This is the true story of the first transatlantic yacht race, which was the direct result of a drunken bet made at New York’s Union Club in October 1866, with the race itself taking place in mid-to-late December (the time of year when everyone in the northern hemisphere wants to go yachting!). The book is highly entertaining; a quick read that’s tailor-made for a cold or rainy night. As the protagonists slog their way across the Atlantic in fierce winter gales, you’ll be glad you’re safe at home rather than out there with them but, nevertheless, it’s a thrilling ride.
In addition to the story of the race itself, author Sam Jefferson offers his readers a glimpse into the rarified world of the ultra-rich American elite of the late nineteenth century. The three yachts in the race (Henrietta, Vesta, and Fleetwing) belonged to the “one percenters” of their day, yet only one of the owners was actually aboard his boat during the race (Gordon Bennett Jr., the owner of Henrietta and the son of New York Herald founder and self-made millionaire Gordon Bennett Sr.). The younger Mr. Bennett was what we would call today “a real piece of work,” but despite his drunken escapades and eccentric behavior (including surrounding himself with owls and small dogs in his later years) he was certainly entertaining, and since he’s the main character in this book, that means the reader is along for the ride.
Some of the events that are captured in the book are so bizarre that they could almost use the tag line “I’m not making this up!” A reporter assigned to cover the race sneaked aboard a sightseeing boat disguised as a wax replica of the recently-deceased Abraham Lincoln and eventually stowed away on one of the raceboats by hiding in a crate of champagne.
While there are some small errors in the book (e.g., descriptions of newsrooms full of clattering typewriters a full decade before they were actually available, confusing whether Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard are north or south of New York, and an editing error on page 238 where both “get” and “take” are used in the same sentence when one should have been removed), they are of little consequence to the overall story.
One odd thing about Jefferson’s writing style, however, is that he often breaks the “fourth wall” and makes editorial comments directly to the reader (e.g., on page 158, “Can you imagine anything more ludicrous?”). That takes some getting used to, but in exchange for a very entertaining story, I’m willing to give him a pass on that. Further, some of his comments are quite insightful, such as the one on page 24 when he opines that “There are few better ways to get rid of a small fortune than to own a yacht . . . ”
If this book is any indication of the quality of his other works, I’m looking forward to reading more from Sam Jefferson. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in yacht-racing history, the Gilded Age, or really good sea stories.
Gordon Bennett and the First Yacht Race Across the Atlantic by Sam Jefferson (Bloomsbury Publishing, PLC., 2016, 279 pages)