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Well-crafted 'Lifeboat' offers tales of disaster, survival

It was a windless summer's day out on Massachusetts Bay, when a Boston Harbor pilot boat, its crew having spotted a lifeboat pulling slowly toward land, powered over to investigate.

"Before I can think what to do, what to say," writes the lifeboat's owner, John R. Stilgoe, of the incident, "the orange boat throttles back, slows, and veers slightly. A door opens, and a man carrying a bullhorn steps out." Stilgoe's wife, Debra, "slides her oar inboard and waves, a big, long-armed, happy wave. The pilot boat's crew waved back as their boat swings away, a long foaming wake behind it."

"I wonder a lot," writes Stilgoe. "I wonder at the looks people give the boat, at the comments people make, at what a lifeboat means now."

Readers of previous Stilgoe books such as "Outside Lies Magic" and "Alongshore" know that Stilgoe, professor of the history of landscape at Harvard, does "wonder a lot" -- and that he has a gift for sharing the fruits of his wonderment (as he does regularly in the Globe's South Weekly).

Here, Stilgoe shares even more, for it is impossible to read "Lifeboat" without coming to understand and admire Stilgoe's dedication to a self-reliance grounded in knowledge. And in Stilgoe's probing account of how and why people have -- or do not have -- disasters, the lifeboat is a perfect match for that persona.

As one account of disaster and survival follows another, a reader might be tempted to think that, alas, here's just another author emptying his notebook. But these are all stories of events that Stilgoe has internalized in order to give a grounding in fact to his metaphor.

"Lifeboat" is constructed upon Joseph Conrad's novels, the US Hydrographic Office's pilot charts for the North Atlantic, and its sailing directions for "Sundra Strait and Northwest Coast of Borneo and Off-Lying Dangers," as well as upon writings whose very titles suggest disaster: "Wrecked on a Reef;" or "Twenty Months Among the Auckland Isles;" or "Madagascar via Lifeboat."

"Nasty or perverse or hard-headed in the old salt-marsh Yankee way," writes Stilgoe, all the what-if fears of the ocean traveler -- or of the person flying out of Logan Airport and circling "far into the Atlantic before heading west" -- "lie at the heart of everything that follows here."

There is the Express, torpedoed off Madagascar in 1942, whose master, a veteran of square-rigged ships and topsail schooners, "kept his lifeboat in excellent repair and knew how to sail it to reach the coast of Africa as quickly as possible."

But there is also the Dumaru, which blew up within sight of Guam in 1918 but whose poorly designed lifeboat was blown by the trade winds, carrying its crew "into a grisly horror of death by dehydration and suicide, and then cannibalism."

Closer to present memory, there was the sinking of the Andrea Doria off Cape Cod in July 1956 when, contrary to the hallowed call of women and children first, the earliest lifeboats were filled with the ship's hotel staff -- and other boats were still hanging in their davits as the ship sank.

Seven years later, the schoolboy Stilgoe's interest in lifeboats was focused by radio reports of the liner Lakonia, which caught fire off Madeira. In the rush to fight the fire, the crew had no time to launch the lifeboats. Rescuers found the bodies of "passengers abandoned by crew, dumped into the water by toppling lifeboats" or "drowned when they jumped over the side."

"What Lakonia and Andrea Doria taught came down to something simple and dark," writes Stilgoe. "Every steamship passenger ought to know how to lower and crew a lifeboat." His own lifeboat, Stilgoe writes, is perhaps silent evidence of a maritime disaster. Built in Newfoundland in 1935, it was found by the Coast Guard east of Stellwagen Bank in 1968 and towed into Woods Hole.

"Cities burn," Stilgoe writes. "Civilizations collapse. Then old things count: a wool shirt, heavy pants, thick socks, good boots, well broken-in. Fresh water, some food stuffed in a backpack, matches. A sharp knife of high-quality carbon steel that takes and keeps an edge. A reliable compass. And a destination, a goal." And his lifeboat, Stilgoe writes, "might make Greenland in a pinch."

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