An old seafaring world comes to life in this examination of the coastal trade of the mid-1800s.
Capt. Asa Eldridge gazes phlegmatically from the frontispiece of this debut biography by Miles (Boys of the Cloth, 2012). Before the author began researching Eldridge’s career, the old seafarer’s name existed only as a morsel of trivia. In 1854, Eldridge crossed the Atlantic by sail, leaving from New York and arriving in Liverpool 13 days later, establishing a speed record that’s yet to be broken. It would be sufficient if Miles contented himself with telling the story of that single feat, but he’s done far more than that in this thorough yarn. Eldridge was born at the dawn of the 19th century in the town of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, to a family that had been on Cape Cod for 200 years, quite a few of them spent seafaring. Coastal trade among Colonies (and, later, states) proved to be an occupation both profitable and adventuresome. It also taught seamen how to sail very fast: “Customers may not have cared too much about an hour either way on the voyage time, but rival captains most certainly did—especially on those frequent occasions when they decided to turn the coastal run into a race.” Eldridge learned to rig a sail and make seconds count under the tutelage of his uncle and, later, as a captain in his own right, helming ships all the way to India, Russia, and, in pre–Panama Canal days, San Francisco. Miles expertly describes the life of a sea captain in Eldridge’s day, calling his subject a thoughtful and spirited leader “capable of cajoling the thuggish deckhands into giving of their best.” Later, Eldridge became a steamship entrepreneur, redesigning the provisions on his vessels out of “humanitarian interest in improving the lot of those emigrants who could only afford passage in the steerage” and at one point helming a ship for Cornelius Vanderbilt. Readers already curious about the trans-Atlantic trade, the early days of steam shipping, and all that rigging and hauling should learn a lot from this deeply researched book.
An absorbing and comprehensive study of a sea captain and place largely forgotten by history.