admirable perspective drawings by George C. Wales and pen-and-ink sketches by Henry Rusk. The point of view throughout, is that of a sane designer strongly inclined to deprecate the mania for speed at the expense of all-round balance which he traces through a century and a quarter of marine history before finally exhibiting it as entrenched in American yacht design to-day.
Mr. Chapelle annihilates quite a number of fond and widespread misconceptions. Among them are (1) the idea that the design of merchant vessels was a cycle of steady progress without retrogression, (2) that the naval vessels of the Revolution and of 1812 were ridiculously unwieldy and unweatherly gun platforms, and (3) that the clipper ship was either a product of trade requirements or inherently the fastest design ever evolved in the long history of sail. Though it is in large part technical, Mr. Chapelle’s book is an important, probably permanent, contribution to our maritime libraries.