It is a struggle as old as humanity itself and perhaps that is why the ongoing battle of human against nature resonates with such resilience in the hearts and minds of readers of the adventure tale. A solitary figure standing on a beach can rail against the elements of sand, sea, and rain and feel in control, but omnipotence rests on terra firma. Place that same person on a boat tossed about on a roiling sea, a sky reverberating with crescendos of thunder, water-bullets screaming from the heavens, and prayers for deliverance are the only words that pass humbled lips.
In October 1991, on the Grand Banks off the coast of Nova Scotia, the 72-foot swordfish boat Andrea Gail turns west to begin its journey home to Gloucester, Massachusetts. It's been a successful run and the Gail's hold is full of fish, but disturbing news over the radio puts captain Billy Tyne on alert. Storms are approaching and with a full hold the Andrea Gail sits low in the water. What transpires over the next few days forms the body of Sebastian Junger's powerful and riveting THE PERFECT STORM.
Founded in 1623, Gloucester has always been a fishing village. The community's penchant for tolerance, if not outright debauchery, brought hardened sailors from far and wide, and Gloucester's population grew with its reputation. "If the fishermen lived hard, it was no doubt because they died hard as well. In the industry's heyday, Gloucester was losing a couple of hundred men every year to the sea, four percent of the town's population. Since 1650, an estimated ten thousand Gloucestermen have died at sea."
The Grand Banks, in addition to being one of the richest fishing regions in the world, happens to lie on one of the world's worst storm tracks, where low pressure systems that form over the Great Lakes and Cape Hatteras follow the jet stream right over these prime fishing grounds. If the occupation of fisherman isn't dangerous enough, the added element of weather imbues the job with a mortality rate much worse than that of a New York City police officer.
The Gloucester swordfisherman stalks an animal that wields the bony extension of its upper jaw in wild slashing movements that eviscerate anything in its path, be it the schools of fish through which it swims or the arms of a deckhand unlucky enough to have misplaced his gaff. The fish has been known to run its sword right through the hull of a boat.
Harpooning was the primary method of landing the swordfish in the 19th century, but modern swordfishermen play out nearly 40 miles of line rigged with over 1,000 baited hooks. One can be easily snagged by the hooks as they're spooled in or out of the boat, and a deckhand's dexterity and balance may be compromised by the rocking platform of the boat and the constant wash of seawater over the rails. So why would a person choose this occupation? The answer is simple --- money. In the mid-1980s, an average weekly take for the lowest deckhand on a successful run was $10,000, but for every week like that, there were countless weeks that resulted in a bust.
Junger weaves this history lesson of the region, the fishing industry, and relevant meteorological data seamlessly with the personal lives of the crew of the Andrea Gail to fashion a thorough portrait of the quotidian existence of a Gloucester fishing vessel. The courage, hopes, and dreams of the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail compete with their fear and respect of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of the boat, exhaustion is a given and talk centers on the desire to be back home. None of them can know that on this journey each will come face to face with something the likes of which this region has rarely seen, "the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event... the perfect storm."
From the dead calm that is an eerie precursor of the rage that will follow, "the Andrea Gail enters the Sable Island storm the way one might step into a room. The wind is instantly forty knots and parting through the rigging with an unnerving scream." Moments later Billy Tyne radios other fishing vessels in the area, reporting that the wind is "blowin' fifty to eighty and the seas are thirty feet." One last radio message is heard from the Andrea Gail --- "She's comin' on boys, and she's coming on strong."
Junger's prose comes on just as strong. With harrowing descriptions of the events that follow, including the courageous rescue efforts by the Coast Guard and the Air National Guard, Junger puts the reader in the middle of the action. Yet, for all the brilliance of his graphically detailed documentation of what transpired during those fateful hours, it's Junger's compassion for those who people this real-life drama that infuses THE PERFECT STORM with its heart, resurrecting the bodies of the ill-fated crew and making them rise from these pages.
Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on June 30, 2004
The Perfect Storm