The Perfect Storm

By Sebastian Junger

In late October 1991, three completely different weather systems came together and locked gears off the Grand Banks. What resulted was a once-in-a-century freak of nature dubbed by weathermen “the perfect storm” – one that could not possibly have been any worse.

In Sebastian Junger’s true account of the storm and its aftermath, the storm itself is the central character, packing winds of 160-plus km/h and “rogue” waves of nearly 30 meters. Caught in the middle of this meteorological hell is the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat with a crew of six that sank without a trace.

More people are killed working on fishing boats than in any other job in North America. The crew of the Gail are typical: hard-drinking, hard-living, highly-paid ocean cowboys risking their lives to pay child support, alimony, and outrageous bar bills. And while they may not love their jobs, they all shared a deep and fatal attraction to the sea.

Junger’s journalistic, almost clinical prose strips the story to its basic elements – an archetypal conflict of “men against the sea.” But while this may seem like a man’s world, the subtitle is misleading. There are strong women throughout, including one of the best captains in the swordfishing fleet and a pair of women who have to take command of a sinking sloop when the captain sinks into an alcoholic stupor.

But it is the Andrea Gail, beyond the range of Coast Guard assistance, without radio or radar, whose final moments interest us the most.

No one will ever know what really happened to the Gail. Junger says in his Foreword that it was this sense of mystery that first drew him to the story. For most of us, the silence of death has a terrible fascination. What do you do when you know you are about to die? What are your final thoughts? As the girlfriend of one of the drowned sailors says: “I had pictures of what happened, images . . . But what was the final moment? What was the final, final thing?”

The answer to that question may be hard to take. Six pages are spent carefully explaining the process of drowning: the need for oxygen overcoming the submerged victim’s instinct not to inhale (the “break point”), the effect of breathing water into the lungs, the collapse of the lungs’ alveoli, the failure of the heart, the “honey slow” shutdown of the central nervous system. This is as close as anyone wants to come to knowing what it feels like to drown.

But the special quality of this book is the way the mystery doesn’t go away – even after being so carefully anatomized. Though Junger gives us only the facts, he ends with a chapter full of dreams and ghosts and the workings of fate, suggesting that perhaps these are facts as well.

Review first published July 26, 1997.


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