Death on the High Seas

30 years after the Perfect Storm

October 31, 2021

A nor'easter plus a bomb cyclone (in which air pressure drops precipitously) battered the New England coast last week, with wind gusts up to 94 miles an hour and wave heights of 30 feet. The storm left hundreds of thousands without power and caused widespread flooding. Not that it was the worst thing to ever hit the region. Not even close.

In fact, 30 years ago this past week, a Canadian cold front, a storm off the Great Lakes, and Hurricane Grace all merged in the North Atlantic. While a cold front rotates clockwise, a hurricane spins counterclockwise—this disastrous collision resulted in the Halloween Gale of 1991, also known as the Perfect Storm.

"It's an act of meteorological defiance that might happen in a major storm only every hundred years or so," writes Sebastian Junger in his eponymous book. It brought 104 mile-per-hour winds and waves as high as 100 feet. It sank the Andrea Gail and its crew of six—a tragedy made famous not just by the book but also the 2000 film directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

It's a testament to Junger's deft writing that the sinking of a swordfish boat had such resonance (the paperback spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list). Ships go missing all the time—according to Statista, 49 large vessels were lost at sea in 2020. And it's estimated that some 2,000 people perish at sea every year.

But Junger's vignettes of the six crew members make for a compelling read. Dale Murphy nearly drowned when a longline hook punctured his hand and sent him overboard. "No one saw it happen, and he was dragged off the back of the boat and down into the sea. All he could do was watch the hull of his boat get smaller and smaller above him and hope someone noticed he was gone." (A version of this was re-created in the movie.)

Bobby Shatford had only begun to swordfish in August 1991, but was drawn to the life and the paycheck (his take home pay after a month at sea was $4,537—closer to $10,000 today). His girlfriend Christina says he had grave reservations prior to that fateful voyage on Sept. 23, but went anyway. Another fisherman, Adam Randall, decided at the last second not to board the Andrea Gail. "He walked back across the lot, told his father-in-law that he had a funny feeling, and the two of them drove off together to a bar." Randall would die the following February in a fishing accident off the coast of South Carolina, which either confirms that no one cheats death or that swordfishing is simply a deadly business.

The annual fatality rate for commercial fishermen, Junger points out, is 30 to 40 times that of the national average. (Within the commercial fishing sector, he says the deadliest catch is dungeness crab from the Pacific Northwest.) As swordfish captain Linda Greenlaw put it in her book The Hungry Ocean, "fishing is just plain dangerous work, and tragedy on the ocean is often unrelated to weather." Greenlaw captained the Hannah Boden, sister ship of the Andrea Gail, and was about 600 miles east of the Perfect Storm's epicenter.

Indeed, the rest of the swordfish fleet was still fishing in the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland when the storms collided. The Andrea Gail, however, had finished its run and Captain Billy Tyne was racing back to Gloucester, Mass. "The fact that he has a hold full of fish and not enough ice must figure into his decision," writes Junger.

Thirty years later, it's worth considering if technology could have saved the Andrea Gail. Although boats did have GPS at the time, they were still transmitting information via fax. But the Andrea Gail also had radar, three radios, and a long-range navigation system. More important, it was equipped with an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). As soon as it touches water, it sends out a distress signal. Yet no signal was ever sent. A week or so later the EPIRB washed up on Sable Island—the graveyard of the Atlantic. The switch had been turned off but to this day no one knows why.

We do know why they went. On a previous outing, the Andrea Gail sold its catch of swordfish and tuna for more than $140,000. Tyne himself earned $20,000 ($40,000 in today's dollars). But the crew would earn nothing if the fish were spoiled. The owner of the vessel, Bob Brown (a villain of sorts in the movie), also had a vested interest in their return: Expenses for the trip totaled over $35,000. And so the race was on to get back, not only to beat the storm but also the rest of the fleet—their fish would sell for the highest price.

Junger spent a considerable amount of time in Gloucester, which is legendary for its maritime casualties. "In the industry's heyday, Gloucester was losing a couple hundred men every year to the sea, four percent of the town's population," he writes. "Since 1650, an estimated ten thousand Gloucestermen have died at sea, far more Gloucestermen than died in all the country's wars."

The Perfect Storm is packed with such details and is vividly told. Explaining the nature and ferocity of hurricanes, Junger writes that "during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, winds surpassed 200 miles an hour and people caught outside were sandblasted to death. Rescue workers found nothing but their shoes and belt buckles."

The chapter called "The Zero-Moment Point" is the most terrifying—what exactly happens when a boat sinks and what it means 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's on the verge of losing unconsciousness." It gets worse.

On Oct. 28, 1991, Tyne radios: "She's comin' on boys, and she's comin' on strong." That is the last anyone hears from them. A few days later Linda Greenlaw aboard the Hannah Boden comes across fuel barrels belonging to the Andrea Gail. But the boat and the crew are never found.

"If the men on the Andrea Gail had simply died, and their bodies were lying in state somewhere, their loved ones could make their goodbyes and get on with their lives," Junger writes. "But they didn't die, they disappeared off the face of the earth and, strictly speaking, it's just a matter of faith that these men will never return."

It's a tale as haunting now as it was 30 years ago.

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea
by Sebastian Junger
Norton, 233 p., $15.95

Published under: Book reviews