In the austral winter of 1905, a series of powerful, malignant storms roared west through the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica, destroying scores of square-rigged sailing ships and killing hundreds of seamen. Sometimes, crews, or parts of them, were saved. Some ships hobbled into nearby ports for resuscitation. Many vessels made it to their destinations months late, after spending as long as three months sailing a thousand miles to get round the Horn against contrary gale-driven waves and a foul current. Four British ships simply disappeared off the face of the sea into oblivion.
That year's toll was merely a worse-than-usual version of the average year around Cape Horn. It was also another mundane annual addition to the centuries of sea-slaughter, in which hundreds of thousands of seamen¨impoverished anonymous outsiders¨died because of the commercial necessity of carrying cargo around the cape. In that same year of 1905, on a different ocean, other men¨famous, rich, and the sort of men who owned the cargo poor seamen died transporting¨undertook a different kind of sailing: a gentleman's race across the Atlantic from New York to England. It was, in part, a race like any other¨its object to get across the finish line first. But it was also a contest with political resonances and undertones: British imperial prestige; America's new money and the country's growing pre-eminence; a German Emperor's hubris; in the background, intense competition in the building of warships; at stake, the pride of Great Powers already stumbling towards the butchery of the Great War, beside which even Cape Horn's steady, sad attrition would seem trivial.
Atlantic: The Last Great Race of Princes, is a story Scott Cookman tells with authoritative flair. He gathers together from many sources a coherent and exciting narrative of the race itself, and deftly provides an outline of its context.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, a vainglorious man, is consumed with envy of the British Empire and its vast imperial war fleets. He is embarrassed by his own empire's inability to muster enough men and ships to quell an uprising in its Southwest African colony by a small, desperate army of indigenous Hereros. He begins to build warships to challenge British hegemony and the British respond. An arms race ensues.
At the same time, in what seems to be an unrelated and inconsequential event, the Irish tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton, challenges the snooty New York Yacht Club to a trans-Atlantic race. The club's members, most of them only a generation or two away from grubbing in trade and commerce themselves, recoil from competing with a grocer for a cup with his name on it. They have barely repelled the upstart's three attempts to take the America's Cup away from them. The Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Vanderbilts and all the rest come up with a brilliant riposte: they will ask the Kaiser to challenge them. That will squeeze out the pesky mick and gild the contest with an Emperor's prestige.
The Kaiser jumps at the chance to steer the world's attention away from his African troubles and to show off Germany's fast-developing maritime prowess. He offers a prize cup for what he wants to call the German Emperor's Cup Race. He gets German industry and the navy involved and buys a yacht, the 158 foot two-masted schooner, "Hamburg", impervious to the irony that the yacht had been designed by a Scotsman and built in Glasgow. It's fast and able, and right away the experts predict it will likely win.
The other contestants assemble. For Britain: Lord Brassey, an experienced seaman (his wife's account of their circumnavigation was a nineteenth-century bestseller) and the foremost expert on naval affairs, enters his 170-foot three-masted topsail schooner, "Sunbeam", to defend the honour of the Empire; and Lord James Lindsay, an "eccentric dilletante" with "bottomless wealth" comes in with "Valhalla", a 245-foot three-masted ship, the largest vessel in the race.
For America: "Crown Princes of Capitalism"¨meatpacking heir Allison Vincent Armour, steel heir Edward Coleman, banking heir Edmond Randolph, Wall Street heir George Lauder Jr; and others, not quite up to snuff but still wealthy. They will sail in a variety of vessels¨a barque, a yawl and a collection of two- and three-masted schooners.
The British lords, Brassey and Lindsay, sail and navigate their vessels themselves. But few of the American princes have the experience or guts to do so. With far more money than seagoing expertise, they take on hired guns to skipper their boats. These professional seamen¨like their Cape Horn counterparts¨seem like plain, tough, capable and unassuming heroes compared to their puffed-up, cosseted employers.
One of the real sailors, the legendary Scotsman Charlie Barr, who has won three consecutive America's Cups, is hired to sail the fast and beautiful three-masted schooner, "Atlantic", and Barr and his boat will duel with "Hamburg" and the others for 3,000 nautical miles and right down to the wire. No review should reveal the outcome.
Cookman's account of the race, while a relatively brief section of the book, is a fine piece of suspenseful sea-writing that includes the right amount of detail about the experiences of each boat's crew, and vivid description of how vessels under sail must contend with North Atlantic weather. But Cookman is even better at portraying the time and setting of the contest. It was the last of its kind. Emperors, and all types of princes, were swept away in the war that changed the world. Nothing could be the same after four years in which politicians and generals and stay-at-home pillars of the community allowed 'of necessity' 550,000 men to be killed or wounded every month (just a different version of the necessity that killed Cape Horn seamen). And even a dilettante's yacht race had its small part to play in the downward spiral. ˛
Derek Lundy is the author of The Way of a Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail, published in October by Knopf Canada.