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J. Richard “Dick” Steffy stood inside the limestone hall of the Crusader castle in Cyprus and looked at the wood fragments arrayed before him. They were old beyond belief. For more than two millennia they had remained on the sea floor, eaten by worms and soaking up seawater until they had the consistency of wet cardboard. There were some 6,000 pieces in all, and Steffy’s job was to put them all back together in their original shape like some massive, ancient jigsaw puzzle.
He had volunteered for the job even though he had no qualifications for it. For twenty-five years he’d been an electrician in a small, land-locked town in Pennsylvania. He held no advanced degrees—his understanding of ships was entirely self-taught. Yet he would find himself half a world away from his home town, planning to reassemble a ship that last sailed during the reign of Alexander the Great, and he planned to do it using mathematical formulas and modeling techniques that he’d developed in his basement as a hobby.
The first person ever to reconstruct an ancient ship from its sunken fragments, Steffy said ships spoke to him. Steffy joined a team, including friend and fellow scholar George Bass, that laid a foundation for the field of nautical archaeology. Eventually moving to Texas A&M University, his lack of the usual academic credentials caused him to be initially viewed with skepticism by the university’s administration. However, his impressive record of publications and his skilled teaching eventually led to his being named a full professor. During the next thirty years of study, reconstruction, and modeling of submerged wrecks, Steffy would win a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and would train most of the preeminent scholars in the emerging field of nautical archaeology.
Richard Steffy’s son Loren, an accomplished journalist, has mined family memories, archives at Texas A&M and elsewhere, his father’s papers, and interviews with former colleagues to craft not only a professional biography and adventure story of the highest caliber, but also the first history of a field that continues to harvest important new discoveries from the depths of the world’s oceans.
I absolutely loved reading “The Man Who Thought Like a Ship.” Once I started reading it I knew it was going to devour it. I actually became so enthralled with the story of Dick Steffy that I read the whole book in a day then felt so overwhelmed I read the book a second time over the next two days so I could take my time and feel the history. It was a great book and the story of Dick Steffy is tremendous.
I will say that I was very captivated with the story of Dick Steffy and watching this man’s lifelong dreams come true. It reminded me of a true life fairy tale. Watching this landlocked little boy with an interest in ships grow up to become the world’s first ancient ship reconstructor was an amazing adventure. Loren Steffy did a great job of making his father very relatable and the pictures in the beginning of the book were a wonderful addition. As the story progressed I felt very connected to Dick Steffy and his family. I was able to understand Dick’s desire to work with ships and feel him struggling with the decision over whether or not to pursue his dream or provide stability for his young family. I also loved reading about his sense of humor. When I read the joke about how many men could fit in the “Jesus Ship” from the Sea of Galilee I cracked up. It was a dry wit but I liked it.
The only drawback I had about this ship was the sudden lack of inclusion of Dick’s family. During the majority of the book Loren Steffy included his mother, Lucille, his brother, David, and himself in Dick Steffy’s adventures. We understood how Dick’s adventures with the ships affected his family from Milt Steffy’s business to Lucille health to the boys schooling. We read all about their uprooting and relocation to Cyprus to study the Kyrenia ship (crooked aleppo) and the boys homeschooling but once the family returned from Cyprus we didn’t really hear much about them again. When AINA became part of Texas A&M and Dick started teaching there we didn’t know if his family relocated to Texas or if they stayed in Pennsylvania while Dick taught for his obligatory semester. It felt a little disjointed here because of the sudden lack of family involvement but I assume it’s because the boys had grown up and were no longer at home, I just wish it would have been made a little more clear.
I loved reading about the nautical archaelogy and it’s creation as an accepted field of study. I love history, especially ancient history, so this was a very pleasant book for me. I am sure I will read it many more times and it has also caused me to take to the internet to Google the Kyrenia ship and other ships that Dick Steffy worked on just to find pictures and more information.
I won this book as a giveaway on GoodReads and it is no doubt the best giveaway book I have ever received. If you have any interest whatsoever in history or ships this book has to go on the must-read list.