And They Prayed

Chauncey Loomis

  • The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Man Against Nature by Sebastian Junger
    Fourth Estate, 227 pp, £14.99, August 1997, ISBN 1 85702 720 5

In October 1991 various meteorological phenomena combined to generate a ferocious storm off Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the north-east coast of the United States – a once-in-a-hundred-years storm, a ‘perfect storm’ to use the meteorological term that gives Junger his title. The storm itself is his main subject, but he also focuses on the fate of the Andrea Gail, a 72-foot steel swordfisherman out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and her crew of six. Somewhere on the Grand Banks or possibly near desolate Sable Island, the Andrea Gail was destroyed by the storm and her crew drowned. There are no witnesses to this mini-disaster. The men died alone, not only out of sight, but even out of radio or radar contact, and, in re-creating the event, Junger can only speculate – which provides the book with one of its haunting qualities. The subject of man against the elements has rarely been treated so effectively.

As he states them in his Foreword, Junger’s rules for the reconstruction are simple. He will avoid fictionalised dialogue and he will not ascribe unspoken thoughts to his characters. When he uses quotation marks, he is quoting directly from the writings of others or from actual interviews with survivor’s of the same storm, relatives and friends of the drowned men, or people who have experienced what they might have experienced as they suffered their final ordeal. Dialogue as it is remembered by others is recorded without quotation marks. Junger is determined not to invent or distort facts; the story he tells is literally phenomenal, and he does not want to call its authenticity into question.

The unfolding story of the storm and the Andrea Gail, told in the present tense, is interspersed with information on the history, processes and perils of commercial fishing, on meteorology, oceanography, the training of high-sea rescue specialists, the physics of ship design and wave action, the physiology of drowning, and so on. He introduces subplots: the stories of other ships that somehow survived, the story of the yacht Satori, which was destroyed by the storm but not before its crew of three was rescued, the story of a rescue helicopter crew who were forced to ditch their craft in the open sea at the height of the storm, and others.

At the beginning of the book Junger concentrates on the men who will drown, on their working lives as offshore fishermen and on their personal lives. He wants us to know that the crew who went down with the Andrea Gail were representative commercial fishermen and individuals, too. Junger is writing partly with the naturalist impulses of a Zola or a Dreiser, and he is interested in the way work shapes his characters’ lives – the doomed swordfishermen in particular. He begins the book with an almost novelistic account of Bobby Shatford waking up beside his girlfriend Chris Cotter in a bedroom above a bar in Gloucester. He has a black eye and a hangover – all the details are supplied by Chris in interview – and can’t remember much of what happened the night before except that she gave him the black eye. As the couple wander around Gloucester, picking up some of the other men who will sail on the Andrea Gail that day, they begin to drink again. We are introduced to Gloucester’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’, three bars where fishermen gather and lavishly spend their hard-earned money. Chris is divorced and has three children; Bobby is separated and has two. They hope to be married, and in order to make ends meet, Bobby has recently taken to swordfishing, largely out of desperation. Junger believes that most offshore fishermen are not driven by the romance of the open sea: ‘By and large, young men from Gloucester find themselves at sea because they’re broke and need money fast.’ The work can pay off. On his only previous trip – also on the Andrea Gail – Bobby made $4,537 in a month on the Grand Banks, and Captain Billy Tyne made $20,000. The Perfect Storm is not Captains Courageous, even though Kipling’s fishermen do sail out of Gloucester; nor is it an adventure story. Reading it, I was reminded of something I once heard the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson say: ‘I hate the very word “adventure” – it means that something has gone wrong.’

Offshore fishing is demanding: voyages often last a month or longer and many of those returning from one voyage only remain on land for a few days before leaving on another. It is very harsh and very dangerous. According to Junger there are more fatalities in commercial fishing than in any other occupation in the United States, and The Perfect Storm is filled with stories about men being mauled by sharks and swordfish, injured by machinery, washed overboard and, of course, sucked under by their sinking boats. Perhaps the worst horror is what can happen to a careless or unlucky baiter. The boats can troll up to 40 miles of monofilament line strung with lightsticks to illuminate bait, small floating bobbers, bigger bobbers with radar reflectors, even special radio transmitters placed one to every eight miles of line – and thousands of large hooks. (The value of such a rig can be $20,000, Junger tells us, and sometimes a captain will endanger his boat and its crew to save one.) Each hook has to be baited at the stern as the line rolls off a huge drum, often in turbulent weather, and the baiter faces the nightmare of being skewered by one of the hooks, pulled overboard, and drowned as he’s dragged in agony behind the boat.

All of which accounts for the busy bars in Gloucester’s Bermuda Triangle; the hectic and disorderly life of some of those who fish for a living; and, indeed, the orderly and devout life of others, particularly in the past when offshore fishing was even more dangerous than it is now. Junger describes the ways those who stayed ashore dealt with fears for their loved ones, and concludes with a detail typical of many in the book:

And they prayed. They walked up Prospect Street to the top of a steep rise called Portagee Hill and stood beneath the twin bell towers of Our Lady of Good Voyage ... Between the towers is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, who gazes down with love and concern at a bundle in her arms. This is the Virgin who has been charged with the safety of the local fishermen. The bundle in her arms is not the infant Jesus: it’s a Gloucester schooner.

The book is one of those, almost a genre, that honour hardship, and endurance in the face of that hardship. It describes a way of life that is almost incomprehensible to most of us in our comfortable environments and sedentary occupations. The dory fishermen of the past who left their schooners to cast nets on the banks endured things that would destroy most of us, and they knew there was a daily possibility they would not return. The long-line fishermen today, for all their modern equipment designed for safety and comfort (radio, radar, sonar, long-range radio navigation, air-conditioning, video-cassette television, and so on), still lead lives like those of their predecessors, where the elements dominate, no matter how hard the crew try to insulate themselves with technology.

Wind and water overwhelm The Perfect Storm, leaving the reader with images of a tumultuous power: waves a hundred feet high driven by winds of over 80 knots. This is where Junger’s narrative techniques are most skilful. Instead of generating effects by pitching his rhetoric high, he keeps his voice calm and controlled. His characters may indulge in their own strain of lyricism when they talk, but as a narrator Junger tends to avoid it:

The Andrea Gail has a high bow that would force Billy [Billy Tyne, the captain] to oversteer simply to stay on course. One can imagine Billy standing at the helm and gripping the wheel with the force and stance one might use to carry a cinder block. It would be a confused sea, mountains of water converging, diverging, piling up on themselves from every direction. A boat’s motion can be thought of as the instantaneous integration of every force acting on it in a given moment, and the motion of a boat in a storm is so chaotic as to be almost without pattern. Billy would just keep his bow pointed into the worst of it and hope he doesn’t get blindsided by a freak wave.

When Junger is providing background information – on the physics of wind and wave action, for example, or what happens to a man who is drowning – he writes in an almost cold scientific mode. Speculating about the final moments of the men on the Andrea Gail, he describes the first involuntary breath taken by a drowning person:

A spasmodic breath drags water into the mouth and windpipe, and then one of two things happens. In about 10 per cent of people, water – anything – touching the vocal cords triggers an immediate contraction in the muscles around the larynx. In effect, the central nervous system judges something in the voice box to be more of a threat than low oxygen levels in the blood, and acts accordingly. This is called a laryngospasm. It’s so powerful that it overcomes the breathing reflex and eventually suffocates the person. A person with laryngospasm drowns without any water in his lungs. In the other 90 per cent of people, water floods the lungs and ends any waning transfer of oxygen to the blood.

Often the book combines the two modes (the ‘scientific’ and the ‘human’, to oversimplify the distinction), as in the deaths of the crew:

All chemical reactions, and metabolic processes, become honey-slow, and the brain can get by on less than half the oxygen it normally requires ... The crew of the Andrea Gail do not find themselves in particularly cold water, though; it may add five or ten minutes to their lives. And there is no one around to save them anyway. The electrical activity in their brain gets weaker and weaker until, after fifteen or twenty minutes, it ceases altogether. The body could be likened to a crew that resorts to increasingly desperate measures to keep their vessel afloat. Eventually the last wire has shorted out, the last bit of decking has settled under the water. Tyne, Pierre, Sullivan, Moran, Murphy and Shatford are dead.

The Perfect Storm is reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat’. Crane’s masterful short story, based on his own experience, describes the ordeal of four men in an open boat after a shipwreck. It is famous for its impressionism – the first sentence reads: ‘None of them knew the colour of the sky.’ But the style is actually a combination of impressionism and irony. At times, instead of evoking their point of view, the narrator looks down at the men with an air of ironic disengagement:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot, he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself.’

  A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

Both Crane and Junger show us the distance between human beliefs, hopes and values and the indifference of the universe – a tragedy for the protagonists, an irony to the disengaged observer. One of Crane’s achievements is that he communicates both points of view. Junger does not use irony often, but his frequent recourse to a scientific style of writing has ironic effects.

In his book there are no personifications of nature to pelt with our jeers. He preserves the mystery of great natural forces being unleashed even while devoting pages to scientific explanation of them: in fact, The Perfect Storm suggests the inadequacy of science to satisfy the need for explanation. Junger’s descriptions of the forces that create wind and waves, and of the physics involved in a boat capsizing, only underscore the impossibility of answering the question: why were the Andrea Gail and its crew swallowed up by the sea?

He has given us a great deal of information about all sorts of things, in the knowledge that his readers consciously or unconsciously will try to find some sort of explanation in all those facts: facts about how two separate storms gathered and combined to create the perfect storm, about boatbuilding, about the Grand Banks and the Georges Banks, about the economics of commercial fishing, about the personal and professional lives of commercial fishermen, about radio and radar. We read the book knowing from the outset that the Andrea Gail and her men will go down. Read with that foreknowledge, the information takes on an ominous cast. Maybe, we think, all that stuff conspired in some terrible way to create the small, unwitnessed disaster of the Andrea Gail. There must be a design in there somewhere, we think – wondering whether we want the disaster to have come about by design or not.

In his sonnet ‘Design’, Robert Frost tells of finding a dreadful little scene on a morning walk: a fat white spider on a white flower holding up a dead moth – ‘assorted characters of death and blight’, he calls them. He asks why that particular flower, normally blue, was unnaturally white – and then he asks:

What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

His answer to that question is another question, followed by a wry qualification with a big ‘if’:

What but design of darkness to appal? –
If design govern in a thing so small.