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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.
As a lover of history who grew up by the sea, the field of nautical archaeology has always been so fascinating to me. The moment I got my hands on a copy of The Man Who Thought Like a Ship by Loren Steffy I knew I was going to finish it quickly. I became so engrossed in the story of Dick Steffy, considered by many to be the father of nautical archaeology, that I read the whole book in a day.
Then, I felt so overwhelmed that 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 tremendously interesting.
Before she sank, the ship probably had traded at the Greek islands of Samos, Rhodes, and Nisyros, then headed to Cyprus.
I was captivated by the story of Dick Steffy, a humble electrician who found himself in Europe restoring the oldest discovered sunken ship after he sent a letter to National Geographic. He had been a landlocked little boy with an interest in ships and grew up to become the world’s first ancient ship reconstructor was an amazing adventure.
Loren Steffy did a great job sharing his father’s story and the pictures
The only drawback I had was the sudden lack of inclusion of Dick’s family. During the majority of The Man Who Thought Like a Ship 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 Nautical Archaeology 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.
It was fascinating to read about nautical archaeology and its creation as an accepted field of study. I love history, especially ancient history, so The Man Who Thought Like a Ship was a 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.
If you have any interest whatsoever in history or ships this book has to go on the must-read list.