Sebastian Junger used to measure the cost of everything in tree work.
As a tree trimmer -- a "high climber" in his parlance -- he could earn as much as $1,000 a day. Even the smallest job paid at least $200. So the health insurance policy he bought for himself, that was $900, or about a day of tree work. The deductible was $2,000 -- two days of tree work, and it proved to be a real bargain in 1991, the year he broke his right hand, then cut his calf while on the job.
It's hard for a right-hander to get the back of the left leg. But Junger had reached behind himself one-handed and lost control of the chain saw, which was revving at 500 mph. (That's the kind of detail Junger loves, that 500 mph part.) He didn't really feel anything, but when he looked down, he saw a "Gray's Anatomy" version of his leg -- the ropy, white Achilles tendon, still intact, the layers of muscle he had sliced through.
He was still limping a few weeks later, on Oct. 31, when the storm that had been raging offshore hit Cape Ann in Gloucester, Mass. He remembers favoring his left leg as he hobbled to the shoreline, watching the waves pound the town, throwing up old cobblestones from the sea floor. He was awed by the storm, but it was a surfer's awe, limited by what he could see from land.
He did not know then that the waves at sea were three times as high. He did not know a swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, had gone down, taking a six-man crew with her. He did not know about the heroic rescue efforts for others caught in the storm. He did not know there was a meteorological term for what he was seeing -- the perfect storm.
He was 29, and he wanted to be a writer. Was a writer, but had yet to make a living at it, although he knew his stuff was good, as good as anything he had read in the major magazines. He even had a literary agent, on the basis of two pieces he had written for the Boston Phoenix, but he couldn't support himself as a journalist.
The storm gave Junger an idea. He would write a book about dangerous work, a chapter at a time, selling the chapters as magazine articles. He would write about smoke jumpers and war correspondents. And he would write about fishing, one of the most dangerous trades of all.
Two years later, he was home and planning his return to Bosnia, where he hoped to find work as an Associated Press stringer if all else failed. He had published pieces in Outside, Men's Journal and the New York Times Magazine, but he figured he needed some hard-news credentials. Bosnia should do it.
Then his agent Stuart Krichevsky called to say he had sold Junger's book. There was one catch: It wasn't the book Junger had proposed. W.W. Norton wanted the story of the storm and the Andrea Gail. The 50-page "chapter" Junger had published in Outside magazine must grow to 300 pages.
"I literally groaned," Junger says. "I thought, how am I going to get a book out of that?"
A port of call
Junger is sitting in Fawcett Boat Supply in Annapolis, signing copies of "The Perfect Storm." This is not a typical stop for most touring authors, although Fawcett's has had its share of signings for sailing-related books. Then again, nothing about Junger's book, or his experience, has been particularly typical.
Few first-time authors draw standing-room-only crowds, for example, as he did in the Timonium Bibelot the night before. Few New York Times best sellers would spend a low-key afternoon in Fawcett's, where most of the customers treat him as a curious side attraction. A large proportion of those who do buy books ask that they be inscribed to "Captain."
Junger has his fans, even here in the heart of "the cruising community," in many ways the antithesis of the men, and the culture, he depicted in "The Perfect Storm."
"You wrote of driving the boat," one leathery, silver-haired man says sternly. "That's not a term we use."
"That's what the swordfishermen call it," Junger explains. "Driving or steaming, but never sailing."
He is used to such questions, to the nit-pickers who yearn to trip him up on the technical details. Junger is neither a sailor nor a fisherman, although he shares his physicist father's love for the sea and recently bought a 25-foot sloop. He is not a meteorologist, nor a Coast Guard rescuer. But if he limited his writing to what he knew, he would forever be telling the story of a middle-class kid from the Boston area, who became a high climber to support his writing jones.
An extraordinarily focused kid, according to his parents, Miguel and Ellen. When young Sebastian was interested in cowboys and Indians, he made his own bows and arrows and leather-tooled pouches. When he collected rocks, he had to have the world's greatest rock collection.
"Once toward the end of his interest in mineralogy, he asked, 'What am I going to do if I lose interest in this?' " his mother recalls. "He was so absorbed and so focused, he began to worry."