Catharsis, and gratitude to be alive

Review Seafaring

August 12, 2007|By Diana Wagman | Diana Wagman,Los Angeles Times

Fatal Forecast

An Incredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea

By Michael J. Tougias

Scribner / 224 pages / $24

In November 1979, I signed on as crew on a sailboat bound for Bermuda from Newport, R.I. Five days after setting sail, we were rescued by the Coast Guard 300 nautical miles due east. Our boat had fallen apart in a bad storm, the rudder separated from the wheel, the engine quit, we had a knock-down - the boat went 180 degrees upside down in the water and then righted again - the life raft was missing the inflation valve, and we did not have enough life jackets to go around. My five crewmates and I were lucky to survive. The experience changed my life in ways both prosaic and profound. First, I would never go on a sailboat again, but more important, I would never again be unappreciative of warmth, dry land and simple, day-to-day existence.

One year after my seafaring disaster, on Nov. 21, 1980, four lobster boats motored out to Georges Bank, off Cape Cod. It was a beautiful day with a clear forecast. The captains had many years of experience. The crews had fished these waters together for the entire season. But, due to a malfunctioning weather buoy and a negligent National Weather Service, a winter storm came up faster and harder than expected. Winds gusted at 100 mph. Waves reached 60 feet high. In the frigid waters death from hypothermia could happen in minutes. The boats were tossed about like walnut shells. Four men died, and the others would never be the same. Fatal Forecast: An Incredible True Tale of Disaster and Survival at Sea is their story.

Michael J. Tougias, author of the bestselling Ten Hours Until Dawn, skillfully submerges us in this storm. We are side by side with the crew on board these fragile vessels. A six-story wave crashes into the 50-foot, wooden-hulled Sea Fever, and rips out the starboard side of the pilothouse, throwing the crew into the air and one man, Gary Brown, into the water. He is lost, despite their heroic efforts to save him, and captain Peter Brown (no relation), cannot forget the look in Gary's eyes as he disappears in the sea. "He may have been stunned from being hurled through the wall or he may have broken his back," Tougias writes. The others must hang on and try to survive by bracing themselves against the port side. "For Brad [Bowen], the hockey player, the pounding felt like being checked into the boards from behind again and again." Another boat, the Broadbill, captained by Grant Moore, heads in their direction and tries to stay close, but in the towering seas rescue was nearly impossible. Bowen recalls: "If the Sea Fever went all the way over - and it sure felt like it would - there wasn't a thing Grant and his crew could do. We'd die right in front of him, trapped in the pilothouse where we would be drowned."

Tougias spins a marvelous and terrifying yarn. He uses precise, small details to portray the rugged lobstermen (" ... the muscles in his hands became so large he could barely touch his thumb to his smallest finger") and skips back and forth between the people on land trying to get news and the men in the boats, going into their heads exactly when we want to know what they're thinking. The cold, the dark, the noise, the thoughts of home and family, and especially the constant fear are powerfully envisioned. After three days of a storm that shows no sign of abating, the forces of nature seem malevolent. Even stoical Bob Brown, Peter's father and captain of the steel-hulled Sea Star, with 29 years' experience on a lobster boat, said he'd "never seen anything like this."

Most amazing of all is the story of Ernie Hazard, one of the crew of the Fair Wind. That boat pitch-poled - got hit from behind with a wave and turned stern over bow - trapping and drowning three inside the pilothouse. Hazard was thrown into the sea. A new life-raft technology - coupled with his own dogged determination not to die - made the difference against all odds. Tougias makes us fight alongside Hazard and cheer as he is saved.

Repeatedly, those who have almost died say they live better since their close encounter with death. Whether it is a life-threatening illness like Lance Armstrong's, or a freak hiking accident like Aron Ralston's, or the incredible deeds of World Trade Center maintenance worker William Rodriguez during the Sept. 11 attacks, survivors insist they have greater appreciation for their lives, their faith and their families. Luckily, most of us will never lose our hands to frostbite, never have to carry a colleague through a collapsing building and never have to sever our own arm to get free. But through the tales of those who do, we can find catharsis in their remarkable courage. It is akin to the impulse that makes us slow down to look at a traffic accident on the freeway. We wonder what happened to that person. What would I have done differently? And deep in our gut: Thank God it didn't happen to me.

The Coast Guard cutter Active, which saved three of the four boats and rescued Hazard from his life raft along with 13 others, was the same cutter that a year earlier had rescued me and my crewmates. Reading this frightening, exhilarating, breathtaking book took me back to my own adventure. It also reminded me that this life I have, traffic, obligations, work and all, is pretty damn good.

Diana Wagman, a professor at California State University Long Beach, is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump." She wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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