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Shipwreck A History of Disasters at Sea by Sam Willis - Book Review

By Edited Apr 28, 2016 1 2

Based on eye witness accounts Shipwreck A History of Disasters at Sea tells the stories of the many sailors who died as well as those who survived. The author takes us on a journey with the men who manned these ships, as he reveals where they went, what cargoes they carried, and how they lived on board. He tells us about strange sinkings at sea, and also about some of the wrecks recorded in great literature, such as the Essex, sunk by a male sperm whale, that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. 

Dr Sam Willis - About the Author

Sam Willis, a skilled and enthusiastic seaman, is one of the world's leading authorities on naval and maritime history. He is the author of numerous books including Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare; Fighting Ships - From the Ancient World to 1750; Fighting Ships 1750-1850; Fighting Ships 1850-1950 and the extremely popular Hearts of Oak Trilogy. 

Willis has consulted widely with clients such as Christie's auction house, the BBC and Channel 4, and has recently narrated Shipwrecks: Britain's Sunken History broadcast by BBC4, for which this book is the perfect companion. Don't confuse it with Shipwrecked, a completely different reality show broadcast by Channel 4.

 

Why Sam Willis Went to Sea

It's History, Yes, But Not as we Know It!

This book is very different to many other naval history books which give the dry historical facts, or perhaps I should say the wet historical facts? Dr Willis gives us the facts, accompanied by an enthusiastic and lively narrative as he tells the fascinating stories of famous and not so famous shipwrecks around the world. 

He cites examples such as the wreck of the Kyrenia ship, off northern Cyprus in 300 BC, the wrecking of the Essex in 1820, and, of course, the well-known story of the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII's fleet.

 

Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
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(price as of Apr 28, 2016)
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale [Title page]
Credit: Flickr. Public Domain, accessed 7.1.2014

The Wrecking of the Essex - An Event that Inspired Literature

Many of the events discussed in this publication were the result of aggression, while others were strange and bizarre accidents. Some inspired literature such as Herman Melville's Moby Dick in which he tells the story of the Nantucket whaler, the Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in November 1820 in the South Pacific. This was certainly a freak accident, only possible because of the sheer strength of the male sperm whale.

Dr Willis provides a detailed physiological description of how a whale is able to physically withstand such a huge impact without suffering a traumatic spinal compression injury. The whale's head has developed into a fearsome weapon, which he uses to fight off other male sperm whales during his search for a female. Willis says, ″the male sperm whale is a perfectly designed battering ram.″ Apparently, an adult can weigh up to 80 tons and is capable of speeds approaching 6 knots[1].

The Kyrenia Ship
Credit: Source en:Image:Cyprus 051.jpg Author en:User:Mgiganteus1 Wikimedia accessed 7.1.2014

The Kyrenia Ship

One of the most interesting wrecks explored in this book is the Kyrenia ship. In about 300 BC a fourth century BC Greek merchantman sank off the coast of Kyrenia, northern Cyprus.

In 1967, when the ship was excavated by an archaeological team it, and most of its cargo, was found to be in a good state of preservation. Since there were no reefs or jagged rocks in the vicinity it was hard to understand why it sank. 

We may never know for sure that happened to the Kyrenia ship but the author puts forward various hypotheses: 

  • Was the cargo stowed in a way that made the ship unstable? The ship contained a large number of amphorae which may have originally contained wine, evidence of bolts of fabric, and approximately 10,000 almond shells, the nuts having long since gone.

  • Was the sinking caused by bad weather? Unlikely, given that most seafaring went on during the summer months when the sea was usually calm.

  • Was the Kyrenia ship attacked by pirates? Possibly. Willis tells how archaeologists discovered iron spearheads embedded in its hull.    

The Mary Rose,  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MaryRose-ship_hall.jpg
Credit: the Mary Rose Trust, Wikimedia accessed 7.1.2014 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MaryRose-ship_hall.jpg

Henry VIII's Pride and Joy - The Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was the pride and joy of Henry VIII's great fleet.  Following a major refit in 1536 the ship heeled over and sunk shortly after leaving her home port.

Willis tells us the ship sank as a direct result of refits and repairs.  A new gun deck left the ship top-heavy and would certainly have contributed to her sinking as the sea rolled in through the gun ports.

In addition, she was carrying far more men, plus their equipment and supplies, than she had originally been designed to carry. 

The Mary Rose sank in the Solent on 19th July 1536 where she lay for over four hundred years. During that time the currents of the Solent washed away the entire port side. Lucky for us, but not for Henry, the ship sank when it did, where it did. Following a major salvage operation in 1970, what remains of the ship's hull is on display at the Naval Museum in Portsmouth. 

The Men of the Mary Rose: Raising the Dead
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A Good Read on Your Next Cruise?

Shipwreck A History of Disasters at Sea is a voyage through rough seas populated by vicious pirates where the most surprising things can happen. Willis' clarity of style makes these complex and dramatic events seem startlingly clear, and as you explore each wreck you almost feel the ship rolling on the waves and taste the salty spray in the air.   

Shipwreck
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Comments

Feb 1, 2014 8:25am
Moina-Arcee
Shipwrecks are fascinating to me. I enjoyed your book review. Nice detail and highlighting of the more unusual and famous wrecks. Well done. Thank you.
Feb 2, 2014 12:35am
Fran5050
Moina - thanks for reading the review. Glad you enjoyed it.
Feb 5, 2014 9:44am
hollylpotter
This comment has been deleted.
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Bibliography

  1. Dr Sam Willis Shipwreck A History of Disasters at Sea, p. 155. London: Quercus Editions Ltd, 2013.

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