Struggling with the ocean: literature of life and death

The Argument

Many seasonal, sensational shipwreck sagas fall short of excellence -- but the exceptions are splendid

Books

July 21, 2002|By Maria Blackburn | By Maria Blackburn,Sun Staff

The recent success of 1997's The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger (Harper, 301 pages, $6.99) and the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin, 298 pages, $14), have unleashed a tsunami of books about perilous sea journeys.

Considering that most people are currently either at the seashore or wished they were, there is more impetus to be interested in the sea right now. Not only that, but compared with the wealth of "important" novels in which people talk a great deal but don't actually do anything, these real-life sea stories are filled with drama because they are about people facing the ultimate human experiences -- life and death.

It is a serious topic, and it makes for fascinating reading. Unencumbered by fancy plot twists and overwrought writing, great shipwreck books tell gripping tales of perfect storms and (supposedly) unsinkable ships, navigational errors and remarkable courage, hubris and ignorance in a refreshingly straightforward manner. The villain is obvious. The tension is palatable. And there is never any question about what's at stake.

But just because a book involves life and death on the sea doesn't necessarily mean it's dramatic, or any good, for that matter. Looking at some of these new shipwreck books, it becomes obvious that a reader needs a depth finder to indicate which books deserve to be kept and which should be tossed back as shark bait.

For a perfectly told tale of tragedy on the high seas, look no further than Walter Lord's A Night to Remember (Bantam Books, 209 pages, $6.50). In a slim little volume published in 1955, the late Baltimore native brings the 1912 wreck of the Titanic to life. Using meticulous reporting, clean, vivid writing and telling detail about the ships' passengers and crew, Lord relates the now-familiar story of how 1,500 people died when the boat previously heralded as "unsinkable" collided with an iceberg and sank.

The strength of this book, credited with fueling the world's fascination with the Titanic, lies in Lord's restraint. He knows that the facts -- gathered from interviews with 63 survivors -- are powerful enough. As a result, he doesn't insert himself into the story or attempt to overdramatize the narrative by using a lot of seafaring jargon or eye-rollingly bad writing like the authors of some more recent offerings do.

Take, for example, the seaspeak-laden tome The Race by Tim Zimmerman (Houghton Mifflin, 316 pages, $25). The story of the "first round the world, no holds barred sailing competition," starts off promisingly enough when a sailor swipes the sea spray from his goggles to discover his twin-hulled sailing catamaran is about to collide with an iceberg at 30 knots. Alas, the author then uses a footnote of six highly technical sentences to explain nautical miles and chip logs, thus losing any and all dramatic tension previously attained. I abandoned ship.

Red Sky in Mourning (Hyperion, 223 pages, $23.95) is Tami Oldham Ashcraft's first-person account of her 41 days lost at sea in 1983 after Hurricane Raymond washed her fiance Richard overboard and destroyed their 44-foot ketch Hazana's masts and motor.

The book has more than enough drama, but it comes with the painful price of a hefty dose of narrative more befitting of bodice-ripper fiction than seafaring fact. After admiring a pod of pilot whales surface and dive into the ocean, the author succumbs to the perils of this:

"As Hazana glided down into the trough, Richard reached around and untied my pareu as he clung to me with his knees. He knotted the material into the pulpit with a ring knot and cupped my breasts with his warm hands 'I want to dive with you, Tami,' Richard murmured in my ear. 'I want to surface and dive as these wild mammals do.' " (p. 17)

Um, yeah, guys -- about that shipwreck?

The Ship and the Storm by Jim Carrier (Harvest Books, 317 pages, $14) also appears to have all of the components of a good shipwreck story: Happy-go-lucky, hard-drinking passengers and crew, a hurricane forecast that went largely ignored, and an author named Jim (most shipwreck books seem to be written by men with virile-sounding, single-syllable first names).

Unfortunately, Carrier fails to keep the story simple, and instead gets bogged down in details of the lives and loved ones of the crew of the Fantome, a 282-foot schooner cruise ship manned by a captain and a 30-person crew, all of whom perished when they tried to dodge Hurricane Mitch and failed. Who can focus on the crew's certain death when one is trying to figure out whose girlfriend is the psychologist, which crewman's daughter lived in Belize and whose mother was named Athelene?

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