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The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men against the Sea (1997)

by Sebastian Junger

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5,713901,537 (3.9)197
The incredible true account of the most extraordinary storm of the 20th century, this is the story of a tempest born from so rare a combination of factors it was deemed "perfect" and of the doomed fishing boat with her crew of six that was helpless in the midst of a force beyond comprehension.
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Here's what I wrote in 2008 about this read: "Highly memorable, the fated Andrea Gail, lost a sea in the perfect storm, in 1991. Also made into a movie, but did not see." ( )
  MGADMJK | Sep 22, 2022 |
Things I like:

Setting the story: I guess everyone has a good idea of where this 'story' is going, but rather than jumping straight into the action, he spends time building out the context in which the story takes place. I like this.

Scientific asides: The author manages to make subjects such as oceanography, weather patterns and deep sea fishing really interesting. I found some of the descriptions

Things that could be improved: POV: who's talking, I can't tell. I appreciate this is nonfiction, but I find this confusing. I'd prefer, if it was an attributed account. Quite often the perspective jumps between the narrator and witnesses; often in way that was jarring and confusing.

Focus of the story, I think the story maybe focused a little too much on the Andrea Gale. I think if the story had been a bit more balanced I would have enjoyed it more. For instance in the last 10 pages or so of the book he mentions another ship that lost all of its crew in a second storm (33 crew all lost) this gets only a passing glance while the Andrea Gales crew takes up half the story

Notes:

"Reminds me a bit of Moby Dick in the way it seems to oscilate between the main story action (the crew of the Andrea Gale) and background information (in Moby Dick it was about whales, in this one it's about fishing industry in Gloucester)."

Overall: A good read that makes the nonfiction content really jump off the page. I think for me the stand out feature was probably description of scientific principals.
( )
  benkaboo | Aug 18, 2022 |
I couldn't finish this book as it didn't hold my interest. Maybe it was the setting, but maybe not as Moby Dick held my attention . . . . ( )
  LuanneCastle | Mar 5, 2022 |
It doesn't take Sebastian Junger's quotations from Moby-Dick and the Bible, used to open some of his chapters in The Perfect Storm, to make you realise that the sea and the men who navigate it has long been fertile ground for literary endeavours. The true story recorded in Junger's breakout piece of narrative journalism would be innately fascinating told by any hand: a crew of six hardened fishermen aboard a small commercial fishing vessel find themselves at the mercy of a once-in-a-century "meteorological hell" (pg. 104) in the open Atlantic. A storm – the "perfect storm", in fact (pg. 150) – a confluence of various extreme weather fronts over our doomed everymen, including a hurricane, that ultimately sinks the Andrea Gail and its occupants without trace.

That the ship and its men are lost is not a spoiler, for want of a better term, for how could it be otherwise? Junger goes into great detail about the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Andrea Gail and its souls: how such a 'perfect' storm brewed; about so-called 'rogue' waves and how even top-of-the-line ships can have their backs broken by them; about how oil tankers and even aircraft carriers would be at risk faced with a single big wave, let alone a small fishing boat facing countless numbers of them, from all directions, relentlessly over the course of many hours.

A mere recitation of some of the facts Junger unpacks is mind-boggling: "the combined nuclear arsenals of the United States and the former Soviet Union don't contain enough energy to keep a hurricane going for one day" (pg. 102); on one large ship, the storm peeled shipping containers "open like sardine cans, forty feet above the surface" (pg. 114); during a rescue elsewhere in the storm, the waves took the man in the water thirty feet higher than the rescuers in a hovering helicopter (pg. 197). The waves in the Perfect Storm topped 100 feet, among the highest waves ever recorded (pg. 119). There may well have been higher ones throughout history, but they are so unpredictable and so devastating that those who likely encountered them did not live to tell it. I read part of Junger's book at work, in the break-room of my office building, and was stunned to realise, looking down, that the waves which struck the men of the Andrea Gail would be almost twice as high as from where I stood. I'm not of a mind to quit my desk job and join the fishing fleet, let me tell you.

I took my time reading the book, because even the contemplation of any single part of this scenario is frightening. To know that these people – real people, to those lives Junger devotes many pages – actually faced that, at their end, in the dark, is unimaginable. Junger, nevertheless, undertakes a number of strategies to bridge the imagination gap. His account of the final moments of the Andrea Gail, he freely admits, can only be conjecture, but he bases his conjecture on research and on the experiences of those who survived similar events, including fishermen who counted the men of the Andrea Gail among their friends. He supplements this with in-depth yet readable information on sword-fishing, search-and-rescue, and meteorology. By the time the reader finishes the book, Junger has given them so much relevant information that even the most complacent reader no longer wonders how mere water and wind could sink a modern sea-going vessel. In fact, the reader likely goes to the opposite extreme, and wonders how or why any man would ever choose to lose sight of shore. When we first read, on page 70, of how "more people are killed on fishing boats, per capita, than in any other job in the United States", we think of possible negligence and safety measures and technological advances. By the end, we look back on that quote and reach, like the fishermen often do, for superstition, fate, and a primal respect for the naked forces which brawl across the world.

Junger supplements his account of the men of the Andrea Gail with other "nightmarish, white-knuckle business" which took place during the Perfect Storm (pg. 182), not least the afore-mentioned helicopter rescue. Knowing that other men died during the storm helps provide some perspective: this is not a romance of the sea, a tragic tale that affected the Andrea Gail especially, the ship a unique icon marked out for some moral lesson about the hubris of man. Junger strips away pretensions, sentimentality and literary artifice; he soberly constructs an environment where the smallness of man and the arbitrariness of the ocean – a place where 70-foot waves roam "like surly giants" (pg. 138) – are the only possible conclusions. When the Andrea Gail goes down, there is no music playing, no nobility on display; only desperation and futile human struggle. This is one great advantage the book has over its movie adaptation of the same name. Not only does the movie have the music playing, but it feels obliged to add some counterfeit drama to the story: George Clooney's character is portrayed as having deliberately headed into the storm when he could have escaped it. Hollywood abhors a narrative vacuum; if those men had to die on screen there had to be a token moral lesson behind it, and the token they reached for was hubris, and perhaps greed.

Junger, in contrast – and to his great credit – has no qualms about facing the reality of the true story. The circumstances he has laid out show us clearly that the Andrea Gail had no time or ability to escape; not only were storms an occupational hazard for seasoned fishermen, but the boat steps into the Perfect Storm "the way one might step into a room" (pg. 105). Such turns of phrase are not infrequent in the book, and Junger's deployment of them does much to keep the reader anchored during the wild unfathomability of the events described. Nowhere is the depth and reality of the tragedy more apparent than in the sequence of pages where, with the Andrea Gail going down with all hands, Junger dissects, at torturous length, the sensations and the medical immediacy of drowning (pp140-6). Strange as it might sound, I mean the word 'torturous' positively; Junger's unavoidable forensic reality mimics the helplessness and the banal tragedy of these men in that moment. It's so potent it's unbearable.

And yet, strangely, it's not voyeuristic; Junger recognises a wound is healed by being touched with care, not by being ignored. The deaths are appalling – and they were real men – but it would be disrespectful if the story was told using euphemisms and polite evasions. This is great, mature writing, and throughout The Perfect Storm Junger achieves a balancing act of respect towards the dead, respect towards the sea, and respect towards what the reader can take in (emotionally and meteorologically). I mentioned at the start of my review that stories of the sea have long been fertile ground for our imagination, and the story of The Perfect Storm would have been arresting even if told by a second-rate writer. That Junger is able to add writing of real calibre to the piece makes it truly special. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Feb 28, 2022 |
Sebastian Junger

The Perfect Storm
A True Story of Men Against the Sea

Harper, Paperback, n.d.

16mo. xv+301 pp. Foreword [xiii-xv] and Afterword [January 1998, 290-9] by the author.

First published by W. W. Norton, 1997.
First Harper paperback edition, July 1998.
19th printing per number line, n.d.

Contents

Foreword

Georges Bank, 1896
Gloucester, Mass., 1991
God’s Country
The Flemish Cap
The Barrel of the Gun
Graveyard of the Atlantic
The Zero-Moment Point
The World of the Living
The Dreams of the Dead

Afterword
Acknowledgments

===========================================================

I was impressed enough with the movie. But the book provides a far more comprehensive coverage, not to say far more disturbing experience. Sebastian Junger has written something very much like a masterpiece. Forget Petersen and Clooney: they cannot even compete here.

Mr Junger has covered everything from the intricacies of longlining and the fishing history of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to a great deal of meteorology, oceanography and shipbuilding. There is even some physiology, for instance a graphic description of death by drowning. All this came from library research. Many reviewers have found the detail excessive. I’m not one of them, though. I was most curious to know what it takes to catch a swordfish or break a boat. And I was terrified to learn that waves a hundred feet high were actually registered during this Perfect Storm. (Even to us, backward metric people, a hundred feet sounds a lot for a wave; when we realise this means thirty meters, it is jolly terrifying.) There are no foot- or endnotes and Mr Junger’s armchair research must be given the benefit of the doubt. I have checked some of his facts online and they appear to be true.

But Mr Junger also did a good deal field research. He learned as much as he could about the six men who died on the Andrea Gail, the 22-meter fishing boat that disappeared without a trace (except for a few pieces of flotsam) in the Perfect Storm. He talked with their friends, relatives and colleagues, he drank many beers in their favourite bar, the Crow’s Nest, and if he doesn’t exactly turn them into characters, he certainly gives a vivid and visceral glimpse into their lives. “No dialogue was made up”, Mr Junger is emphatic in his foreword. Some conversations are given without quotation marks, but even they were based on memories. All this cannot be checked so easily and must be taken in good faith. But I’m willing to trust the author.

On the whole, Mr Junger is careful to distinguish fact from speculation and his book never reads like a novel. In fact, it is much more engrossing than most novels.

The writing is clear and concise, with a strong storytelling drive despite the wealth of detail and frequent, casual, unpretentious poetic flights. Most important of all, the style has a combination of humour and compassion all too rare in non-fiction. In other words, Mr Junger has a sharp sense of the absurd and the ability not to make too much fun of it. This is a most precious quality when one has to deal with such peculiar fellows like fishermen, especially those who specialise in swordfish in the North Atlantic. It’s not yachting on the Lake Michigan!

It’s a hard life indeed! According to Mr Junger, this is the most dangerous profession in the US: no other has a higher death rate per capita. Gloucester fishermen – of whom an estimated 10,000 have died at sea since 1650, up to couple of hundred a year in the industry’s heyday – are the definition of tough guys. They go to sea for a month, at least, of continuous hard work. This brings them about $5,000 if they are regular fellows, $20,000 if they are skippers – and $50,000 if they are boat owners safely waiting on land. After a month at sea, the fishermen spent at most a week on land before they sail again. All they want during this week is to get drunk and get laid. They usually have no trouble spending everything just earned: sometimes they come back aboard barefooted. And that’s it: eight or nine times every year. You’re lucky to grow old in this trade. You’re most unlucky to be the wife or girlfriend or mother to one of these fellows. “It’s a young man’s game, a single man’s game”, says the mother of Bobby Shatford who went fishing on the Andrea Gail and never came back.

Mr Junger describes all this and a great deal more with infinitely greater skill than I can ever hope to achieve. He is no starry-eyed dreamer, and he does allow himself a healthy dose of cynicism. The sense of humour and the poetic turn of phrase are never far behind, but neither are the awareness of death that haunts fishermen or the author’s empathy with their unique plight:

Perhaps you’d have to be a skipper to really fall in love with the life. (A $20,000 paycheck must help.) Most deckhands have precious little affection for the business, though; for them, fishing is brutal, dead-end job that they try to get clear of as fast as possible. At memorial services in Gloucester people are always saying things like, “Fishing was his life,” and “He died doing what he loved,” but by and large those sentiments are to comfort the living. By and large, young men from Gloucester find themselves at sea because they’re broke and need money fast.

The only compensation for such mind-numbing work, it would seem, is equally mind-numbing indulgence. A swordfisherman off a month at sea is a small typhoon of cash. He cannot get rid of the stuff fast enough. He buys lottery tickets fifty at a time and passes them around the bar. If anything hits he buys fifty more plus drinks for the house. Ten minutes later he’ll tip the bartender twenty dollars and set the house up again; slower drinkers may have two or three bottles lined up in front of them. When too many bottles are lined up in front of someone, plastic tokens are put down instead, so that the beer doesn’t get warm. (It’s said that when someone passes out at the Irish Mariner, arguments break out over who gets his tokens.) A fisherman off a trip gives the impression that they’d hardly bother to bend down and pick up a twenty-dollar bill that happened to flutter on the floor. The money is pushed around the bartop like dirty playing cards, and by closing time a week’s worth of pay may well have been spent. For some, acting like money means nothing is the only compensation for what it actually must mean.


What keeps men spending “ten months a year inside seventy feet of steel plate”, Mr Junger wonders? Why do they do things like baiting which “has all the glamour of a factory shift and considerably more of the danger”? Well, unromantic as it sounds, money. Every catch is a lottery ticket. Even the most jaded fisherman hopes for something extraordinary when it’s time to haul. And yet, the Gloucester record so far has been only $10,000 for the poorest hand after a single journey: only twice the usual amount and even that is rare indeed. On the other hand, the physical dangers are enormous and the mental strain often intolerable. People would do anything to keep themselves sane at sea, even read books: “there are high school dropouts who go through half a dozen books on the Grand Banks.” They would even trade washing dishes for a pack of cigarettes. This leads to singular reductio ad absurdum: “the longer the trip, the cheaper labor gets, until a $50,000-a-year fisherman is washing dishes for a single smoke.”

No wonder fishermen spend most of their time on land in bars like no others in the world, the kind of place where you can be drunk enough to drop a roll of banknotes and the bartender honest enough to keep them in the safe for you. The Crow’s Nest is a surreal place which “has a touch of orphanage to it. It takes people in, gives them a place, loans them a family.” There are rooms upstairs where you can stay for a few hours or a few years. Downstairs you can have any number of drinks at leisure thanks to brilliantly designed “curtained windows” that allow people to see out but not to be seen. “The entire bar can watch who’s about to appear in their collective reality, and then the back door offers an alternative to having to deal with it.” Most clients are locals and regulars. Boston is just a 45-minutes drive away but it might as well be 45 light years away. Many fishermen have hardly ever been out of Gloucester, not counting the ocean of course; they “see the Grand Banks more often than, say, the next town down the coast.” Mr Junger has surpassed himself with that description. Herman Melville couldn’t have done it better.

No wonder the Crow’s Nest became a massive tourist attraction after the book was published. But nothing beats the grocery shopping for a month at sea, which is Mr Junger and the Gloucester fishermen at something above even their stupendous best. Another lengthy quotation is due here:

One of the things about commercial fishing is that everything seems to be extreme. Fishermen don’t work in any normal sense of the word, they’re at sea for a month and then home celebrating for a week straight. They don’t earn the same kind of money most other people do, they come home either busted or with quarter-million dollars’ worth of fish in their hold. And when they buy food for the month, it’s not something any normal person would recognize as shopping; it’s a retail catastrophe of Biblical proportions.

Murph and Sully drive to the Cape Ann Market out on Route 127 and begin stalking up and down the aisles throwing food into their carts by the armful. They grab fifty loaves of bread, enough to fill two carts. They take a hundred pounds of potatoes, thirty pounds of onions, twenty-five gallons of milk, eighty-dollar racks of steak. Every time they fill a cart they push it to the back of the store and get another one. The herd of carts start to grow – ten, fifteen, twenty carts – and people stare nervously and get out of the way. Murph and Sully grab anything they want and lots of it: ice cream sandwiches, Hostess cupcakes, bacon and eggs, creamy peanut butter, porterhouse steaks, chocolate-coated cereal, spaghetti, lasagna, frozen pizza. They get top-of-the-line food and the only thing they don’t get is fish. Finally they get thirty cartons of cigarettes – enough to fill a whole cart – and round their carts up like so many stainless steel cattle. The store opens two cash registers especially for them, and it takes half an hour to ring them through. The total nearly cleans Sully out; he pays while Murph backs the truck up to a loading dock, and they heave the food on and then drive it down to Rose’s wharf. Bag by bag, they carry $4,000 worth of groceries down into the fish hold of the
Andrea Gail.

The Andrea Gail is the main part of the story. By no means is it the whole story. The sailboat Satori whose crew of three were rescued and the controlled ditching of a helicopter with PJs (pararescue jumpers) offer important accounts by people who survived the Perfect Storm. Mr Junger again conducted interviews, studied radio conversations and ship logs, and used all this material wisely. The movie retains these subplots and sticks very closely to the real events, but the book again goes far deeper and makes for a more thrilling experience. Chilling, too! These people faced what they thought was certain death. They survived against impossible odds. It is to Mr Junger’s credit that he resists the temptation to doubt their testimonies. But as a notorious cynic, I would suggest to treat the words of these people with a grain of salt. They thought they were going to die. But that’s the point: they didn’t. What they now think they thought then may well be more hindsight than anything else.

The near-death testimonies are nevertheless fascinating, as are even smaller parts of the big picture. Even bigger vessels than the Andrea Gail were in serious danger in the Perfect Storm. Their stories are a telling way to convey the Storm’s incredible force. This is not something that can be understood in absolute terms. It can be expressed in them, but it needs to be compared to something familiar in order to be grasped. A 30-meter wave is a frightening thing to imagine. But what exactly can it do? What damage can it cause? The container ship Contship Holland lost 36 containers in the Perfect Storm. They were just washed away in the sea; others were peeled open “like sardine cans, forty feet above the surface”. That’s what waves can do on decks. And that was a large ship, 165 m (that’s 542 feet for our imperial friends) and 10,000 tons; it could have taken the Andrea Gail as cargo. According to its log, at one time Contship Holland ceased to obey the rudder and abandoned course, steering simply to survive. Something similar happened on a 150-foot Japanese longliner that carried a Canadian Fisheries observer who had another near-death experience.

All in all, this is a terrific and terrifying book, shamelessly readable and disturbingly unforgettable. It deserves a lavish illustrated edition in folio format, but meanwhile even a tattered sixteenmo paperback will do very nicely. It’s a beautifully written text that can be read as both a history/science textbook and a great adventure tale – several tales indeed, and all of them true. Even Mr Junger’s chapter epigraphs are worth reading. One of them sums up the book perfectly. It comes from Chapter 11 of Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816) and really hits the wave on the crest: “It’s no fish ye’re buying – it’s men’s lives.” Indeed! The only better summary I can think of is Byron’s in Childe Harold (IV, 179). Mr Junger’s failure to quote this favourite stanza of mine is the only defect of his book that I can see. I conclude by rectifying his oversight:

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin – his control
Stops with the shore; – upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan –
Without a grave – unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.
( )
1 vote Waldstein | Oct 1, 2021 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sebastian Jungerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bourdier, JeanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davidson, Richard M.Narratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
It's no fish ye're buying, it's men's lives.
- Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, Chapter 11
Dedication
This book is dedicated to my father, who first introduced me to the sea.
First words
One midwinter day off the coast of Massachusetts, the crew of a mackerel schooner spotted a bottle with a note in it.
Quotations
The two vessels pass by each other without a word or a sign, unable to communicate, unable to help each other, navigating their own courses through hell.
Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case, this is the perfect storm. As a result of this horrible alignment, the bulk of the sword fleet – way out by the Flemish Cap – is spared the brunt of the storm, while everyone closer to shore gets pummeled.
People who work on boats have a hard time resisting the idea that certain ones among them are marked, and that they will be reclaimed by the sea. The spitting image of a man who drowned is a good candidate for that; so are all his shipmates. Jonah, of course, was marked, and his shipmates knew it. Murph was marked and told his mother so. Adam Randall was marked but had no idea; as far as he was concerned, he just had a couple of close-calls. After the Andrea Gail went down e told his girlfriend, Chris Hansen, that while he was walking around on board he felt a cold wind on his skin and realized that no one on the crew was coming back. He didn't say anything to them, though, because on the waterfront that isn't done – you don't just tell six men you think they're going to drown. Everyone takes their chance,s and either you drown or you don't.
Anyone who has been through a severe storm at sea has, to one degree or another, almost died, and that fact will continue to alter them long after the winds have stopped blowing and the waves have died down. Like a war or a great fire, the effects of a storm go rippling outward through webs of people for years, even generations. It breaches lives like coastlines and nothing is ever again the same.
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The incredible true account of the most extraordinary storm of the 20th century, this is the story of a tempest born from so rare a combination of factors it was deemed "perfect" and of the doomed fishing boat with her crew of six that was helpless in the midst of a force beyond comprehension.

No library descriptions found.

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With its nail-biting suspense and nonstop action, The Perfect Storm has the makings of a superb thriller. But this story of a once-in-a-century meterological occurence, the lives it changes, and the lives it claimed is achingly real. Junger's account of the fate of a group of swordfishermen battling a storm off the Newfoundland coast opens a door into the world of commercial fishing, historically among the most dangerous of occupations. Junger reveals how a finite supply of fish forces boats farther out to sea, and in increasingly hazardous conditions. He explains the unique set of circumstances that led to a storm of unpredictable strength and how even the most advanced technology cannot warn of prepare us for the whims of nature. And he shows us the sea in all its power: the gray horizon at dawn; the maelstrom of wind, water, and rain that make up a nor'easter; and the precise structure of a tidal wave the size of an office building as it curves and falls, playing havoc with any ship that dares to cross its path.
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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 039304016X, 0393337014

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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.

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