A True Blue-Water Odyssey
of Disaster and Survival
Michael J. Tougias
Scribner, 212pp; $15 (pb)
Michael Tougias has to be one of the best non-fiction writers working today...and in order to achieve such rarified status, he must also be one of the most skillful interviewers. Of his 18 published books, three cover the struggle of survival in disasters at sea, a fourth covers harrowing tales of people surviving animal attacks, and a fifth examines survival strategies of people caught in the New England blizzard of 1978. Each and every story had to be coaxed from stricken people. Tougias has been able to write cogent, highly detailed cliff-hanging stories of terror and endurance based on the ragged tales of these survivors. To have such empathy and still be able to write it all down in well-constructed prose, is a unique and (I have to admit, a bit jealously) an enviable combination of talents.
In his latest disaster at sea effort, Overboard!, Tougias follows the nightmare of two cruising sail boat crews, both caught in the Gulf Stream when the same horrific storm overtakes them. The At Ease, an open cockpit 41' Bavaria is skippered by Bob Cummings retired from his twenty year career as helicopter pilot for the Army, having flown many combat missions. Mate, Jerry McCarthy had logged more than 250,000 miles at sea as a delivery boat captain. Needless to say, both men were seasoned and more than competent.
The Almeisan (Arabic for "proudly marching one") A Harden 45' is owned and skippered by, Tom Tighe. She is his retirement business. With his first mate, Lochlin Reidy, he regularly takes paying crewmembers on blue water cruises. This passage to Bermuda (from Bridgeport, Connecticut) will include Will Ferrer, a 34 year old molecular biologist, Kathy Gilcrest, a 46 year old legal secretary, and Ron Burd a retired engineer, who at 70 has made many coastal passages in his own boat between New Hampshire and Florida. He's looking for off-shore experience. This trip will be first mate, Loch Reidy's sixteenth voyage with Tom.
Barely off Montauk Point, Captain Tom gets his first piece of information on the storm that will take his life. A Northbound sailor radios that that there is a low pressure system forming off the Carolinas. The tension mounts...the title of the book has already told us what happens.
Tougias has a particular talent for describing the water and wind conditions which he has gleaned from survivors. On the At Ease, "...Bob stares in disbelief as thirty foot monsters hurl themselves at the stern...The full roar of the seas assaults Bob's ears, and he likens the sound to the revving of engines of his Black Hawk chopper at take-off." Eventually, At Ease is knocked down in a complete rollover. They set off an EPIRB and hope they will be found alive by the Coast Guard rescue ‘copters that it will summon.
The Almeisan is caught in the same storm. At first the swells are only 10-footers, scattered with steep short waves. "The entire crew is expending energy just by walking, standing or even sitting, as they struggle to keep their balance..." The boat is roughly half way between the U.S. mainland and Bermuda. The storm continues to build and batter the boat. When Tighe and Reidy prepare to abandon ship, the almost unthinkable happens. Captain and mate lose their line to the Almeisan and float away in the survival raft.
I'll leave you there...just before the most harrowing incidents and accidents occur. However, there is hope. The Coast Guard is working furiously to find the find the Almeisan in the huge expanse of watery chaos and they have allies.
The AMVER program is a worldwide voluntary reporting system sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard. Rescue coordinators can identify participating ships in the area of distress and divert the best-suited ship or ships to respond. Says Tougias, "(T)oday, with advanced radio, GPS and computers, AMVER tracks more than 100,000 voyages annually and has been credited with saving more than 2,000 lives in the last 15 years." The Sakura Express, a 30,000 ton tanker carrying jet fuel is in the area and responds. It was nothing short than a miracle that this behemoth spotted the tiny raft. Rescue is another problem. Read on and enjoy your goose bumps!