It is a rare occurrence indeed to have the great pleasure of receiving quite such a magnificent large-format volume as this, Rif Winfield’s First Rate, arriving on one’s desk for review
The First Rate ships of the line were indeed, as the book’s subtitle indicates, the greatest warships of the Age of Sail. They were the most powerful and the most impressive ships of war (or indeed ships of or for any other purpose) afloat for a period of some two-and-a-half centuries, as well as by far the most expensive vessels both to build and to maintain. Made and conceived to impress as well as to fight, the very size of a First Rate, together with the lavishness and detail of its decoration, was intended to strike awe into all who set eyes on it, whether at home or abroad, and to leave no doubt in the mind of any beholder concerning the might and prestige of the nation and monarch whose flag that ship bore. And, to quote the New York Times book reviewer Richard Snow writing nearly two decades ago now, whose words I can hardly better: “These sailing ships – today reduced to quaint and soothing images on wall calendars – were in their time the most complicated machines on earth, and the deadliest.” Indeed, they were.