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Review A man and his ship Steve Ujifusa

"A Man and His Ship," 2012 by Steve Ujifusa, Simon and Schuster

William Francis Gibbs fell in love with ocean liners on Nov. 13, 1894, when he was an 8-year-old watching the newly christened steamship St. Louis slide into the Delaware River. He devoted the rest of his life to dreaming up and building bigger and better liners himself, culminating with the S.S. United States.

"A Man and His Ship" is the story of a Gibbs' passion and tunnel vision, which leads to great success (and sometimes epic failure) and helps revolutionize an industry.

But for any reader born many years after World War II, the book also is an intriguing look at an era about which we know little: when international travel meant boarding a ship, rather than a plane. That makes the book much more interesting than if it simply told the story of Gibbs himself.

Ships were synonomous with travel through the first half of the 20th Century. If you wanted to emigrate to America, you boarded a ship -- most likely bunking in the crowded quarters below decks. If you wanted to grand tour of Europe, you boarded a ship and settled into a luxurious cabin with a view. If you wanted to do business on the other side of the ocean, you boarded a ship.

Crossing the Atlantic from New York to Europe (the most popular route and the one dealt with most in this book) took many days. Shipping companies competed mightily -- and sometimes visciously -- to shave hours off the duration of the voyage by designing sleeker hulls and more powerful engines.

Spending five to seven days crossing the ocean is difficult for the jet set to imagine. But the voyage had its advantages, for wealthier passengers, at least: Plenty of time to socialize, show off the fine clothes you'd packed into your trunk and enjoy the dining room, pool and bar (particularly popular in the 1920s: since U.S. ships observed Prohibition, Americans to flock to book passage on European-owned vessels, where the liquor flowed freely).

Going to sea had plenty of potential disadvantages, as well: seasickness, storms, sinking. In fact, ships sank, caught fire and met other disasterous fates on a fairly regular basis. These were huge vessels that carried two or three or five thousand people at a time, so the sinking of one oceanliner often meant the loss of well over 1,000 lives.

We all know about the sinking of Titanic. Reading "A Man and His Ship" will put that disaster in context and help you understand that the era of ship travel.





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