Book Reviews from the Nautical Research Guild - 

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The Man Who Thought Like a Ship

By Loren C. Steffy

College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012

6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xi + 196 pages

Photographs, notes, glossary, bibliography, index. $35.00

ISBN: 9781603446648

                Like many of the first nautical archaeologists, J. Richard “Dick” Steffy came from an unexpected background. His son’s  memoir, The Man Who Thought Like a Ship, recounts Steffy’s journey from an electrician in a landlocked Pennsylvania town to an ancient ship reconstructor with the Kyrenia Project on the island of Cyprus and, finally, to a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and college professor at Texas A&M University. As its title suggests, the book does not focus on the ship but rather the man looking at it, bringing a humanizing side to the story of the emergence of nautical archaeology as a discipline. The author brings Steffy’s entire family into the story, including his family’s Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, with the child Dick Steffy making model boats of paper strips and flour paste provided by his mother. Later, his burgeoning interest in ship archaeology was cultivated by his wife. With a young family of two sons and a successful business as an electrician, Steffy took a risk and joined a team of young archaeologists investigating a shipwreck on the island of Cyprus, as a ship reconstructor. The project would eventually take years but also laid the groundwork for Steffy’s theories on hull remains and reconstructions having a place in the study of ancient ships. Eventually, Steffy was offered a professorship at Texas A&M University with a few of his colleagues, a department which has investigated hundreds of shipwrecks and produced a body of strong academic work. For those who are familiar with Steffy’s work, the book allows a glimpse behind the lines drawings at the man who made them.

                The book makes no claims to be an authoritative discussion of the origins of the nautical archaeology discipline, but does provide enough background research to illuminate its early years. Loren Steffy tells his father’s story in light prose, making it easy to read, but incorporates numerous footnotes, ensuring that the facts he presents—from the technology of ancient ship construction to the political turmoil in Cyprus in the 1970s—are accurate. His footnotes also provide a base from which engaged readers can learn more about the technical side of ship archaeology, read more about the specific projects mentioned, or delve deeper into the stories of some of the supporting players—mostly noteworthy archaeologists themselves.

                The Man Who Thought Like a Ship is slowly paced as it covers the early years and fateful decisions that led Dick Steffy to attend academic lectures, begin building ship models in his home and finally to approach formal archaeologists with his own ideas and observations. Building suspense, the pace quickens as we move through Steffy’s life, meeting more varied individuals and bringing Steffy’s young family—and the reader—along for the ride. For those unfamiliar with the cadre of archaeologists involved with the Institute for Nautical Archaeology or with Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program, the characters may need greater introduction. To those familiar with them already, the book reads like a reunion with old acquaintances. A short section of photos in the early chapters helps visually introduce the young Dick Steffy, and provides good images to accompany the Kyrenia ship—which plays a major role in the narrative. One of its strongest points is in illustrating the loving relationship between Dick and Lucille Steffy, his wife. This relationship forms the emotional backbone of the story and illustrate’s Lucille’s contributions—from typing and filing to feeding and educating their sons while in Cyprus—and their significance as well.

                

 Nautical Archaeology Program, the characters may need greater introduction. To those familiar with them already, the book reads like a reunion with old acquaintances. A short section of photos in the early chapters helps visually introduce the young Dick Steffy, and provides good images to accompany the Kyrenia ship—which plays a major role in the narrative. One of its strongest points is in illustrating the loving relationship between Dick and Lucille Steffy, his wife. This relationship forms the emotional backbone of the story and illustrate’s Lucille’s contributions—from typing and filing to feeding and educating their sons while in Cyprus—and their significance as well.

         

        This reviewer’s biggest difficulty with the book was Loren Steffy’s own place in his narration—he refers to his main character alternately as “Dick” and “my father.” The effect was that this reviewer felt almost simultaneously pulled into the story and pushed away from its center. The addition of a few maps showing the locations of Denver, Pennsylvania and Kyrenia, on the island of Cyprus, would have aided those unfamiliar with those areas and emphasized the significance of Steffy’s early landlocked home and the political situation in Cyprus that threatened his ship reconstruction work. Nevertheless, it is a refreshingly non-academic work that is at once easy to read and enlightening. 

LeeAnne Gordon

Alexandria, Virginia