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Book Review: The Lost Fleet by Marc Sangini

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The pungent, gritty waterfront of New Bedford, Massachusetts was the home of the nation’s whaling fleet in the mid-1800s. Overseen by a small cadre of businessmen, the fleet sailed in squalid conditions in search of leviathans capable of swamping the dinghies used to chase them through massive swells. During The Civil War, the northern whaling fleet was used as part of the blockade of Confederate ports. Many of the ships that only the year prior were among the most profitable of the fleet, were now scuttled in harbor mouths to keep the Confederate raiders and trading vessels from leaving. The effort was more often than not, futile.

And when the war was over and the ships returned to New Bedford, the industry was in its December. The whales, once plentiful across the vast oceans of the world, were few and far between. Changing public tastes and innovations were reducing the profitability of the oil merchants.

The Lost Fleet follows the career of Captain Thomas Williams. From 1840 through 1880 Williams was one of the most respected and well-sailed of the fleet’s captains. On the first voyage of the book, he takes his wife along as they sail in search of sperm whales. Her accounts of the monotonous daily lives of the whalers, interspersed with the flurry of excitement when the whales are hunted give amazing insight into a way of life captured in print primarily through fiction.

Marc Sangini weaves an intricate tale of high seas adventure, economic politics, and an industry that made a region and nearly took it down. The author has a talent for pulling detail out of events vitally important to the narrative, like when discussing the cat and mouse games of Confederates and Union spies in London: “One at a time, they began to trudge through the chilly night air to the water’s edge over wet, slippery streets in a fog so thick anything only a dozen steps away was nearly invisible.”

The book is part adventure, part history, part human drama. It’s a captivating account of not only the career of one man, but how his story wove into the greater history of the United States in the 1800’s.

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  • luke derbyshire

    i think the guy who wrote this book is great,and also a good freind of mine,take care marc,say hello to edward for me,i’m currently in liverpool indulging in some of the local history,tell terry i said to say hello,i was in shannon and wexford recently