America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, J. Dennis Robinson. Lynx Educational Foundation, 184 pages, with 190 color photos, paintings and maps, oversize hardcover, $34.95.
One of the great things about tall ships is that you can’t go wrong with a good picture. Virtually all large sailing vessels are photogenic to a fault, particularly when all the sails are run out, and the boat is almost sliding across the water. Lynx is no exception. The new coffee-table book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, published by the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Lynx Educational Foundation, takes maximum advantage of this camera-loving vessel, while author J. Dennis Robinson engages the reader with an interesting, if sometimes over-the-top story.
Launched in 2001, Lynx is a replica of type of highly-maneuverable topsail schooner with distinctive raking masts and a unique purpose: prey on British merchant vessels and warships on behalf of the U.S. government. The modern Lynx was inspired by a similar ship of the same name built near Baltimore during the War of 1812, and although her career lasted less than a year, her story, particularly her design, inspired maritime historian Howard Chapelle, which included a drawing of her in his landmark book, The Search for Speed Under Sail. Businessman and history buff Woodson K. Woods saw the drawing and decided he wanted a boat just like it.
The original Lynx sailed with a “letter of marque,” a license to attack enemy ships. During the War of 1812, the U.S. issued these licenses—a common practice among nations at the time—to expand the number of ships that could engage a powerful adversary, in this case, the Royal Navy. Investors would build a ship specifically designed for “privateering” in hopes of taking cargo or ships and selling them for a huge profit. Although patriotism certainly played a role in these “cruizes of opportunity,” a single prize could make a man (the investors at least) rich. Robinson makes a convincing case that privateers are an under-appreciated aspect of the War of 1812. But that doesn’t make the investors, captains, and crews admirable people. Privateers weren’t pirates, in the sense that they operated within the law. But their methods and ultimate motivation were hardly much different.
Woods’ much nobler motivation for building the modern Lynx was educational; he envisioned a platform on which young people could discover the nation’s maritime history, specifically the history of the War of 1812. He asked designer Melbourne Smith, who also designed the brig Niagara and the schooner Californian, to create Lynx. Robinson takes great pains to show how Lynx was constructed by amazing craftsmen and women at Rockport Marine in Rockport, Maine. The story of towing the 99-ton Lynx across a bridge to its launch site is harrowing. And Robinson manages to reveal a little bit of Woods’ character, beyond his love of country. “[Woods] ‘blessed’ the project by tying red bunting in every corner of the boat shop to ward off witches and evil spirits,” Robinson writes.
A prolific writer of local history and editor of SeacoastNH.com, Robinson sometimes falls in the trap of many maritime writers: too much “salty talk” and an almost hagiographic treatment of life on the water. Although I have never gone to sea, it’s clear enough to me that even in the 21st century, it’s a dangerous, unpredictable, and sometimes ruinous way to make a living. That was certainly the case for the original Lynx. But America’s Privateer is valuable because its gorgeous layout, stunning imagery (some photos by Woods), and intelligent description of the historic and modern Lynx are sure to spark conversations wherever it’s found.