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One midwinter day off the coast of Massachusetts, a fishing vessel
picked up a bottle enclosing a note. The ship was on the Georges Bank,
one of the world’s most dangerous fishing grounds. A deckhand fetched
the bottle from the ocean, stripped away the sea grass, and the captain
uncorked the bottle. The note inside read:

“On Georges Bank with our cable gone, our rudder gone and leaking.
Two men have been swept away and all hands have given up as our cable is
gone and our rudder is gone. The one that picks this up let it be known.
God have mercy on us.”

The ship was never heard from again. It had set sail from Gloucester
some time during the Spanish-American War. The author of the note had
written down on a scrap of paper the last moments in this world of 20
men, then he corked the bottle again and threw it overboard. There’s not
a chance in hell, he must have thought. The bottle was retrieved off
Gloucester in 1991.

Fishing in the North Atlantic is a hard, roughneck business. Having
passed my childhood in the Boston area it seems as if for my whole life
I have heard foghorns and steamship whistles. As a youngster I often
strolled along the docks, and in Gloucester became accustomed to the
powerful, fishy smell. Still in my teens, I took a competitive exam for
the U.S. Naval Academy, finishing near the top of my class, and a few
years later found myself commissioning a heavy warship, the U.S.S.
Helena, at the Navy Yard annex in — of all places — South Boston. As a
midshipman I had already sailed to Cuba and all over the Caribbean. I
was also a championship swimmer and automatically captained my ship’s
rescue team. I had read all the seafaring pages of Melville, Conrad, and
Kipling, and felt I was ready. I was wrong.

It’s widely recognized that manning a small ship in a combat zone in
wartime is a dangerous business. But I’d complacently assumed that
manning a small ship in peacetime could not be that much different. If
you’re not hit by aircraft, how much harm could water do you? Once again
I was wrong. I’d now seen waves off Okinawa as big as mountains, but
this time I was in a vessel of thousands of tons, with a crew of over a
thousand men.

The Andrea Gail — the subject of Sebastian Junger’s extraordinary
best-selling book, “The Perfect Storm” (and now of an equally
extraordinary hit movie, with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg) — was
like a straw floating on angry waters. The Andrea Gail’s crew: Six men.
It would have been interesting to behold this tiny ship in raging seas:
Man against nature. But that’s assuming a safe distance. If you were
aboard the ship itself, it was another matter. You turned your head and
everything was swept away: The vessel, the crew, everything.

Each branch of the armed forces has its “pararescue jumpers” (PJs) at
the ready near helicopters for any nearby disaster at sea. There are
about 350 PJs around the country, who each takes 18 months to train. In
a training variant called “water harassment,” two swimmers share a
snorkel while instructors basically try to drown them. If either man
breaks the surface to breathe he’s expelled from the school. After
so-called pre-training, survivors enter the “pipeline” — scuba school,
jump school, freefall school, dunker-training school, survival school.
The PJs must parachute, climb mountains, survive in deserts, evade
pursuit, resist enemy interrogation.

In “dunker” training, the candidate is strapped into a simulated
helicopter and plunged underwater. If he escapes, he’s plunged right
back in again upside down. If he still manages to escape he’s plunged in
upside down and blindfolded. The final test is HALO jumping (High
Altitude Low Opening), meaning that the candidates begin their jump so
high that they can’t breathe without two oxygen bottles. In a HALO jump
– first too high in the troposhere to breathe then moving too fast to
sight — they’re considered almost impossible to kill, which must be
reassuring.

These are the people who will try to save your life if a disaster
occurs at sea. And when the storm broke three weeks out of Gloucester it
looked as the Andrea Gail needed all the help it could get. It was near
the Flemish Cap when three storm fronts converged (an extreme rarity).
The storm broke all the ship’s windows and its decks were awash with
green water, the men scurrying like rats. Why do men, only moderately
well paid, volunteer for hard, dangerous work like this, and irregular
work at that? When I first visited a fishing vessel at sea from a U.S.
Navy ship — all spit and polish — it seemed like one of the lower
reaches of Hell. It was like the working class America that built the
railroads and sailed in ships that first rounded Cape Horn.

In a few more hours the Andrea Gail was in such difficulties that an
Air National Guard Plane was sent to rescue its crew, but lost two of
its own men in a last desperate attempt to save the ship. The wind and
waves were incredibly high.

Another day and the Andrea Gail was lost with all hands. The film
ends in the classic manner. The women are shown waiting on the docks for
their men who will never return. At the nearby chapel, they, and the
whole town, with their hearts in their throats, sing the ancient
seafaring hymn: “Forgive us Father, if we pray to Thee. For those in
peril on the sea.” But the crew of the Andrea Gail, leaving their women,
girlfriends, and children all behind, had already gone to a better
place, where they could hear their friends ashore no longer.

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