“The sea swept over the Arctic’s stern in a maelstrom of dark water and white foam. It rumbled and roared on either side of the ship as her bow eased skyward. There was no quick incline to an almost vertical position, no massive lunge to find the bottom. She slowly backed into the waves at a twenty-five-degree angle, assuming grace and beauty even in her last moments.”
But apart from those last moments, nothing about the Arctic’s sinking is graceful or beautiful. It showcased cruelty and selfishness in spades and the limitations of the code of honor that only a few people bothered to follow in the events leading to the disaster. While David W. Shaw’s The Sea Shall Embrace Them has flaws, with writing occasionally clunky and facts occasionally unclear, the horror of the sinking of the ship and the mad scramble to escape it is wrenching to read and hard to forget.
You might not guess it from the dry start of the book, though. Apart from the prologue detailing the rescue of a passel of people from the Arctic, the book gets off to a dull start for something that has the adjective “tragic” on the cover. It begins with the background of “packets,” a designation for ships that kept a schedule, and how the U.S. merchant marine’s initial supremacy in this area had declined with the rise of Cunard ships in England. While there’s some interest from the standpoint of historical trivia, scheduling races between lines of ships have limited power to enthrall.
But the book gathers momentum with the Arctic’s launch. The Collins line, of which the Arctic was a part, wanted to set records for ocean crossings, and the constant push for speed had consequences. Without the nonstop pressure to improve time, it would make no sense to move through the Grand Banks, a stretch of ocean with multiple fishing and shipping lanes off Newfoundland, at full speed in foggy conditions. Which is exactly what the Arctic’s captain, James Luce did. It’s at this point that The Sea Shall Embrace Them sheds all traces of the history lecture, illustrated here when the book talks about the intersections of the fishing lanes and the lanes of the transatlantic steamers:
Many a schooner went missing, crushed without even raising alarm aboard the much larger liners. The steamers smashed them to a pulp or cut them in half and proceeded on their way with no one aware of the death that lay in the wake. Luce knew that pilots from Halifax, Boston, and sometimes even New York, all of whom could be found on the banks, shared a similar dread of these freight trains of the sea… While knowing full well the dangers, Luce and his colleagues tried not to think about them very much. They were under orders to make fast passages regardless of heavy weather, fog, or ice. The transatlantic shipping companies mutely accepted the risks of harming a small craft, perhaps killing her crew or stranding them on the oily swells of the North Atlantic in their little dories. It was all part of doing business in the modern age.
There’s a volume of tragedies in that passage, but it gets worse. Much worse.
It was September of 1854 and the Arctic was westbound. At the same time as the Arctic was entering the Grand Banks, the Vesta, a ship bound for France with fishermen returning at the end of the fishing season, was moving through that area. It was a much smaller vessel than the Arctic, and its collision with the latter vessel led to horrific results. One man was impaled on the torn metal of the Vesta’s compressed bow, many others were wounded with shattered bones, and the impact left a huge hole in the ship that seemed certain to doom her. Captain Luce, on the Arctic, saw the damage and assumed, as did many of those aboard the Vesta, that the ship wasn’t for long above water. He sent his first mate out with a boat to give what help he could. And then it became apparent from the movement of the Arctic that it hadn’t emerged from the impact unscathed. One of the Arctic’s firemen was able to get over the side, where he “discovered the Frenchman’s cutwater and bow sticking into us.”
That damage, Luce knew, was likely to send the Arctic down, so he opted to make for land at all speed, even with the Vesta in sight and in obviously dire straits. It’s an understandable, if awful, decision. Ironically enough, as the book notes, it might have sealed the fate every woman and child on the ship. For when the Arctic eventually sank, only 85 men – out of approximately 408 total people who had been on board – would survive. Meanwhile the crew of the Vesta, which was seemingly certain to sink, worked like mad to keep the ship up by bracing the forward watertight compartment. Eventually they were able to get to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The crew of the Arctic did not acquit themselves so well.
At this point, The Sea Shall Embrace Them becomes awful to read and impossible to put down. When the Arctic began to go down in earnest, chaos broke out. Despite the efforts of Luce to get the passengers into the boats, the crew and quite a few male passengers fought to get into the lifeboats – which at best could have taken about 180 people – and succeeded. The chief engineer of the Arctic and his assistants stole one of the boats armed with pistols and left, threatening to shoot anyone who came close; the second mate went off in a lifeboat not filled to capacity in spite of orders to stand by and take on women and children. When it became clear the boats were gone, the construction of a raft was attempted- and those still on the ship watched their chance. They fought to get aboard the raft when the Arctic began to go down for good; Shaw notes that “[w]omen drowned or were forced under the waves by the men struggling for their own lives.” Luce held off getting into a lifeboat and refused to send his child, who had accompanied him on the trip, into one of the boats while there were still others to be saved. He survived the wreckage, but his son was killed in the chaos of the ship going down in one of the most horrifying scenes in the account. Even some of those who deserted in the lifeboats were lost, as some of the boats were either found empty or vanished without a trace.
The sinking of the ship going down is probably the strongest part of the whole book, but when taking into account the whole of the story, even the scheduling details that seem so bland fall into focus as a major contributor to the tragedy. Even the history of the Collins line, which got its start so America could reassert the supremacy of its merchant marine against England’s Cunard line, becomes horrifyingly compelling when you consider what the drive for speed and American supremacy did to bring about the dangerous conditions under which the Arctic was operating.
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the whole incident is the similarity between so many of its elements and factors that crop up in human nature even in the present day. For one thing, the reactions of people then were very similar to those of people today in terms of tragedy, complete with angry letters and bad poetry. One letter called for the public naming and shaming of the sailors who deserted, and many of the crew, in fact, slipped off discreetly before returning to America in the expectation that something like that would happen. It’s alarmingly similar to the naming and shaming seen in all kinds of social media- complete with the ephemeral effects. Editorials called for reforms, but they took a long time taking even slight effect; even when the Titanic sank in 1912, laws didn’t require ships to have enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. There was no official inquiry or accountability pursued. Collins kept up the transatlantic lines until the company collapsed. The disaster flared and died, and yet with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see how much could have been learned from it.
If anything, the most disturbing thing about the book is that it shows by example how constant that in is in everything humans do.