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A Perfect Storm

A Perfect Drunk, Perhaps

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 05, 2000.

The Perfect Storm, for those of you who missed the terrific book, is about a 1991 convergence of three major weather systems over the Grand Banks. The Banks are relatively shallow waters east of Canada and Northeast of New England, maybe a couple of hundred feet deep. Fish gather there to feed and the world's fleets are there to get them. The book covers the horrors of the storm and vectors in on the Andrea Gail, a sword fishing boat from Gloucester, the Massachusetts fishing capital. The Gail was lost with all hands in seas that featured waves a hundred feet and more. The Gail was only seventy-one feet and top heavy.

I need to tell you that I get seasick in two foot seas, or when water skiing, when drunk and water skiing, when fishing in a flat calm if the chum is in the sun. This was particularly embarrassing when I was married to a wife whose family lived on a trimaran and drank strong, warm Bloody Marys with lots of pepper while in rugged seas from dawn onward. It is made worse when I tell you both sides of my family were whalers out of New Bedford. If genes mean anything, I ought to be Captain Kidd, but no. So when I discuss a storm with one hundred foot waves I am telling you that this is my idea of hell incarnate. What isn't mentioned enough is that one hundred foot seas on the Grand Banks or near Sable Island exposes the ocean floor. Got the picture? It's night, you ride down a hundred foot wave and hit the rocks, and another hundred foot wave comes down on you. Clear on this? This is what nailed the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior in 1976. Huge waves, ship bottoms out. Okay? Unless someone had a Richard Simmons video on the VCR that could not be turned off, nothing is worse than that.

The movie is distorted and made very black and white: heroic fishermen forced to sea to feed the capitalist boat owner, who remains ashore. The fishermen succumb to every cliche about the sea short of singing sea chantys in harmony as the boat leaves dock. The men are rugged and hard drinking types. You've met them before. One of the girlfriends is Diane Lane. This is an early clue to the fictions of the movie. Have a drink in a fisherman's bar in Gloucester and mentally jot down the ones who look like Diane Lane and the ones who could turn a funeral up a side street.

Not far below the lines of the book is the fact that virtually all of the men and women were alcoholics: world class, letter-sweater. Most of their women are clearly in their cups when interviewed in Gloucester bars for the book. In fact, most of the book seems to have been based on these sousey interviews. This is not a canard. It is hard to deny, and given their occupation, easy to understand. But the book and the movie hinge on one question: Why the hell did the Andrea Gail, given all the radio chatter about the storms and warnings from other boats, ignore them and keep the long lines out until it was too late? Call me naive but I don't think rational family men are going to risk death for ten thousand dollar paydays to no known end. Unless you drank all your money away and have some house payment coming up. It seems a stupid decision, although the record is clear that this was the one made. Virtually all the other boats hit the ports. This was not a surprise storm except in the level of its intensity.

The issue of alcohol in history is never given truthful attention. Because of the foolishness of Prohibition, it has gone from being the seat of all evil to the seat of no or momentary evil. But new histories remove these falsehoods. The unbelievable stupidity of the British government in losing the American colonies has been acknowledged to have been fueled by the incredible alcohol intake of Cabinet and Parliament, leading to the prevalence of gout and bloodthirsty armchair warriors. So with the attention of our army to the plains Indians. The British surrendered Singapore in World War II to the Japanese without much of a fight despite the fact they outnumbered the Japanese and had better weapons. General Percival, the British commander, and his wife were noted lushes. These are a few examples.

And the Perfect Storm may be another. Fishermen always claim that they do their drinking on shore because it is far too dangerous on the water. True enough, but it takes a believing mind to entertain the possibility that an alcoholic really can forego the malt for four weeks at sea. We all know enough alcoholics to have a remembrance of the stories and fibs, the routines and the hiding places. I'm from New Bedford. I know many fishing boats went to sea properly equipped for the crew. The decision making on the Andrea Gail makes no sense to the sober mind, but it may have to an inebriated or hung-over one. This may have been sensed by the script writer, who opted for making it a rather forced owner-captain conflict rather than just stupidity. I also know several key people in the tale are claimed not to have drunk at all. This may be true, of course, but I remain skeptical, especially given the over-reverential treatment given to these men of Gloucester as if to deflect attention for those readers who don't want to know or suspect less than heroic qualities. Also, members of the crew's families are suing the owner saying the boat was too dangerous. They quote people who say prospective crew members for the Andrea Gail checked the boat out and left, and press the conclusion that they felt the boat gave bad vibes. Maybe, but in the tight knit fishing community, those dissenting prospects would never bad mouth the dead if they wanted to go to sea again.

This does not make the bravery of the crew or the rescuers any less impressive. I, for example, would have been screaming into the microphone: "Help me, get me outta here." There is none of that recorded by the Coast Guard. Just to-the-point information.

What bothers me is that this issue, hovering quite close to the surface of the book, is ignored by the movie, and the motivations are all changed. It is presented as a true story, but it is not. It may, in fact, be a cover-up calcifying into history. That is never good, even in such a minor if spectacular incident. Remember, all the brouhaha about the Titanic really comes down to one stupid decision by Captain Smith, to whom even the owner had to acquiesce while at sea and who allowed a twenty-two knot speed into a field of ice of which he had been warned at dinner.

Say, what did that Captain drink at dinner or in his cabin before he hit the hay? Has the question ever been asked? Given all the ridiculous suppositions put forward, why not this very possible scenario? Huh? How come?

This is DC.