THE PERFECT STORM
A True Story of Men Against The Sea
By Sebastian Junger
236 pages. Paperback. $14 USA. $20.95 Canada. HarperPerennial, A Division of Harper Collins Publishers
Reviewed for Keeping APAce by Roy D. Varner.
“An indelible experience”
“One powerful piece of journalism”
“Terrifyingly, awesomely real”
“Frightened by nature's remorseless power.”
This true story delivers the powerful synergy of a combination of elements in perfect balance: high-seas drama that slams your emotions like the rogue wave that explodes windows in the wheelhouse…fresh imagery that draws you in and puts you helplessly amid the crashing waves and hurricane winds on the boat…and fascinating facts about storms, wave dynamics, fishing techniques, and much more.
Author Sebastian Junger, a journalist by trade, combines these various elements in a well-crafted story of lives affected forever by a series of decisions by six fishermen in the town of Gloucester, Maine.
The Perfect Storm, in a nutshell, is the story of a freak conjunction of weather systems that produced the most powerful storm of the 20th century off the coast of northern New England in October 1991. Caught in this maelstrom is a swordfishing fleet, in particular the Andrea Gail and its six-man crew. Building up to the frightening climax is the story of a fishing town, its people and culture, and the perils of daily life on board commercial fishing boats (generally acknowledged as the most dangerous profession). Yet it is also a story of how personal assumptions and decisions determine who will live to fish another day.
Unlike the trite, cardboard characters of many a fiction adventure, the real men and women who experienced this almost inconceivable storm come alive through Junger's careful and respectful representation of the facts. We get to know the tightly bonded folks at the Crow's Nest bar, where fishermen sometimes spend thousands of dollars of hard-earned wages in one night buying drinks for their friends. We get inside the lives of fishermen and their families, lives that would soon be forced to change in ways they always dreaded but never thought would happen to them. And we discover the misgivings and premonitions of crew members when the time came to load the Andrea Gail and head for one last run, ominously late in the season — warnings to which some listened, but others didn't.
As the story unfolds, we learn more than we ever thought we wanted to know about meteorology…dynamics of waves traveling across thousands of miles of ocean (“forty-five-foot breaking waves are much more destructive than rolling swells twice that size”)…the rare monster rogue wave (“avalanches over the decks and buries the Andrea Gail under tons of water”)…hard-learned techniques for finding and catching swordfish (a hook “can whiplash over the rail and snag people in all kinds of horrible ways” and “if it catches some part of the baiter's body or clothing, he goes over the side with it”)…the economics of a competitive fishing industry that could force them to dump a month's worth of catch over the side…and open sea rescue procedures even more dangerous to the rescuers than the stranded crew. Perhaps the most fascinating discussion explores the physiological and psychological reactions of a human drowning at sea — when the body's natural reflexes kick in and panic is “mixed with an odd incredulity that this is actually happening…'So this is how my life finally ends.'”
Junger did a fine job of research and intelligent writing, skills gained from years of writing articles for such publications as Outside Magazine, American Heritage, and Men's Journal. His prose style is clean, highly readable, fresh, and full of vivid imagery:
“There's a certain amount of denial in swordfishing. The boats claw through a lot of bad weather, and the crews generally just batten down the hatches, turn on the VCR, and put their faith in the tensile strength of steel. Still, every man on a sword boat knows there are waves out there that can crack them open like a coconut.”
Junger is faithful to the facts and avoids the usual writer's conceit of embellishing a story with assumptions about what characters said and did. Instead, he wanted to “step back and let the story speak for itself.” As a result, we learn the facts Junger was able to gather through interviews and research, as well as how other fishermen described their similar near-death experiences, and our imagination takes over.
Even with so much detail — or perhaps because of it — we discover our emotions and fears swelling in proportion to the worsening storm, ever more gigantic waves, and gale-force winds. By the end, we have made and lost friends, vicariously gained a heightened fear and respect for the immense power of the ocean, and retained the indelible imprint on our psyche of this amazing drama. Readers of The Perfect Storm will discover a personal impact that establishes a new watermark for high seas drama and adventure.
Read the book. Experience the movie on a big screen when it comes out at the end of June. Then listen to your own premonitions to avoid being on any boat…in any storm…far out in the ocean…with nothing to do but wait helplessly for the next rogue wave to overtake you.
Roy D. Varner, of Tampa, FL, is a professional writer and author of A Matter of Risk, the true story of the CIA's Hughes Glomar Explorer covert mission to raise a sunken Russian nuclear submarine.