I have returned
Through so many highways
And so many tears
I normally do not start a book review with a pull quote of lyrics from a song, but I happened upon Mark Lanegan’s “Carry Home,” this morning as I sat down to review Sebastian Junger’s 1997 novel, The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, and it felt quite fitting, to say the least.
Humans are of nature, but due to our brains allowing for technological innovation and thinking, we can transcend our nature as biological animals more than any other within the animal kingdom, and more importantly, the reason we’ve adapted and survived this long is that the technological innovation and thinking has allowed us to survive in and alongside nature, even enduring some of the most seemingly inhospitable areas on the globe.
We would be remiss if we ever thought we totally ruled nature with an iron fist, for she is still at the top of the hierarchy. Sure, our technological advancement and planning has meant that natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes kill less people than they used to (although they cost more to recover from because of said advancement), our fates can still be upended by what people call “The Hand of God” at any given moment.
That is the case of the crew of the Andrea Gail, many other fishery crews, and even perhaps the most experienced and trained individuals in all of the United States, PJs, or pararescue jumpers with the Air National Guard — seriously, they seem even more impressive to me than the vaunted Navy Seals and/or Green Berets, at least by Junger’s telling — thereabouts Halloween night 1991.
The “Halloween Gale” that hit them at some point leading up to and on Halloween was considered a storm-of-the-century-, or as Junger uses it, a perfect storm, tantamount to how we might describe a “perfect crime”, i.e.: fate lined up as such to pull off the perfect sequence of events that the police (or in this case, the crews), couldn’t have prevented it, mitigated it, and quite frankly, survived it.
Thanks to Hollywood, we have a vision of the West in the 1800s as the Wild West, with gunslingers and outlaws. But perhaps the last true outlaws are those fishermen and women up and down the East Coast (and still, the West Coast, to be fair) setting out for months at a time to go fishing for swordfish, cod, mackerel, and so on.
Junger makes a point that farmers could be controlled easier because the land that needs to be tilled is the land; it’s not going anywhere. But the sea? You’re not going to control fishermen and women out there.
The anarchists meet the anarchy out on the sea, too. Sure, there are regulations and rules, and the Coast Guard can be a safety net of a kind, but at a certain point, when you reach beyond the reach of the Coast Guard (as in, the ability for a helicopter to reach you and the nearest ship may be twelve hours away), it comes down to you, your crew, the stability of the boat, and the will, and anarchy, of nature itself.
That’s the true takeaway of Junger’s book. The utter madness of these fishermen and women who go out into this anarchy, willingly, like it’s a calling, despite knowing the danger and knowing and accepting that one day, the sea will claim them. Because being on these fishing boats then and now is still by far the most dangerous job in the United States.
Between 2000 and 2015, the average deaths of those in the commercial fishing industry was 117 per 100,000 workers, compared with four per 100,000 workers among all United States workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As Junger pointed out, you’d be “safer” doing two tours in Afghanistan than getting on one of these boats. It’s not necessarily because the Bob Brown’s of the world (the man who owns the Andrea Gail and another boat) are greedy monsters, although the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts probably views him that way, but because dealing with nature is … by its nature, unpredictable.
And we are the beneficiaries, who enjoy salmon, shrimp, pollock and lobster, with a side of corpse (dark, but ya know).
The life of the fishermen and women is so fascinating. The way they go out making thousands of dollars collecting swordfish — and goodness knows, the captains and crew of these ships have to be considered some of the smartest people alive because the way Junger describes what it takes to not only captain a ship, but to catch these fish and get them back to shore sounds like such intricate math and physics, particularly when the captain is trying to navigate a storm — and then come back dumping half of it or more at the Crow’s Nest, the local watering hole, and basically live this nomadic seafaring life where divorce rates are high, children aren’t seen, and near-death (and death) experiences are aplenty.
And the town of Gloucester is just kind of used to it, I guess? But not used to it, either, in the way grief washes up ashore on the cliffs when the bodies don’t. That’s the true tragedy of death at sea: The vastness of the sea means that sometimes, maybe often, the bodies — heck, even the ship! — aren’t ever recovered. There is no burial. There is only a sort of perverted faith that they did die out in sea. As one of the wives (and that’s a whole story unto itself, the wives of some of the fishermen here), Chris, said, she hoped her Bobby was off on an island drinking margaritas.
Junger is a brilliant writer because much like the Titanic, we know how this story ends. We know going into it that we are reading the tragic story of how the Andrea Gail was taken out by a perfect storm, killing all six crewmembers. (By the way, how spooky is it that two of the initial crewmembers backed out because they had a bad feeling about getting on the boat? So, David “Sully” Sullivan came on at the last minute to replace them. Yikes.) Yet, Junger’s writing here, jumping between the technicalities of fishing, of weather, the historical sweep of boats, the build-up to the storm itself, what it must have been like on the ship, and even getting into the claustrophobic, scary details of what it must be like to drown, is deeply fascinating, enthralling and harrowing. It reads like the best kind of thriller, but made all the more tragic because it’s true.
Folks. Imagine being out in the middle of nowhere, beyond the reach of help, when a storm pushing 100 mile-per-hour winds and 70-foot waves comes calling. And looking at the picture of the Andrea Gail in the book … it’s not a big boat! Bigger boats have been easily severed in half by smaller storms. I just can’t imagine the situation the crew found themselves in. Yet, there is still, as detailed by Junger, the feeling among those who do this for a living, such as Charlie Reed, the former captain of the boat, that Billy Thyne, the captain of the Andrea Gail at the time, did what most of them would have done: We’ve been through a storm before, we’ll get through this one, too.
Batten down the hatches isn’t a nautical phrase for nothing.
What gripped me even more though was the Coast Guard and the Air National Guard attempts to rescue others caught up in the Halloween Gale. First, there is the story of the Satori crew. Ray Leonard, a retired sailor from Maine, was looking to set out to Bermuda and needed two people to take with him. He was introduced to Karen Stimpson, one of the most experienced sailors in the area, and Sue Bylander. Leonard disputes the accounts Junger gives in the book, but if the accounts are to be believed, Leonard was not only negligent in ignoring the warnings Stimpson and Bylander were getting about the impending storm, but an abject coward in the way he did nothing once the storm came, leaving it to the two women to try to survive until help came. And then when help did come, the Coast Guard had to literally force him off the boat to be rescued. Ugh.
Secondly, a Japanese sailor named Mikado Tomizawa issued a mayday from his sailboat 250 miles off the Jersey coast, which the Air National Guard responded to — that’s an incredible thing, too, that our people respond to a crisis at sea well beyond our coasts, and you don’t even have to be an American! In another incredible, ugly twist of fate, the helicopter that responded ran out of fuel at the same time the storm was coming in, thanks to a miscommunication, or lack of communication, between the refueling tanker and the Coast Guard command. Seriously, if the helicopter had flown 15 miles in a different direction, they avoid the storm altogether and are probably fine. Instead, one of the crewmembers, a PJ, dies, and the others face a harrowing moment of trying to survive the sea.
Imagine being in the water for five hours with broken ribs, a broken arm and other injuries, floating and bobbing on waves that, at times, took one of the men thirty feet above the deck of the ship that was trying to rescue them. Heck, even just reading about the jump from the helicopter to the water when they were ditching the helicopter, and them hitting the water from 70 feet at more than 40 miles-per-hour to what then is tantamount to concrete at that point, is absurd. When John Spillman, one of the PJs, hit the water, he woke back to consciousness not knowing who he was or where he was.
These PJs, Dave Ruvola, who was flying the helicopter (the fact that he survived upside down in the dark in a helicopter gives me goosebumps even writing that), and the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa are among the most heroic figures I’ve ever read about. What they did to survive, and rescue others, in that storm is the sort of courage we give Medals of Honor to soldiers for.
I was nearly in tears at the recounting of the helicopter ditching and the rescue efforts therein because it was that harrowing. I think my entire body was rigid waiting to see what would happen.
Spillane went on to become a firefighter with the New York City Fire Department, which when I read that, I thought, Oh no, he’s going to be a firefighter at the time of 9/11. But then I found a local 2016 article on his retirement from the department, so he survived again (presuming he responded to 9/11)!
While at sea, I’ve characterized it as Person against Nature, but by extension, perhaps, it is Person against God. As Johnson stated in the book, “You’re in God’s country out there. You can’t make any mistakes.”
But even if you do everything right, and have seemingly the best ship, with the latest technology, nature — and God — do not care. It is as if, as Junger said at one point, God’s hand pushed you under.
Perhaps then, the sea isn’t anarchy, but rather ruled by divine rule and decree: He/She who is of the sea shall be returned to it. And it was so.