Recounting a Shipwreck No one Survived to Tell

Six men boarded the 72-foot fishing vessel the Andrea Gail intended for a late season fishing trip that would end catastrophically. In late October 1991, aware that a storm was brewing, the captain and crew decided to take their swordfish catch and head home from the Grand Banks to Gloucester, Massachusetts. The mother of all storms – one that in meteorological terms was considered “the perfect storm” given the natural events that had to occur to create it – had other plans. No one onboard survived to tell the story and the ship was never recovered. Author Sebastian Junger took on the task of reconstructing this fatal voyage in his 1997 best-seller The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. Twenty-one years after it was published, this book is still commonly cited as having propelled creative nonfiction forward thanks to Junger’s ability to recreate scenes to which he never had access. For creative nonfiction authors, this is a common challenge and it’s one I face as I dig into the stories of my paternal grandfather the fisherman. By dissecting how Junger overcame these challenges, I’m hoping to learn strategies to do the same. To do so, I considered Junger’s research approach – specifically, the paper, places and people he relied on to recount what likely occurred leading up to and during the Andrea Gail’s last voyage. I also considered how Junger’s writing helped to relay his research in a cohesive and creative narrative. Finally, I compared Junger’s work to that of fisher-turned-author Linda Greenlaw based on her book The Hungry Ocean, which captures the experience of captaining the Hannah Boden, the sister ship of the Andrea Gail.

Paper

In Statistics Every Writer Should Know, author Robert Niles writesNumbers can’t ‘talk,’ but they can tell you as much as your human sources can. But as with human sources, you have to ask!” Ask Junger does, of every piece of information he gets. In doing so, he reveals insider and expert knowledge on topics ranging from weather systems to waves to how boats of all shapes and sizes fare in storms to the high risk of injury and death in the commercial fishery to the way humans drown. He sources the national weather service, data buoys, Coastguard and captain logs and more.

To set context for what is at stake for fishermen like those aboard the Andrea Gail, Junger relays a brief history of the rapid decline of swordfish stocks: “From 1987 to 1991, the total North Atlantic swordfish catch went from 45 million pounds to 33 million pounds, and their average size dropped from 165 pounds to 110” (p.67). Junger consults the 1976 Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Fishery Management Plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the United States Department of Commerce. These and other sources point to overgrazing, which adds to the pressure on fishermen – with fewer swordfish available, fishermen must work harder, travel further afield and place themselves in increasing danger to reach their quotes.

Navigating stormy seas is simply part of the job. One logbook Junger sources brings home the severity of the storm that downed the Andrea Gail. Junger begins, “The degree of danger Billy [the captain] is in can be gauged from the beating endured by the Contship Holland, two hundred or so miles to the east. The Holland is a big ship—542 feet and 10,000 tons—and capable of carrying almost seven hundred land/ sea containers on her decks. She could easily take the Andrea Gail as cargo” (p.112). The Holland’s experience shows just how bad the situation gets. At one point, its logbook indicates the ship is labouring hard. Then things go from bad to worse – the ship no longer obeys its rudder and is missing containers from one of its bays. “In other words,” Junger writes, “Billy is riding out a storm that has forced a 10,000-ton containership to abandon course and simply steer to survive.” By comparison, the Andrea Gail was a 72-foot fishing vessel. Details and description like this not only set scene, but also drive home the point: the Andrea Gail and its crew didn’t stand a chance.

Junger similarly relies on logs and records from Coast Guards and weather services. In one instance, he cites a video on file with the Portland Coast Guard. The video, Junger explains, was shot from the “wheelhouse” – the enclosed part of the “bridge” or room housing the steering gear (the “ship’s wheel”). Just as the captain begins to explain that the wheelhouse is the best place to be in the event of inclement weather, “a wall of water the size of a house fills the screen . . . The last thing the camera sees is whitewater coming at it like a big wet fist” (p.96). What may have seemed like an aside – an instructional video – becomes a crucial source for introducing a plausible scenario of what happened to the Andrea Gail. Perhaps the captain thought he too was managing just fine. Junger relies on other sources to thicken the plot. He shares background about the vessel’s Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which is a ship’s last resort to mayday for help. When activated, the EPIRB signals the local Coast Guard to send immediate help. In this case, the captain does not trip the switch. Junger writes, “This can only mean one thing: that’s he’s hopeful about their chances right up until the moment when they have no chance at all” (p.127).

No chance – it’s a theme that Junger continues to hit home thanks to his investigative reporting. He turns to weather sources such as the British Manual of Seamanship to describe the gale force winds on the evening of the vessel’s disappearance. According to his sources, Force 10 gale winds create great patches of foam with rolling waves and a “heavy and shock-like sea;” while Force 11 completely covers the ocean with “long patches of white foam” and “exceptionally high waves” (p.128). Consider then that the Andrea Gail likely faced a Force 12 gale – winds that few boats of this size could withstand. Here, Junger has been economical with the facts to immediately set scene. A reference is all the reader needs to establish the severity of the storm.

Looking back to historical records for insights, Junger finds similar examples of the dangerous conditions of the Grand Banks and surrounding waters. “Since 1650, an estimated ten thousand Gloucestermen have died at sea,” begins Junger, “far more Gloucestermen than died in all the country’s wars. Sometimes a storm would hit the Grand Banks and half a dozen ships would go down, a hundred men lost overnight. On more than one occasion, Newfoundlanders woke up to find their beaches strewn with bodies” (p.45).

It is not enough for Junger to tell us how the ship met its fate. He takes our imagination one step further to describe what the captain and crew likely experienced as they drowned. To do so, he draws upon literature, citing a 1982 issue of the Edinburgh Medical Journal. The article offers a detailed account from a survivor – a Scottish doctor – who was aboard a steamship that sank while heading to Sri Lanka. The doctor managed to jump ship, but the sinking ship dragged him down, causing him to lose consciousness. His life vest shot him back to the surface, but not before he experienced the “‘preternatural calm’ of people facing death” (p.143). To pick up where this account leaves off, Junger cites laboratory experiments that describe the “break point.” That’s when a person’s instinct not to breathe underwater is overcome by their agony of running out of air. “No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn’t inhale until he’s on the verge of losing consciousness,” Junger writes, “At that point there’s so much carbon dioxide in the blood, and so little oxygen, that chemical sensors in the brain trigger an involuntary breath whether he’s underwater or not” (p.141). Based on Junger’s research, the break point comes relatively quickly (after 87 seconds). Junger continues: “Lack of oxygen to the brain causes a sensation of darkness closing in from all sides, as in a camera aperture stopping down. The panic of a drowning person is mixed with an odd incredulity that this is actually happening. Having never done it before, the body—and the mind—do not know how to die gracefully. The process is filled with desperation and awkwardness” (p.142).

While these details are vivid, not all of them are necessary to relaying a plausible story about what happened to the captain and crew of the Andrea Gail. Junger slips into scientific jargon from time to time. Then again, his account has stood the test of time. The only fact that has been challenged in the 20 years since The Perfect Storm was published is the size of the waves that downed the vessel.

Places

We learn from Junger’s preface that his first encounter with this story was limited to standing on the backshore of Gloucester, watching 30-foot swells approach Cape Ann. Junger has clearly spent significant time getting to know every scene as much as humanly possible. He describes the layout of the Andrea Gail; the home port, Gloucester, Massachusetts – at the peak of the New England fishing industry through to its gradual decline and modern day; as well as the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks.

Crucial to understanding the days leading up to the storm is a detailed overview of the Andrea Gail – its layout and its condition. One must rule out if the ship’s demise was a failing in its engineering. But Junger’s description suggests it was well-built and maintained. With a “hull of continuously welded steel plate,” she is 72 feet long and has a “365-horsepower, turbo-charged diesel engine, which is capable of speeds up to twelve knots” (p.30). She is stocked with the appropriate numbers of life preservers, survival suits, an EPIRB (x2) and an auto-inflating life raft. Not only is she outfitted for safety, she’s outfitted for performance – described as “one of the biggest moneymakers in Gloucester harbor” with her “state-of-the-art electronics” (p.30). With this description, we know whatever happened to this vessel was unlikely to do with her condition.

As the storm nears, Junger takes us inside the vessel: “the crew are wedged into a dark little room across from the galley. The bunks are stacked along the inner wall and the starboard hull, and the floor is covered with the detritus that accumulates around young men—clothes, cassette tapes, beer cans, cigarettes, magazines . . . Most fishermen tape photos of their girlfriends to the wall, alongside pages ripped from Penthouse and Playboy, and the crew of the Andrea Gail are undoubtedly no different” (p.74) It’s here where the tragedy begins to play out and since the reader knows the outcome, it’s difficult not to read this without considering the bunks are like coffins – stacked and wedged as they are in the darkness.

The description of the Grand Banks is equally foreboding. They are at once the ideal home for swordfish and other species that lure fishermen to this region, while rife with potential dangers. From the “clump of terrors known as the Virgin Rocks” just off the east coast of St. John’s to the “sheet of cold water called the Labrador Current” to the fast-paced undercurrent of the Gulf Stream to the Eddies (warm core rings of water) that “detach themselves” and “spin off into the North Atlantic, dragging entire ecosystems with them” (p.93). We come to know the Grand Banks as a place to be respected.

Collectively, these scenes help to put the reader into the story, allowing us to journey through the narrative arc with the characters. While, at times, that arc is disrupted to share with the reader critical context and background, these diversions are generally necessary given the content is sometimes obscure and the plot necessarily has holes in it.

People

Perhaps the most crucial strategy Junger relies on to capture this historical narrative in all of its emotion is to interview every potential human source. He talked to the families and friends of crewmembers of the Andrea Gail as well as former crewmembers and those who opted out of this trip before it began; the captain and crew of fishing boats that were caught up in the same storm system; the first responders who tried to locate and communicate with the Andrea Gail and those who worked to rescue others over the same timeframe.

Family, friends and former crewmembers account for everything from the crewmembers’ whereabouts leading up to the voyage to their motivations to pursue a career in fishing to a description of their characters (skin deep and beyond) to their deepest worries and fears. The book opens with an introduction to crewmember Bobby Shatford and his girlfriend, Christina (Chris) Cotter who awake after what appears to be a rough evening of drinking and socializing. It’s the day before the Andrea Gail leaves port, but not before Bobby and Chris visit a couple of local pubs. That’s when we hear from Chris as to how she and Bobby first met: “I’m in the Nest and he’s across the bar and the place is packed and insane and it’s getting’ near the twelve o’clock thing and finally Bobby and I talk and go over to another party. I hung with Bobby, and I did, I brought him home and we did our thing, our drunken thing and I remember waking up the next morning and looking at him and thinking, Oh my God this is a nice man what I have done? I told him, You gotta get out of here before my kids wake up, and after that he started callin’ me” (p.10). We know this is Chris’ voice, as Junger has clarified in the book’s preface that verbatim quotes appear in quotations while recollections appear in italics. It’s quotes like these that grant a sense of the people involved – how they speak, live and interact. Used sparingly, they help to validate the entire narrative.

In another instance, we meet Captain Frank W. “Billy” Tyne Jr’s ex-wife Jodi Tyne. Jodi apparently urged Billy to take up fishing after her cousin’s husband made good money doing so. “It was all over after that,” says Jodi. “The men don’t know anything else once they do it; they love it and it takes over and that’s the bottom line. People get possessed with church or God and fishing’s just another thing they’re possessed with” (p.48). Earlier we learn this is why Jodi divorced Billy: “If he had to pick between me and the boat he picked the boat,” Jodi says (p.15). These quotes get at the underlying motivations of Billy and fishers like him who fish because they must. It’s a small but important piece of information that helps the reader to reconcile why fishers put themselves in repeated grave danger.

Then, there’s Dale R. “Murph” Murphy’s mother who recounts the last time she saw her son. “It took my breath away,” says his mother. “And then he was gone—I mean one minute he was there, the next he was out the door” (p.110). The conversation she shares is eerily foreboding. She suggests he renew his life insurance policy, while he wishes she’d stop worrying, but then asks if she’s kept his high school trophies. She confirms so he suggests she keep them for his son, Dale Jr. Prior to this interaction, we learn about another conversation between Murph and his ex-wife Debra. When they met, Murph told Debra he wouldn’t live past thirty, but they married anyway. Even with his physical stature [“six-foot-two, 250 pounds, covered in tattoos and, apparently, extremely hard to kill” (p.108)], brushes with death and numerous close calls, Murph felt his luck would run out. And run out it did at age thirty. As the reader, these points serve as proof points of what Murph and the other crewmembers likely felt when all was finally lost. We recall these conversations and recollections, even as we follow Junger’s more technical telling of the events that evening. It’s the combination of scene, character and action that bring this story to life.

As the Andrea Gail nears the end of its trip, Junger offers a vantage point of the other vessels and captains in the surrounding areas. “The rest of the fleet is way off to the south and west: Tommy Barrie on the Allison, Charlie Johnson on the Seneca, Larry Horn on the Miss Millie, Mike Hebert on the Mr. Simon, and Linda Greenlaw on the Hannah Boden. There’s also a 150-foot Japanese longliner named the Eishin Maru 78. The Eishin Maru is carrying a Canadian Fisheries observer, Judith Reeves, who is the only person on board who has a survival suit or knows how to speak English. The Mary T is on her way out, and another boat named the Laurie Dawn 8 has just arrived in New Bedford to gear up” (p.64). The list reads like Junger’s sources list, but it also reminds us of the fateful events that had to come together to sink the Andrea Gail, while allowing other vessels or crew to make it through the ordeal.

We hear from fellow captains like Linda Greenlaw. Shortly after hearing about a storm brewing over the Great Lakes, Linda and Billy have a quick conversation, agreeing the weather is likely to be “wicked.” It’s nothing they haven’t seen before based on the exchange and the two decide to connect again. They sign off of what will be their last exchange. Little do they know that “two thousand miles away, weather systems are starting to collide” (p.94). This is an example of a scene within a scene, which helps to relay the fatefulness of what occurred.

Once Billy understands the severity of what’s coming, his choices are limited explains Captain Tommy Barrie. “Billy can either waste several days trying to get out of the way, or he can stay on-course for home. The fact that he has a hold full of fish, and not enough ice, must figure into his decision. ‘He did what ninety percent of us would’ve done—he battened down the hatches and hung on,’ says Tommy Barrie, captain of the Allison. ‘He’d been gone well over a month. He probably just said, ‘Screw it, we’ve had enough of this shit,’ and kept heading home’” (p.98).

When the storm hits, Captain Ernie Hazard explains fear of the worst is likely not top of mind: “Billy’s undoubtedly working too hard at the helm to give drowning much thought. Ernie Hazard claims it was the last thing on his mind. ‘There was no conversation, just real businesslike,’ he says of going down off Georges Bank. ‘You know, “Let’s just get this thing done.” Never any overwhelming sense of danger. We were just very, very busy’” (p.127).

Still, storm conditions like these create sights and sounds no captain wants to see or hear. Linda Greenlaw shares an example of a storm she encountered where “the wind registered a hundred miles an hour” and made a “sound she’d never heard before, a deep tonal vibration like a church organ . . . it was a church organ played by a child” (p.105).

Closing Thoughts

In many ways, Junger’s capturing and retelling of the fatal voyage of the Andrea Gail holds greater challenges than most authors may ever experience. The reader already knows how the story ends, the author was not there and cannot rely on anyone who was there to connect the dots. To fulfill his obligation to the reader – to tell them what they don’t know, to base it in fact to the degree possible and to offer a captivating account that combines scene with character and action – Junger has deeply immersed himself in his subject matter. He knows the main action – the ultimate point of storytelling – but he must recreate every scene as well as the wants and needs of the characters to drive the plot forward. He makes it clear to the reader that which is known, that which is unknowable and that which is plausible. Here are some examples:

  • Relaying fact: “Whatever it is, one thing is known for sure. Around midnight on October 28th—when the storm is at its height off Sable Island—something catastrophic happens aboard the Andrea Gail” (p.135).
  • Relaying the unknowable: “The circumstances that place a boat at a certain place at a certain time are so random that they can’t even be catalogued, much less predicted, and a total of fifty or sixty more people—swordfishermen, mariners, sailors—are also converging on the storm grounds of the North Atlantic. Some of these people have been heading there, unavoidably, for months; others made a bad choice just a few days ago” (p.88).
  • Relaying educated predictions: “certain realities still must come crashing in. At some point Tyne, Shatford, Sullivan, Moran, Murphy, and Pierre must realize there’s no way off this boat. They could trigger the EPIRB, but a night rescue in these conditions would be virtually impossible. They could deploy the life raft, but they probably wouldn’t survive the huge seas. If the boat goes down, they go down with it, and no one on earth can do anything about it” (p.128).

Junger’s exhaustive immersion of the paper, places and people involved are to credit for his ability to create a cohesive narrative. He injects his writing with a healthy dose of rich, vivid detail. He uses analogies to relay content and he creates scenes within scenes – a layering approach that’s necessary given the holes in the main plot. He also takes advantage of relaying the storm as the book’s central character – a wise choice given the many resources at his fingertips with which to know and reveal this character.

It’s difficult to compare Junger’s work to another example, but the closest perhaps is Linda Greenlaw’s The Hungry Ocean, which details what happens aboard a fishing vessel on the Grand Banks during a typical swordfish outing. By comparison, Greenlaw (versus a storm) is the book’s main character. With that, we learn more personal details – what she’s thinking, the anxiety of setting sail, the monotonous routine, the longing for home and family and what she thinks about the food, the dish cleaning schedule and ongoing crew problems, as examples. Junger, on the other hand, must make do with what others tell him, while relying on these and other sources to establish educated guesses as to what the captain and crew saw, did and thought. Junger is able to relay first-person accounts by including evidence from other boats and crews that survived (the yacht Satori; the Contship Holland; the longliner the Eishin Maru) and rescue attempts (one successful, one failed). I would argue that Greenlaw’s telling is a more pleasurable read given it’s more conversational and follows a clear narrative arc. But as a I compare the commonalities in subject matter (e.g., captain-to-captain communication; characterizations of boat-owner, Bob Brown; an overview of the boats in question; prepping for a storm; premonitions before setting out to sea, etc.), it’s Junger who offers more extensive and precise detail. Perhaps that’s because Junger feels he must to establish scene after scene, character after character and action after action.

I walk away from Junger’s book with a deeper appreciation of the sources and strategies for relaying a seemingly impossible-to-tell story. Junger is thorough with the technicalities – getting it right obviously matters to him. He could stand to ease up on the jargon in places – a likely risk of an exhaustive research effort – but overall he delivers a rich account thanks to his reporting chops and dedication.

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