Six men went out to sea, and none came home. They were of temperament wild, and full of salt. Youngsters with all the fight still in them and too much pride to say no to another bloody hunt.
In The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger has painted in harrowing detail the probable last seconds in the lives of these fishermen on the doomed Andrea Gail, a sword boat that went down somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts in October 1991, during what the author called the perfect storm -- "perfect in the
meteorological sense; the storm could not possibly have been worse."
Descriptions of what it's like to drown, taken from survivor's accounts -- "I was thinking, This is it. Just take a mouthful of water and it's over" -- are underpinned with scrupulous scientific detail: "The central nervous system does not know what has happened to the body; all it knows is that not enough oxygen is getting to the brain. Orders are still being issued -- Breathe! Pump! Circulate! -- that the body cannot obey...still, the body is doing everything it can to delay the inevitable."
Throughout the book, Junger never allows more than imagination and educated conjecture about what happened to the six men aboard the Andrea Gail, but his grisly guesswork is the stuff nightmares are made of: "The crew of the Andrea Gail either have laryngospasms or completely inundated lungs. They are suspended, open-eyed and unconscious, in the flooded enclosures of the boat. The darkness is absolute..."
It's tough to write about six dead men, as Junger admits more than once, disclaiming his knowledge of what really happened to the Andrea Gail. No-one knows. Maybe she was crushed under a "rogue wave," described by a rare survivor as "a huge gray wall." Another account tells of a boat "laying-to in a storm when a wave clobbered him out of nowhere, imploding his windows." Junger is at pains to inform the reader "If enough water gets in, it can make its way down to the engine room, soak the wiring, and take on an electric charge. The entire boat gets electrified; everyone standing in water gets electrocuted." Maybe that was the fate of the crew of the Andrea Gail. Or maybe she was lost to "downflooding..a sort of death rattle at sea...it's all over in twenty seconds: the crippled vessel settles in her stern, rears bow-up, and then sinks. She goes down so fast that it looks as if she's getting yanked under by some huge hand."
At every turn of the wind more detail of the life - and death - of a Gloucester fisherman comes smacking us in the face. These guys go out on deck in gales up to 120 miles an hour to replace broken windows with sheets of plywood. If they go below to wait out the storm they may be locking themselves in a living grave, where they can die in one short shock or slowly, competing for the last atoms of air while trying hopelessly to unlock the hatches that were battened down to keep the sea out.
The poignant thing here is that by the time Junger lets these men die, we know them well. We may not love them but we can see what kind of stock
they come from, what they were and might have been. We want them to do better for themselves than hauling in a few thousand pounds of gory catch every few weeks, taking their pay (a unknown percentage that gets whittled away by everything from the cost of groceries to the hourly fluctuating world price of swordfish filets) and drinking through it in a week or so waiting for the next run. "A swordfisherman off a month at sea is a small typhoon of cash. He cannot get rid of the stuff fast enough."
If it's tough to write about six dead men, and try to justify their short lives, it's an equally taxing task of authorship to keep a timeline spooling out, pulling in other characters to give the unknown quantity a known feeling. Other boats and other crews (not a few of them women) took the brunt of the storm but came back home. Junger jams what seems like a glut of facts into the case of the Andrea Gail, without, to use his own oddly ironic metaphor, "allowing the narrative to asphyxiate under a mass of technical detail..."
Air National Guard Pararescue Jumpers - there are only about 350 in the country - enter the story when they fish three people out of the deadly maw of the storm, and wind up having to bail "into the abyss" when they run out of fuel - "We didn't have time to say anything - you want to say goodbye, you want to do a lot of things, but there's no time for that." PJs are trained through "sheer raw abuse...in dunker training, for example, the candidates are strapped into a simulated helicopter and plunged
underwater. If they manage to escape, they're plunged in upside-down. If they still manage to escape, they're plunged in upside-down and blindfolded." The
final score was PJs 3, Perfect Storm 1. PJs never got anywhere near the Andrea Gail.
From the look and feel of local culture and history that Junger steadily reels out , you could say Gloucester fishermen are kids with the courage of madmen. "By and large, young men from Gloucester find themselves at sea because they're broke and need money fast." The book opens their hearts and reveals the raw wreckage of early manhood and the capitalist dream played out at warp speed.
In the background, with the grief tinged voices of those left on shore, are the women -- mother, girlfriend, ex-wife. Junger is no less thorough in hearing them out, and perhaps it is one woman's sorrowful raging that tells the story best:
"Everybody was drunk 'cause that's what we do, but the crisis made it worse, just drinkin' and drinkin' and cryin' and drinkin', we just couldn't conceive that they were gone...I had pictures of what happened, images: Bobby and Sully and Murph just bug-eyed, knowing this is the final moment, looking at each other and this jug of booze goes around real fast because they're trying to numb themselves out, and then Bobby goes flyin' and Sully goes under. But what was the final moment? What was the final, final thing?"