The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the SeaThe Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t see the film so I came fresh to the book. It had a lot of impact on me because I have been in a small boat, a 34′ catamaran in a 4 day storm out in the Atlantic before Brazil. It wasn’t a ‘perfect storm’ but it was still rough, with huge seas and a constant exhausting beating against the wind. It prevented us going into Fernando do Noronha, our next stop, we couldn set a course for the archipelago at all. So I could not just see but feel what a difficult position they were in.

I know quite a bit about sword-fishing. I’ve read Linda Greenlaw‘s books. An aside – there are very few countries and vessels in the world where a woman would have the opportunity to swordfish let alone be a captain. It is an extremely physical job, setting hooks and squid bait, on spooled longlines hat run for miles and rip your fingers. The hooks are so big they could rip right through a man’s palm if the spool should run on. Then there is the killing of the swordfish when hauled in, gutting and icing them. As well as directing the crew, a hard-drinking group of macho men, maintaining the boat, it’s structure, mechanics and electronics. The electronics, depth sounders, radar and the like are not just for navigation but crucial in working out where the fish are. This was Linda’s strength, this finding the schools of swordfish.

Not only was Greenlaw one of an infintessimally small number of women swordfishing, but she was the most successful captain of all time. Where the normal catch is 1 ton a day, for seven days straight she hauled in 5 tons each day. The money from the catch on a boat is 50% to the owner, then the expenses are taken off and a set formula applied to the rest where the captain takes the most and the newest deckhand the least. That month the deckhand took home $10,000.

How do I know about swordfishing? My ex-husband was Chief Fisheries Officer and used to supervise the boats that came to fish in our waters. Because the permits they bought were limited in what they could do and the by catch could not be sold, a local would always be on the boat with them, sometimes my ex. It was all quite fascinating.

Swordfish have a long, barbed extension to their jaw that is both a weapon of attack and used to slash prey fish to weaken them. When they are hauled on board alive, they are very brave and will attack to the last. They can kill a man, or almost as bad, a wound from the sword will almost always become infected and the boat might be very far in distance and time from home.

There are always by-catch pulled up with the swordfish. There are the tuna. If you’ve only seen one dead held aloft by a fisherman it’s as if you’d only ever seen a rose browned with frost and never in it’s full bloom. Sailing across the ocean, three Atlantic blue fin tuna, each about 15’ swam in front of the boat maintaining an exact distance for more than hour. They were gorgeous, a rainbow of shimmering colours like sunlight on oil, like just beneath the surface. But the tuna aren’t a problem, they are gutted and thrown on to the ice along with the swordfish – generally a perk of the fishermen, the boat owner doesn’t get a share of by-catch.

The problem is the live sharks pulled up. They are vicious and their carcass is dangerous. It alone will rip the skin from a man. It’s not smooth, it’s not even sandpaper-like, it’s actually covered in tiny teeth, denticles. Sharks have to be shot as they being pulled up. The fishermen sometimes take the teeth as mementos and to sell. The flesh has to be thrown overboard immediately before it spoils and stinks of ammonia, piss. If shark is bled within minutes of being caught, and then iced, it is delicious. It’s a firm, white fish with a mild flavour. Very nice deep fried in the Trinidadian style of bake and shark with chives, thyme, garlic and hot peppers.

The book was a blow-by-blow account of the storm and how it affected the crew, their family on shore, and the boat, Andrea Gale, Linda Greenlaw’s sister ship. Linda’s boat was the Hannah Boden, both owned by Alden Leeman. The boat foundered amidst terrible seas and all crew were lost and never found. It was a harrowing story, and because I knew the subject so well, I lived through it and felt it and it upset me a great deal. The author, Sebastian Junger, has that power to bring you into the story and involve you. I did enjoy it, but perhaps not in quite the way one usually uses the word “enjoy”.

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