Simon Winchester’s Epic ‘Atlantic’ Brims With Battles, Heroes

The cover jacket of "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories" by Simon Winchester. Source: Harper Collins via Bloomberg

The white American trader who was blown off course near North Africa, ended up enslaved by Sahara nomads and escaped to write a bestselling memoir, steps into view as Simon Winchester unfolds his epic new book, “Atlantic.”

Leif Eriksson, Napoleon, Nelson, Chaim Weizmann, and the suicidal German captain who blew up the Graf Spee further dramatize this fascinating history by one of today’s most erudite and lively writers.

We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Hoelterhoff: Among the stories you tell are those of great ships and the big battles that shaped history. I am thinking of Trafalgar, for instance, in 1805, which changed the way sea battles were fought.

Winchester: Instead of firing broadsides at each other, you actually steer into the other fleet and break it into two. Nelson did this brilliantly, if, for him, lethally.

He died on the flagship, HMS Victory, which remains the oldest still-commissioned warship in the world.

Hoelterhoff: Then we stop briefly as two ironclad ships, the Monitor and the Merrimack, duel in the Civil War.

Cunning Germans

Winchester: Both survived the battle, if with an enormous loss of life. But it made naval commanders realize that the days of the wooden ship were numbered. The big German ships built in 1914 had 18-inch thick hulls that were impossible to penetrate.

Hoelterhoff: You tell this strange story about the German fleet which blew itself up at war’s end so the Brits wouldn’t get their boats.

Winchester: Cunningly, the Germans had prearranged that they would send each other a certain coded signal, which they did at 11 a.m. on one particular morning.

And every single ship, the whole of the German fleet, had demolition charges which were simultaneously exploded. The entire fleet disappeared below the waves, thereby frustrating the British, who were going to reuse them and incorporate them into the Royal Navy.

But there’s one nice coda to that. This very high quality metal is about the only steel in the world that does not have radioactivity in it. And for very, very delicate scientific experiments, you occasionally need metal which has no radioactivity. And that, generally speaking, comes from these salvaged warships which lie 100 to 200 feet below the waters in Scapa Flow.

Lonely Emperor

Hoelterhoff: Napoleon, one of many names associated with the Atlantic, hated the sight of it as he floated down the coast of West Africa until eventually landing in exile on St. Helena. What’s it like today?

Winchester: It’s a tiny British possession, a beautiful island with this adorable little capital town called Jamestown. And then up in the hills behind Jamestown is Longwood House, which has been given by the British in perpetuity to the French.

It’s got a perfect little castle and a perfect little cathedral and a perfect little courthouse, all colored in beautiful pastels and adorned with anchors, seahorses, fish and things. And it just looks organically part of the ocean.

Hoelterhoff: Your book ends somberly, noting the change and decay all around the ocean, most especially the killing of what you call “the tragically unsuspecting whales,” along with the near disappearance of cod.


Winchester: We associate the North Atlantic with cod. The motto of Newfoundland used to be “In cod we trust.” It was a joke, but it was essentially true.

But there is no cod anymore. And that’s extraordinary. It’s all because of either greed or politics -- Canadian politics.

Hoelterhoff: I get a sense from your book of the Atlantic as a presence, a huge kind of life force.

Winchester: Yes, it’s got a life, it was born, and it will die. It also has moods, I think, and it feels as if it’s alive.

We’ve treated it badly. And it can strike back.

“Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories” is published by Harper. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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