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Lifeboat Hardcover – September 29, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Women and children first" is the phrase that enters many readers' minds when thinking of lifeboats and sinking ships. It is also one of the first myths author Stilgoe handily punctures in this sobering, nitpicky history. Falling somewhere between a social history of a ubiquitous yet often misunderstood piece of equipment and a rambling, rumination on a personal obsession, the book takes on many sacred cows and societal illusions. Stilgoe, a Harvard history professor and author of Alongshore and other books, combs through centuries' worth of lifeboat accounts and comes up with a relatively low number of examples of steadfast sailors trying to save their passengers (or of sailors ganging up against passengers when the going gets tough) and each other. He saves his admiration for sailboat-trained seamen-already a disappearing species by the early 20th century-who, time after time, steered their tiny boats of starving, sunburned survivors hundreds or thousands of miles across empty ocean to safety. Stilgoe also rhapsodizes over the lifeboat itself, a rugged contraption standardized by the British Board of Trade in the 19th century, which consistently proved its ability to stay afloat in gales that swamped larger vessels. Titanic looms large here, naturally, and Stilgoe has a good time deflating some of the shipwreck tales that the film propagated. B&w illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


With a voice that is knowing and nautical, John Stilgoe leads readers along a salt-encrusted time line of the evolution of lifeboats. Lifeboat is a fascinating and meticulously researched work to be enjoyed by seafarers and history buffs alike.

(Linda Greenlaw, author of The Lobster Chronicles and The Hungry Ocean)

As with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Charles Corn’s Scents of Eden, in the right hands a thing, trade, or practice traced through a century or two provides another window on history, small but very clear, and from an angle just enough to one side to bring other events into a new perspective. The lifeboat is the MacGuffin for Stilgoe’s plot, and it brings a great deal into view.... Lifeboat is a majestic, prodigious, mighty book.

(John CaseyNational Book Award–winning, author of Spartina)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press; First Edition edition (September 29, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813922216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813922218
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 7.2 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,056,268 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Barron Brown on August 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
As John R. Stilgoe explains, a voyage is a journey by sea in which a passenger returns to the point of departure. If a passenger departs from one place, and arrives at another, this is a passage. Lifeboats make passages. In reading a book as masterful and comprehensive as Lifeboat, so does the reader.
The theme of Lifeboat transcends its title. The book has a lot to say about lifeboats, but most of all it chronicles a loss of wisdom: wisdom bought, often at a dear ransom, by direct observation of sea and sky, and mostly squandered since sail gave way to steam. Stilgoe's motif, in apparent continuity with his other works, is how social and economic forces under the umbrella of "industrialization" conspire to destroy precious human knowledge of centuries, knowledge that made us who we are-- or were.
A lifeboat may be a metaphor, but foremost it is a material vehicle for the saving of lives. In Stilgoe's hands, a lifeboat is a powerful focusing lens, a window into undiscovered history. He stunned me repeatedly with tales of horrific 20th Century shipwrecks now wholly forgotten. His account of the Lusitania disaster turns the tidy propaganda tale on its head. Likewise, his account of WWII U-boat activities in the North Atlantic gives the lie to the simple moral equation favored by the Allies. Were you aware that WWII U-boats ravaged American merchant vessels along the Eastern Seaboard? That the US Government struggled mightily to cover this up? That government refusal to acknowledge what many knew to be true bred public cynicism toward official war accounts? Any lessons for today?
Exploring the history of the lifeboat, Stilgoe retrieves the ancient wisdom cast off in the transition from sail to steam.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an extremely copiously researched book that draws on an astonishing breadth of resources, both fictional and factual, and which is influenced by the author's own personal competency in restoring and handling an actual lifeboat of the classic Board of Trade style. Stilgoe brings a clear passion to his topic, yet that same passion all too often comes across as cranky hectoring.

Seemingly the entire first half of the book is devoted to slamming a single point into the heads of dim-witted landlubbering readers: seamen from the age of sail were true masters of nautical lore, but their successors on steamships are ignorant clodpates trained to push buttons and read dials and who are consequently almost completely helpless when their mighty mechanical marvels founder. Certainly, it's interesting to see how basic maritime skills have degraded since the days of the clipper ships and how few today can navigate without a handheld GPS device, but Stilgoe is relentless in driving this theme home on virtually every single page of the first few chapters. His unceasing criticisms of modern crews eventually become counter-productive, as they soon become reminiscent of the rantings of old codgers warning the drivers of Model Ts that they'll be helpless when they run out of gas and that they should stick with a horse instead. I mean, I was almost ashamed to be living in 2009 in comparative luxury, and almost threw away my calculator in favor of a slide rule, because after all, what would happen if my batteries died? Where would I be then? How would I calculate logarithmic functions without a complete mastery of being able to do it by hand, blindfolded and underwater?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By iwan griffiths on February 25, 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
converting a life boat,have john lewis book from 1950,s,who mentions this book.brilliant top book,very impressed by the research and breadth of the subject,it has envigorated my own project,have already recommended this book
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Format: Hardcover
Looking for a handy catalogue of disasters and survival at sea, this book proved to be much more. I can understand the impatience of one reviewer with the author's nostalgia for the passing of true (un-powered and unplugged) seamanship but his point is that the resort to lifeboats --at least the classic whaleboat-styled kind--is a test of true seamanship which has been neglected in the era of digital wizardry that disappears with the loss of power--both wired and battery. The most telling passages, and there are many, are those that show how in an instant a passenger is transported from luxuriant accommodations, where the sea is a pleasant panorama, to a battle against a malevolent nature, where the sea is a treacherous enemy.
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