The Sea Shall Embrace Them

In the mid-nineteenth century two steamship operations, the British Cunard line and the American Collins line, vied for supremacy in transatlantic passenger and mail service. The Arctic, launched in 1850, at 284 feet the longest and most impressive of the Collins fleet, was soon making crossings in nine days and threatening to supplant the best of the Cunard ships as the most desirable way to travel between New York and Liverpool. It was commanded by James C. Luce, a seasoned and reliable veteran of the seas.

The heart of David W. Shaw’s narrative is the account of the Arctic’s return passage to New York in September of 1854, which culminated in a collision with a smaller French steamer, the Vesta, on September 27. The story is replete with ironies, one of which is the fact that despite the best efforts of Captain Luce only twenty-two passengers out of 238, none of them women or children, survived the wreck of the Arctic, whereas over sixty crew members did survive.

Those familiar with the 1912 Titanic disaster will be interested in the parallels. The Arctic’s invulnerability was taken for granted. Like the later “unsinkable” ship, the operators of the Arctic did not provide sufficient safety measures; for instance it did not carry enough lifeboats for everyone aboard. One notable difference is that the crew in the 1854 disaster generally behaved badly.

The author, himself an experienced seaman, makes extensive use of a nautical vocabulary but provides landlubbers with a glossary of the terms. He could take advantage of many newspaper accounts of the incident which included the versions of a number of survivors, but in his largely successful attempt to heighten the color and excitement of his narrative, Shaw also interpolates details that could only have come from his own imagination.