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Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839 Hardcover – February, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

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Today, scientists regularly bivouac for months on end in the vast frozen wastes of Antarctica, and adventurous travelers can even find tours to take them to the bottom of the world. But it was not so long ago that a voyage to the South Pole was a perilous undertaking, one that required tremendous courage, stamina, and skill. Long before explorers actually saw this frozen continent, its existence was posited by geographers, though 18th-century seafarers ventured no further than the ring of cold air and icy water, the Antarctic Convergence, which surrounded it. The discovery and exploitation of Antarctica is the subject of Alan Gurney's book, Below the Convergence.

In addition to chronicling the voyages and adventures of some of history's most colorful explorers, including Captain James Cook, Gurney provides a wealth of information. He details the average sailor's life on-board, the rivalry between seal hunters, and the ingenious solutions that resourceful voyagers devised for knotty problems like shipwreck, scurvy, and even lovesickness. Fascinating, exciting, at times lyrical, Gurney's literary journey is a trip worth taking.

From Publishers Weekly

Long before Admiral Byrd's well-publicized expeditions and the race to the South Pole by Scott and Amundsen, other, now long-forgotten explorers, adventurers and ordinary seal hunters made or tried to make their way to Antarctica. Gurney, a Scots yacht designer and photographer, tells the story of some dozen of those men, beginning with the astronomer Halley (of comet fame) in 1699 and finishes with an 1839 whaling/sealing ship-the Eliza Scott-whose crew discovered boulders imbedded in Antarctic ice, a geological mystery that caught Darwin's interest. But to mention only the detailed accounts of these voyages-and they are very detailed-fails to give a sense of the treasure-trove quality of this unusual book. Along the way are interesting discussions of the history of astronomy, geography, navigation (especially the problems of working out correct longitude), cartography and ornithology (how the penguin got its name), diet (the problem of scurvy) and the economics of the whale-oil trade. And how many of us have seriously considered the question "Is there indeed a 'Southern Ocean' below the Pacific?"? Gurney's somewhat dogged interest in describing exactly which routes various ships took to get from here to there is more than made up for by his curiosity about what they encountered along the way. This book, written for serious sailors, should entertain anyone curious about history's backwater. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 315 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc; 1 edition (February 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393039498
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393039498
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,640,559 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Eduardo on December 31, 1998
Format: Hardcover
As a land-lubber I didn't know whether I would enjoy this book, but after completing it today (31st Dec 1998), I find myself contemplating the Antarctic summer! The book is scientifically very sound on many technical subjects, but will delight all readers. The sailor, naval architect, historian, naturalist, marine surveyor, and navy-man will particularly appreciate the erudition of Mr. Gurney. No-one will feel left-out! Mr.Gurney has taken the cream of perhaps 200-250 books and condensed it into a single superbly written volume. Save yourself the reading and read this one volume; it is very well constructed and will whet the appetite for perhaps further literary exploration or even real exploration (or at least maybe (ahem) "soft exploration" aboard a southern cruise-ship). I particularly liked the hand-drawn maps at the back although I know nothing about land-surveying. Let's hope that Mr. Gurney will produce further works like this one which greatly enhanced my knowledge in many areas. By the way, the title of book was meaningless to me before I read it, and I think the author could have chosen a more "saleable" title, because the book will be loved by many who don't have a clue what this is.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Iain Orr on March 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The subject-matter may seem a narrow historical theme but the great joy of this book is how well it relates to wider concerns and themes. It is superbly written (as well as being an excellent example of a well-produced book, with apposite text illustrations, maps and a good index). The passage on pp 59 to 61 of the ecology of the Southern Ocean gives a succinct and witty account of the food-chain and ends with a paragraph in celebration of the whales that have survived (just) the whalers which followed in the wake of the great discoverers. There are accounts to appeal to island-lovers of the earliest contacts with the wonderful remote islands of the Southern Ocean. Readers of The Times (London) will find good historial material here about Kerguelen (Desolation) Island to which one of the paper's best columnists (Matthew Parris) has just set off. No surprise to me that the author, Alan Gurney lives on a lovely and historic Scottish island, Islay. Read his book with a fine malt whisky from Islay close to hand. You can then regularly toast the many fine descriptive passages (both his own and in quotations from his sources, which he uses with great skill) and his narrative skill in telling an exciting story.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After reading about the Antarctic explorers Shackleton , Scott, and Amundsen (5 star books), I wanted more information about previous Antarctic and deep South Atlantic Ocean explorers.

Below the Convergence by Alan Gurney is a fascinating read. For me a real page burner. Lots of interesting material. My favorite chapter was about Captain James Cook. Here was a really great nautical man, highly intelligent and thoughtful for his men's safety. Back in the late 1700s the English Royal Navy still used some brutal methods for crew compliance. Also the dreaded "plaque of the seas" scurvy was not understood.

Even though the need for Vitamin C ( Ascorbic acid) was not known, Captain Cook realized eating fresh greens, lemon juice and certain plants and fresh meats helped keep scurvy away. Eating sour kraut and lime juice too ( not as good against scurvy as lemon juice). He was proud that none of the men on his ship Resolution developed scurvy after eating a diet rich in then unknown vitamin C. Captain Cook becomes a hero of the Royal navy with his explorations. He seems to be on the fast track to becoming an Admiral but is horribly hacked to pieces during an attack by natives on his third circumnavigation. One of the greatest explorers and British Royal Navy heroes.

We see explorers like Edmond Halley( astronomer too.. Halley's comet) and his Pink Paramore ship. Also Weddell and Brisbane and John Biscoe, Kemp, Balleny and Ross as well as a Russian explorer. Many were sealers and whalers who went deep south for the riches of seal furs, and oil. Millions of seals killed with no conservation of a limited resource. Some seals hunted almost to extinction. A fascinating account of seal, penguin and whale slaughter.
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Format: Paperback
Gurney's book summarizes efforts to explore the cold Southern Ocean to about 1840, by both government-sponsored expeditions (such as James Cook) and sealers and whalers. The prose is terrific, the amount of detail just right (no long repetitive accounts of battles with ice), there are many fascinating details, and there is great background. He starts with the ancients and the development of the belief that there must be a southern continent. Then on to scurvy. [The English navy, true to national character, refused to adopt the known prevention measures until 200 years after they were discovered by the Dutch. The French had gourmet meals on their ships -- including the warship with 2 cannon, only 1 cannon ball, and it couldn't be fired because it was used to crush mustard seed for meals.] There is extensive coverage of Cook's voyages, and on to later explorers. There is excellent coverage of the later explorers, maps to show the routes, and substantial descriptions of the sealing massacres of the early 1800s. The story flows and the writing is never dull. Read this if you're interested in the early Antarctic voyages!
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