Crossing the Pond

Looking out over the Atlantic

I recently returned from my second trip to Europe. Fifteen years ago I visited Italy, Greece, Croatia, Turkey, and the U.K. On this latest trip across the pond we spent 12 days in Ireland.

Across the pond…

Traveling to Europe–getting to Ireland–is a multistage process. First, an Uber Black conjured from an app on my iPhone took us and our luggage to Washington/Dulles International airport. There, we checked out bags and then passed through the security screening, which by chance, had no lines to slow our progress. After dinner at the airport we boarded an Aer Lingus A321 Neo jet, which climbed six miles into the sky and followed a Great Circle route over New York City, southern Maine, Nova Scotia, and finally, St. John’s in Newfoundland. From there, we crossed the Atlantic, finally descending over the Irish coast, and making a u-turn out of the Irish Sea before landing at Dublin’s airport. This trip of more than 3,500 miles took us 6 hours and 10 minutes, and during that time, we were served another dinner, drinks, and before landing, a snack. The kids spend the time playing games and watching movies on the entertainment systems in the seat backs in front of them, while I stole occasional glances out the window, trying to get a glimpse of the ocean below.

I mention all of this because each time I have traveled to Europe, I am put in mind of the people who did so when it was far from the routine experience modern technology makes it. John Adams, the second president of the United States, made his first trip from Boston to Paris in the winter of 1778. He “crossed the pond” in a mere 47 days, exactly 188 times slower than our crossing. His diaries describe the crossing in some detail, including an attack that he and his ship survived, to say nothing of the storms that are routine in the North Atlantic. That said, our return trip took an hour longer than our flight to Ireland, thanks to some strong headwinds. John Adams’ return trip from France actually took a day less than his outbound trip: only 46 days instead of 47.

Crossing the pond has been routine for far less time than people have been doing it. Columbus crossed the Atlantic several times in the late 15th century, and in the 530 years since, routine crossings have only taken place over the last hundred years or so. While in Belfast, we visited the Titanic Experience. In the early 20th century ships crossed the Atlantic much more frequently than in John Adams’ day, but as we all know from the story of the Titanic it was still far from routine. One day, in Foynes, Ireland, we stopped at the Flying Boat museum. I climbed into a replica of a Boeing 314 Clipper. Even the coach cabin was far more luxurious an spacious than the seats we had on our A321. The Clipper had a honeymoon suite, a dining room, a lounge. Most importantly, it had a range of about 3,500 miles, which could get it safely from Newfoundland to Foynes and pave the way for regular air travel across the Atlantic.

When Ben Franklin crossed the Atlantic on his way to France, he conducted all kinds of experiments along the way, including measuring depth and water temperature, and currents in the ocean. While I sat in my seat as our Airbus hurtled through the night at nearly 600 mph and an altitude of 32,000 feet, I wondered what Franklin would think of the way we cross the pond today. Adams, I suspect, would think it nonsense that someday, humanity would routinely fly over the pond. But Franklin, I think, would find the idea believable. How remarkable would it seem to them, that what took 46 days and a great deal of risk, would be done in 6 hours countless times each and every day, with less risk and far more comfort than what they experienced in their time?

Maybe, some day, travel to Europe will be even faster, just a few hours, as it once was with the Concorde, or perhaps even minutes, or seconds. That might seem silly, the stuff of science fiction, but as Seneca once wrote way back in the 1st century A.D., “There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come.”

Perhaps once day, travel to Europe will be faster than 6 hours. But I hope not. Six hours seems just the right amount of time to sit in comfort high above the earth and contemplate just how far we have come since our ancestors crossed the Atlantic.

Written on July 30, 2022.

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