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The Sea Shall Embrace Them: The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic

The Sea Shall Embrace Them: The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic

4.0 2
by David W. Shaw, Margaret Westergaard (Illustrator), Lisa Chovnick (Designed by)

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The 1854 collision at sea between the Arctic and the Vesta, a much smaller French steamship, set in motion one of the most harrowing events in maritime history, with enormous and tragic consequences. David W. Shaw, who brings decades of experience as a seaman to his writing, has based this riveting tale on the firsthand testimony of the few who survived the wreck,


The 1854 collision at sea between the Arctic and the Vesta, a much smaller French steamship, set in motion one of the most harrowing events in maritime history, with enormous and tragic consequences. David W. Shaw, who brings decades of experience as a seaman to his writing, has based this riveting tale on the firsthand testimony of the few who survived the wreck, including its heroic captain, James C. Luce.

It is the story of the brave and dutiful Luce fighting his mutinous crew as they take the lifeboats, leaving hundreds of men, women, and children to suffer a cruel and painful death. It is also the story of those who survived the frigid waters and those who perished — including Luce's own frail son, who died as the grief-stricken captain helplessly watched. Not only did 400 people die by daybreak, the wreck brought to an end the domination of the seas by the American maritime fleet.

Utterly compelling, beautifully written, and a fascinating, heretofore little-known slice of American history, The Sea Shall Embrace Them is a stirring narrative that puts the reader on the deck as a shipful of men, women, and children do battle both with a mighty ocean and with their own baser instincts to survive.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Retelling a little-known story from history can be both a source of inspiration and a dramatic reminder of the best and worst in human behavior. Such is the case with the elegantly written and poignant The Sea Shall Embrace Them.

In the autumn of 1854, the United States and Britain both sought preeminence on the high seas for the commercial maritime business that was dramatically increasing with the advent of the steamship. Mail, cargo, precious imports and exports, and the newly thriving passenger travel made crossing the Atlantic, from New York to Liverpool, big business. The main British line was Cunard; the American, Collins. The fleets from these two lines competed fiercely for fastest crossing (time was money) and most luxurious accommodations.

In October 1854, at a time before sea lanes were established, a French vessel, Vesta, struck the American steamship Arctic. Arctic sank within a short time, with a loss of hundreds of lives. The story of this disaster, which predates the Titanic tragedy by 58 years, retells the events of that horrible, foggy night when the collision happened. Shaw's narrative is riveting and compelling. His descriptions of the bravery of Arctic's captain, and the villainy of some of the crew in those last hours, are sobering and evocative. Every woman and child on board died, while many of the crew survived.

Shaw's book is a page-turner. And in writing Arctic's story, the author recovers for us both an important moment in maritime history and an intimate and very human perspective from which to understand it. The Sea Shall Embrace Them moves us as it sheds light on an event that deserves to be better known and gives us glimpses into both the heroic and the profane. (Elena Simon)

Elena Simon lives in New York City.

Publishers Weekly
Shaw (Flying Cloud) recounts the appalling fate of the steamship Arctic, a maritime calamity marked by human error and cowardice and a few instances of astonishing bravery. On September 27, 1854, the ship collided bow-to-bow with the ironclad Vesta off the coast of Newfoundland and plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic, sparing only 87 of her 408 passengers. Shaw culls his material from various news sources, accounts of survivors and eyewitnesses, and commercial shipping records. He carefully reconstructs the history of merchant-class ships, as well as the background of the Collins steam ship company, owner of the Arctic, which was attempting to secure a national identity (and federal loans) while in fierce competition with the British-owned Cunard line for monopoly of transatlantic mail service. Collins was fanatically bent on "maintaining its schedule and setting records whenever possible" at the cost, ultimately, of human lives. Shaw presents the full range of experiences of those on the Arctic, from the courage of Captain James C. Luce, who risked his life to save as many people as possible, to the desperation of passengers trying to find family members amid the wreck, to the labor of the tough merchant marines and fishermen who faced crippling injury or death as part of their daily work. This is a spellbinding, visceral and thoroughly investigated narrative. Appendix, glossary, illus. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Maritime writer Shaw (Inland Passage) believes that the 1850s were the "glory days" of the American transatlantic steamship trade. However, during that same period, the competition among international steamship lines to achieve the fastest transatlantic passage created a " `wicked recklessness of speed' in all weather and circumstances." Shaw suggests that such competition coupled with the common practice of having steamers leave port without enough lifeboats for every person aboard was the overriding cause of disasters like the 1854 wreck of the Collins Line steamship Arctic. Based on firsthand testimony of the few survivors, Shaw's carefully researched account is a vivid portrait of gallantry and cowardice as hundreds of passengers battled for survival in the frigid waters off the coast of Newfoundland; it also provides intriguing insight into an important chapter in the history of the U.S. merchant marine. For Shaw, the collision at sea between the Arctic and the French steamship Vesta is much more than a chronicle of human disaster. The far-reaching consequences of that event foreshadowed the moment in history when, Shaw writes, "Britain, France, and Germany surged ahead in the transatlantic steamship trade" and the United States "turned inward and put her back to the sea." Recommended for all libraries. Robert C. Jones, formerly with Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sensitive history of the doomed steamship Arctic and her courageous captain, demonstrating the ability of a veteran sailor and maritime author (Flying Cloud, 2000) to render nautical history both accessible and poignant. Shaw introduces Captain James Luce, a seasoned American sailor with a reputation for just and enlightened leadership in an era when autocratic brutality was the norm on the high seas. Luce's talent for handling people, according to Shaw, earned him not only the lucrative command of the largest and most luxurious steamship of the Collins line, but also an important role in wresting monopolistic control of the Atlantic mail trade from the smaller British steamships. Pressured by Collins himself to accept risk during the treacherous North Atlantic storm season and fueled by nationalistic Anglo-American tensions, Luce tore across the Atlantic in the midst of a thick fog. Drawing extensively from survivors' accounts and written descriptions of earlier Arctic passages, Shaw expertly reconstructs the growing panic of the crew and passengers as the ship rammed a smaller craft mid-voyage and slowly began to sink. This panic, Shaw shows, flamed into the most notorious lapse of duty by 19th-century American sailors: 45 crewmen stole lifeboats and rowed for Newfoundland, leaving Captain Luce and his first mate to try to save the remaining 370 passengers alone. In the aftermath of the sinking, Luce watched his young son die among the wreckage and, Shaw argues, earned himself international fame and respect for his courageous attempts to salvage lives from the icy North Atlantic. Shaw's intimately detailed account of the Arctic's sinking and the struggles of those who survived willappeal not only to those who reveled in the bathos of the film Titanic but to all readers with a serious interest in nautical history and courage. (8-page photo insert, maps) Author tour; radio satellite tour
From the Publisher
Walter Lord Author of A Night to Remember A riveting story told by a superb writer.

Charles Pellegrino Coauthor with James Cameron of Ghosts of the Titanic A stunning account, based on logical conclusions and meticulous research.

Duncan C. Spencer The Washington Post A straightforward cautionary tale, clearly told....There is restraint and judgment here in the telling.

Publishers Weekly Spellbinding, visceral, and thoroughly investigated.

People Magazine Gripping....Shaw's true achievement is bringing to life the long-lost people aboard the Arctic.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.62(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: September 28, 1854

Veils of fog swirled around the bow of the Canadian bark Huron. The gray mist closed in on the headsails, rendering them almost invisible from the poop deck. Bound for Quebec, Huron made her way under full sail toward Cabot Strait, a wide swath of current-ripped water between the islands of Cape Breton and Newfoundland, gateway to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the funnel of the vast St. Lawrence River estuary. She seemed to cut a path into oblivion, alone on an empty sea. The comforting warmth of fires burning in the kitchen stoves of the simple dwellings ashore was as distant as the wan sun hidden behind an overcast sky darkening with the approach of dusk. The day was much like any other in late September on the Grand Banks fishing grounds — cold and damp with a mounting swell rolling in from the North Atlantic that foretold the arrival of yet another bout of stormy weather.

The lookouts stationed on the forecastle deck took turns blowing the little air horn. Each man spelled the other when his mate became winded, which did not take long. The shrill blasts of the horn, a trumpet-like device, could not reach the ears of crews aboard other ships unless they sailed near enough to pose an imminent threat of collision. But Captain Wall was a conscientious man, and with the owner's son, Wellington Cameron, aboard Huron, it was wise to adhere to the unwritten laws of the sea no matter how ludicrous it appeared to the sailors under his command. The faint bleats of the horn continued.

The fog, as it always did when the wind blew fresh, tore into patches, some thick and impenetrable, others with translucence that allowed visibility to improve up to a half-mile or more. Mindful of their duty, the lookouts took advantage of the breaks to redouble their vigilance, not wanting to miss an opportunity to spy danger. The Grand Banks represented an intersection of the coastal and transatlantic shipping lanes, and scores of fishing schooners peppered the sea. Even in late September, the summer fishing season at an end, the place was busier than most stretches of ocean. As the curtains closed in again, one of the lookouts straightened his back and quickly lifted his spyglass. Out of the gloom emerged a shape, slowly at first as the ship sailed on. It looked like a dory, perhaps one separated from the mother ship, her crew of fishermen wondering about the fate of their missing friends. However, it soon became apparent to the lookouts that the little craft was a lifeboat filled with men.

"Lifeboat fine on the starboard bow!" the lookout cried.

"Lifeboat to starboard, aye," the officer on deck responded.

Aft on the poop deck, Captain Wall raised his spyglass and squinted into the deepening darkness. Sure enough, the lookout's observation proved correct. It was indeed a lifeboat, and dangerously overloaded. The men in it paddled toward them with makeshift oars made of planks and axes. Some dug their hands into the frigid water to help propel the boat. It struck Wall as peculiar that the lifeboat lacked even one set of proper oars.

Wall turned to his first officer and ordered him to bring the vessel round, head almost to the wind. The helmsman turned the wheel slowly while the crew scurried on deck to man the braces and other lines needed to control the sails. Canvas shook and thundered in the breeze. Blocks banged on deck and in the rigging as the main topsail backed and fell still, the wind pressing it against the mainmast and shrouds. The ship's other sails still drew, forcing the bark to a stop.

The lifeboat was soon alongside, and Wall's crew helped the men stumble aboard. Weak and exhausted from their ordeal, many fell to the deck unable to walk or even stand. Two of the castaways refused to leave the boat. Their voices hoarse and ragged, they begged Wall to send a crew with oars and thole pins (oarlocks) into the boat, saying there was another survivor on a raft a short distance away.

A few minutes later, the lone man on the nearby raft, Peter McCabe, heard the splash of oars and the voices of the men in the boat. Inches from him, the white faces of corpses trapped beneath the raft, their bodies "much gnawed by fishes" and made buoyant from the life preservers, peered up at him from the spaces between the loosely lashed spars.

McCabe described his moment of salvation in the October 12 edition of the New York Herald:

I was alone on the raft, not a solitary being was alive out of [more than] seventy; but still my hopes continued strong. The night of the second day was about closing on me, and during the whole time I had been in the water I had not eaten a particle of anything or drank a drop. My strength I found was beginning to give way, and my sight had become so dim that I could not perceive objects a few feet off, even the ghastly faces of the dead, that looked up at me from under the raft, were hardly discernible.

I determined at making one more effort for life. I raised myself upon my knees upon the raft, and through the dusk of the evening I saw, or thought I saw, a vessel. My strength seemed to revive, and in a few minutes I heard the voices of persons in a boat approaching me. Ten minutes later, I too would have gone, but Providence had mercy on me, and after twenty-six hours of exposure I was by its mercy preserved from a watery grave.

When all the men came back aboard, Captain Wall, his officers, and Wellington Cameron learned the tragic details concerning the loss of the steamship Arctic with more than three hundred souls aboard. She was one of the largest and most luxurious passenger vessels in the world, the pride of the Collins Line out of New York, bound for that port from Liverpool. Plucked from the sea were Francis Dorian, third officer, twenty-six crewmen, including Peter McCabe, and five male passengers.

Dusk faded into night. Huron got under way with a raw southeasterly wind off her port quarter filling the sails wet with condensation. Water dripped from rigging and pattered on deck. The bow lifted and fell to the swells. Forward, on the forecastle deck, the lookouts blew the foghorn, its mournful wail dull and faint as it echoed over the waves through the heavy, moisture-laden atmosphere. At Wall's orders, other crewmen fired rockets in hope of attracting the attention of any other victims who might be clinging to wreckage in the ship's path. The fuses were lit. A hiss and a whoosh, followed with the thud of a muffled explosion, punctuated the intermittent silences between blasts of the foghorn. White halos appeared in the blackness and vanished, the sparks twinkling out one by one.

Standing on the windward side of the poop deck, alone and troubled, Captain Wall considered the events of the day. Shipwrecks were common enough in the waters of the North Atlantic and down the coast of the United States all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Every year, approximately ninety American oceangoing sailing ships sank in the dangerous waters of the Bahamas, Cape Hatteras, Nantucket Shoals, Cape Cod, Cape Sable, and Cape Race. Additional American coastal traders went down or were stranded on the beaches and rocky ledges.

The sea took European vessels as well. Just a few weeks past, cruising in dense fog, the brand new Inman Line steamship City of Philadelphia valued at $600,000 ran hard aground on the rocks off Newfoundland's Cape Race. The wreck counted as one of many losses to British shipping that occurred in 1854. However, no one perished when she struck, unlike what had happened to Arctic. That unfortunate conclusion became clear to Wall and the others aboard Huron after they listened to the stories of the rescued men. Yet some of the sailors seemed guarded in their testimony, as if they were selective in the details they related, and Wall did not understand why.

Snugging his heavy pea coat close, Wall followed the stripe of the latest rocket as it cut through the darkness and exploded with a distant boom. Questions nagged at him, deeply upsetting and persistent. A chill went through him, causing him to pull his coat even tighter to his chest. He felt the kind of cold touch that no amount of clothing could repel, a hint of unease he could not quite place but which was real enough. Like the flit of a bat's wing on a dark night, a shadow against the stars, it danced away before he could see the shape of its evil meaning.

Copyright © 2002 by David W. Shaw

Meet the Author

A journalist for nearly twenty years, David W. Shaw has written extensively about nineteenth-century American history in four of his previous books. His most recent is America's Victory, a riveting account of the world's most famous yacht race in 1851. Shaw's expertise as a sailor and his in-depth knowledge of the Civil War make him ideally suited to tell the story of Confederate raider Charles W. Read and his infamous voyage of 1863. Shaw has contributed articles to numerous publications, including The New York Times, Sail, Entrepreneur, Cruising World, Woman's World, and New Jersey Monthly. He lives in New Jersey with his wife.

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The Sea Shall Embrace Them: The Tragic Story of the Steamship Arctic 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was an interesting read, though hard to understand parts of the boat at times. A clear reminder to us all that the unthinkable can and does happen. Very concise novel about how the shipping industry evolved in America. Interesting historical read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a superb recounting of the SS ARCTIC tragedy, a relatively little known event with profound consequences which reach down to the present day. It might be sobering reading for anyone taking passage on todays cruise ships, in terms of what CAN happen under the wrong circumstances. It takes one back to the days when the US merchant marine was a major force and not the endangered species of recent times. Contributing to its excellence is that the author is a real seaman himself with a thorough knowledge of shipboard routine and procedures. The author describes how a well-meaning master committed errors of judgement that cost most of the ship's company their lives. The only way I can think of that this book could have been improved is if a plan view or vertical section of the ARCTIC had been included.