Author Skillfully Retells Story In ‘The Perfect Storm’

SUNDAY, AUG. 3, 1997

“The Perfect Storm” is the perfect book for the beach this summer, and the key word here is beach.

If you are going to be leaving sand firma for the high seas any time soon - or any time, for that matter - you might want to look for some other literary vessel.

Though the chances of being caught in a storm such as the one chronicled by author Sebastian Junger are exceedingly slim, the fact remains that it could happen because, in fact, it did happen.

In October 1991, a powerful nor’easter out of Canada merged with, and was further energized by, the remnants of a hurricane out of the tropics. The marriage produced 100 mph winds and waves the height of a 10-story building.

Awed meteorologists dubbed the howling union a “perfect storm,” one that was likely to occur only every 100 years or so.

Unfortunately, the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, Mass., found itself on the short end of these long odds and was lost, along with all aboard, off the coast of Nova Scotia.

While weather of such fury, and tragedy of such magnitude, are awash with story potential, it is the skillful telling of this tale that makes “The Perfect Storm” so compelling.

Consider some of the problems Junger faced: How to build toward a climax when the outcome is already known?

How to recount the final hours of the Andrea Gail when there were no survivors, no logs, no last-minute radio transmissions?

How to turn a tightly compressed event into a full-length book?

Junger manages to get around these hurdles through thorough reporting, exhaustive research and expanding the scope of the book to include such related topics as meteorology, wave formation, ocean currents, the fishing industry, the history of Gloucester, and even a painfully detailed account of what it is actually like to drown:

“The instinct not to breathe underwater is so strong that it overcomes the agony of running out of air. No matter how desperate the drowning person is, he doesn’t inhale until he is on the verge of losing consciousness. … When the first involuntary breath occurs, most people are still conscious, which is unfortunate, because the only thing more unpleasant than running out of air is breathing in water.”

While Junger’s frequent sidetrips are almost always interesting - he can get a tad overly technical at times - what keeps the book on course is the human connection.

Junger introduces and follows each crew member of the Andrea Gail in the waning hours before the boat is set to depart for the dangerous waters of the Grand Banks, 1,200 miles into the North Atlantic.

A swordfisherman’s life is a cycle of monthlong, 20-hour work days at sea, punctuated by weeklong, money-squandering binges at the bar.

Slowly, each man makes his way onto the 72-foot boat for the doomed voyage. A new crew member arrives at the boat, gets a bad feeling and abruptly gets off.

Although the sections of the book dealing with the Andrea Gail and its crew read like fiction, it is not at the expense of accuracy. Junger took great pains to document his characters’ lives through extensive interviews with their girlfriends, wives, mothers, fathers and drinking companions.

xxxx “The Perfect Storm” By Sebastian Junger (W.W. Norton, $23.95, 227 pp.)

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