The fire extinguisher; the airline safety card; the lifeboat. Until September 11, 2001, most Americans paid homage to these appurtenances of disaster with a sidelong glance, if at all. But John Stilgoe has been thinking about lifeboats ever since he listened with his father as the kitchen radio announced that the liner ""Lakonia"" had caught fire and sunk in the Atlantic. It was Christmas 1963 and airline travel and Cold War Paranoia had made the images of an ocean liner's distress - the air force dropping supplies in the dark, a freighter collecting survivors from lifeboats - seem like echoes of a bygone era. But Stilgoe, already a passionate reader and an aficionado of small-boat navigation, began to delve into accounts of other disasters at sea. What he found was a trunkful of hair-raising stories - of shipwreck, salvation, seamanship brillian and inept, noble sacrifice, insanity, cannibalims, courage and cravenness, even scandal. In nonfiction accounts and in the works of Conrad, Melville and Tomlinson, fear and survival animate and degrage human nature, in the microcosm of an open boat as in society at large. How lifeboats are made, rigged and captained, Stilgoe discovered and how accounts of their use or misuse are put down, says much about the culture and circumstances from which they are launched. In the hands of a skillful historian such as Stilgoe, the lifeboat becomes a symbol of human optimism, of engineering ingenuity, of bureaucratic regulation, of fear and frailty. Woven through ""Lifeboat"" are old-fashioned yarns, thrilling tales of adventure that quicken the pulse of readers who have enjoyed the novels of Patrick O'Brian, ""Crabwalk"" by Gunther Grass, or works of nonfiction such as ""The Perfect Storm"" and ""In the Heart of the Sea"".