RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Simon Winchester is a curious man. The former geologist and journalist, now a bestselling author, has spent a lifetime following his curiosity to far corners of the world. He's traveled over the world's oceans, but none has made a greater impression on him than the one he first crossed: The Atlantic.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Recently, Winchester took to the water with NPR's Lynn Neary.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL CLANGING)
LYNN NEARY: It's a pitch-perfect autumn day with a hint of summer still in the air. The open sea beckons with the sound of a buoy. Beyond it lies the Atlantic.
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NEARY: On this day, a small craft warning has been issued. A rogue wave spawned by a far away hurricane sends us tumbling aboard this small fishing vessel, reminding us of the power of the sea. So we head, instead, toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the New York Harbor.
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NEARY: Pausing beneath the vast span of the bridge, we watch as ships make their way up and down the Ambrose Channel.
SAM WINCHESTER: This is really the gateway into and out of New York. Yes, you see a huge amount traffic coming in and out all the time. And as you can see, one Evergreen liner is just coming in and this one just coming in now.
NEARY: And while workaday container ships have replaced the lovelier vessels of earlier years, the great masted schooners and classic ocean liners, Winchester says crossing the Atlantic and entering a harbor like this is as romantic as ever.
WINCHESTER: Because it's freighted with so much human history, so much tragedy, so much commerce, so much that's important in the story of the development of human civilization. The romance of it lies in the stories that are told of and around it. I love it. Absolutely love it.
NEARY: Vessels of all kinds surround us. The Staten Island Ferry plies its daily route. Garbage scows and police cruisers, coast guard vessels and pleasure boats dart around the huge lumbering container ships. And on the horizon...
WINCHESTER: Lady Liberty. See on the right, on the starboard side, and there's the beginning of the very southern tip of Manhattan.
NEARY: We stop the boat and drift, taking it all in; the bustling harbor, the skyline, the Statue of Liberty and the elaborate towers of the processing center on Ellis Island where millions of immigrants got their first experience of America.
WINCHESTER: And to me that's almost the most romantic of all the stories relating to the Atlantic Ocean. Because it was a passageway for half a century, for millions upon millions of people, who came here full of hope and aspiration to this extraordinary land of liberty and opportunity, and helped build the United States. So the Atlantic Ocean was absolutely critical to the story of America.
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NEARY: Later, anchored in a quiet cove off Staten Island, Winchester talks about his love affair with the Atlantic. It began when he was still a teenager, crossing the ocean for the first time, aboard one of the great old ocean liners. One morning he woke just before dawn, hoping to get his first glimpse of North America.
WINCHESTER: I was alone at the very prow of the ship, with a sort of "Titanic," I'm king of the world kind of moment. And we were hissing along on a relatively flat sea when suddenly everything stopped. There was a clanging of bells and then the engines stopped and the ship suddenly fell silent and glided to a halt. And all we could feel, much like now, was the slapping of the water against the hull and there was this terrible silence.
NEARY: The Atlantic he describes in this passage from his book still echoes of the scene he witnessed that day so long ago.
WINCHESTER: (Reading) The Atlantic is, in most places, not at all like the Pacific or the Indian Oceans. It's not dominated by the color blue. Nor is it overwhelmingly fringed with leaning palm trees and coral reefs. It is a gray and heaving sea, not infrequently stormbound, ponderous with swells, a sea that in the mind's eye is thick with trawlers lurching, bows up and then crashing down through great white curtains of spume. Tankers wallowing across the swells, its weather so often on the verge of gales, and all the while its waters moving with an air of settled purpose simultaneously displaying incalculable power, and inspiring, by this display, perpetual admiration, respect, caution, and fear.
NEARY: These days, Winchester says, when people travel across the Atlantic by plane, that sense of awe has been lost. We call this great ocean The Pond and think of it in terms of time and distance, wishing our trip across it could be shorter.
WINCHESTER: And I think what I wanted to try and achieve in writing this book, was to say now, hold on a moment, it's not just distance. Just a few hundred years ago, it was something unimaginably terrifying to venture into it and then we came somewhat to terms with it. But it is still, when you're crossing it in a boat, it is majestic. It is given to all sorts of caprices of wind and weather. It is terribly dangerous. It is beautiful. And it shouldn't be dismissed.
NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News.
INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.
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