- by Carol Standish
As the 2005 hurricane season slowly slides away, it may be worth reading a few cautionary tales and let them fade them into the back of our heads by the 2006 boating season. Two recently published accounts of recreational disasters at sea deal with bad weather, bad judgment and bad luck—no surprise.
Both are written in the oddly gripping but disquieting “fictionalized reportage” genre. (The author immerses him/herself in the event through newspapers, conversations with the survivors and other research. He then relies on his imagination to put himself in the scene, watching and describing long dead victims as they quaff beer, brush their teeth, dive or fish, overhearing and reporting on their casual chatter.
There is a fine line in this genre between enough and too many of these “made up details” to convince the reader of the author’s presence, which is, of course, made up. Consequently, this type of writing is difficult to master.
Tom Clavin’s Dark Noon (McGraw-Hill Companies, 240pp, $24.95) recounts a recreational fishing boat disaster, which occurred off Montauk Point, Long Island in 1951. A former editor of two award-winning Long Island weeklies, Clavin does an excellent job of convincing the reader that he is in the thick of it. He deftly describes the Montauk sport fishing culture and community, follows the lives of many of the men and (few) women as they board the Long Island Railroad’s weekend express train, “Fisherman’s Special” at Pennsylvania Station and head toward Montauk in the pre-dawn darkness of Labor Day Saturday. He brings the reader aboard the sturdy 42-foot Pelican ready to catch fish.
The description of Captain Eddie Carroll, as a “handsome World War II veteran with an easy manner and an endless supply of fish and war stories” explains why the Pelican is the most popular boat in the fleet. Carroll allows 62 fishermen aboard his boat because, his brother explains, he couldn’t say no to so many of his long-term customers who had grown to be friends. The boat’s safe capacity was 30. When the Pelican encountered a mis-forecast fierce northeast squall one of her engines failed. Loss of steering control and the weight of 62 terrified people clinging to her leeward side caused the Pelican to capsize within sight of land. Forty-five passengers and Captain Carroll drowned. We are in the water with them.
Clavin also does an excellent job of weaving progressively intense scenes on the boat with the reactions of shore-side relatives, other captains who made it to safety, the rescue officials and crews (few to non-existent—especially the Coast Guard). He also injects into the narrative, weather forecasts—the science was surprisingly primitive in 1950— are injected into the narrative as well as excerpted transcripts of the ensuing inquiry. The sorry state of readiness and safety regulations governing passenger vessels is a central issue. Consequently, the book is more upbeat and constructive than the subject would lead a potential reader to expect. Most heartening Clavin includes a the long list of technological and regulatory improvements to water safety that have been made since what certainly appear to have been “the old days” if not the “dark ages.”
No Safe Harbor (Emmis Books, 250pp, $19.99) is an account of the capsizing of the 120-foot, four-tiered live-aboard dive ship Wave Dancer off Belize in 2001. The passengers were 20 members of the Richmond Dive Club. The captain and crew numbered nine. The initiating factor of the accident was hurricane Iris but the cause, in this account, is solely the bad judgment of the captain who, immediately upon recovering from the ordeal, high-tailed it to his native New Zealand.
The book is considerably bulked up with verbatim reports from the National Weather Service in Miami, augmented by the more interesting activities of the Belizean weather forecasters and the precautionary measures that were taken by the Belizean government.
The captain of the Wave Dancer appeared to listen only to his corporate headquarters, which may have been the source of his, many bad calls. Essentially, he brought the boat to the site of the hurricane’s landfall where there was insufficient dock space to tie up adequately. When the lines let go the 140 mph winds blew the boat into the mangroves and toppled it. Three people survived. Only one person, a crew member, chose to leave the ship prior to the storm’s arrival.
Written in the same “fictionalized reportage” genre as Dark Noon, author Joe Burnworth had the additional “advantages” of being friends with many of the victims and actually witnessing the event. (He was on another live-aboard dive boat at the same dock with other members of the Richmond Dive Club.) Because the story is so personal for the author, he unavoidably creates a bit of a shroud around it. The narrative dwells on the backgrounds, personalities of the diver/passengers and their diving experiences before and during the Wave Dancer trip. The up side? The Peter Hughes Company, owner of the Wave Dancer was successfully sued and subsequently adopted a hurricane plan: “In the event of any officially named hurricane (as predicted by NOAA) all passengers will be disembarked from the vessel in question at least twelve hours prior to predicted landfall.” Duh!
Perhaps the most riveting of the recreational disasters-at-sea books is The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome written by Jim Carrier in 2001 and reviewed in these pages in May of that year. The book is now available in paperback (Harvest Books) for $14.