Reading Recommendation: The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

The movie this book is based on came out when I was twelve years old. I didn’t have a chance to see it (and still haven’t…yet), but I loved documentaries and I remember being intrigued about this dramatization of true-life events regarding fishermen caught in a 1991 Atlantic storm. That storm, which raged through Halloween into the first few calendar days of November, is often referred to as the Perfect Storm, after the title of this very book by journalist Sebastian Junger. (The storm apparently wasn’t officially named because it evolved from a northeastern storm colliding with another hurricane, Hurricane Grace, and the National Hurricane Center didn’t want to cause confusion). When I came across the title on Audible, I was eager to finally read it–or take a listen.

In an audio interview at the end of the Recorded Books edition, the journalist-author mentions that he’d been looking to write about dangerous jobs and why people do them, including logging and fighting forest fires among the topics. This book takes an exclusive look at the lives of commercial fishermen, the development of the 1991 storm, the logistics and perils of rescue missions at sea, and the individual stories of crew members aboard a specific fishing boat called the Andrea Gail.

The Andrea Gail was lost at sea during this storm. To this day, very little has been found to explain what happened, and we simply don’t have much information about the crew’s final moments. The haunting drama of this book, therefore, revolves around the big picture of commercial fishing, the toll of the fishing lifestyle on individuals and their relationships, the Perfect Storm’s devastation as it pummeled the eastern coast of the United States, and the impact of one crew’s disappearance on the family and friends–and nations–they left behind. (Canada was involved in rescue efforts as well).

I love the way this book blends technical and scientific details about how equipment and industry work with the raw humanity of real people who actually live and work at sea. It discusses everything from righting a boat out of a wave, to search-and-rescue technology and storm tracking (GPS was a new thing 20 years ago–and now virtual map apps come standard on our smartphones!), to what it feels like to drown. It talks about what it takes to be a fisherman or to become a military rescue diver. It shows how socioeconomics influenced the crew of the Andrea Gail, as well as the fishermen that decided not to embark on that fatal trip, who constantly weighed their individual financial needs with the risks of the job and gut feelings about unseen hazards. Lastly, it shares the experiences of men and women caught in the storm and how they survived.

While the true-life story of the Andrea Gail is a heart-wrenching tragedy, this book unfolds with beautiful insights into what drives us both to do what we have to do to make a living, and to do what we feel compelled to do to save the lives of people we don’t know who are in danger. For many who either couldn’t get close enough to pull people off their boats because the risk to their own safety was too great, or who could only wait on land for the storm to pass and hope for the best, they tracked the storm. They tried to maintain contact, to keep people both at sea and back home informed, to give them encouragement. And they prayed. They did everything they could to ensure and communicate to those still out in the storm struggling for their lives that they were neither alone nor forgotten in their terrifying situation.

Within the narrative’s tone, there is no underlying demonization of either the commercial fishing industry or the sometimes unpleasant socioeconomic pressures that keep fishermen fishing. It doesn’t look for things or people to blame, I suppose, for the hazards or the losses. Some people were sued, yes. But the absence of conspiratory cynicism makes for a refreshingly frank and uplifting perspective that keeps the focus on how much we depend on each other to survive and overcome obstacles. The Perfect Storm isn’t a cautionary tale, but a testament to what makes the human spirit astoundingly great.

This is a wonderful, fascinating non-fiction piece that reads almost like a novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about extreme occupations or survival and rescue on the high seas.

You can check out the Recorded Books edition on Audible here:

Or the print and digital editions on Amazon here: