The Perfect Storm
I'm not sure how to characterize The Perfect Storm other than "unsettling". Given my line of work as a fisheries scientist, the realities of working on a commercial fishing vessel or being out at sea generally are closer to home. I have gone through several rounds of Cold-Water Survival training, where we don gumby suits and practice climbing in an out of baskets and life rafts. I have been in some nasty weather, and I have been on boats where a key piece of equipment failed, but thankfully never at the same time, where it would have surely amounted to an emergency. Thankfully, I do not know anyone directly who has died at sea, unlike the vast majority of fishermen that I have met.
It is natural for humans to try and determine a culprit or a cause in a distressing situation, particularly regarding death. Deaths brought about by “natural forces” are distressing, because in these moments we must confront randomness, which sends many into a nihilistic, navel-gazing spiral. Randomness – sheer dumb luck, or lack of luck – plays a part in the story of the Andrea Gail, whereas the movie uses the Storm as a character with intention and malice, a foe against which the crew can fight, albeit resulting in failure.
We can take some steps to understand why these men ended up where they did, which is what Junger’s book does in parts – the pressures of any industry working on a capitalist framework, regulatory changes and pressures, working with a large body of knowledge of the environment but still being powerless to control it. What Junger makes clearer in the novel than in the book is that this was not an exceptional trip. Every fishing trip is its own story, with people and equipment bringing their own histories and issues along with them. Each trip has its own pressures and deadlines. Sometimes people have ‘bad feelings’, and those premonitions prove to be true. Sometimes they don’t. Given people’s propensity towards confirmation bias, there’s a reason that fishermen can be exceptionally superstitious.
The last couple of pages of The Perfect Storm, Junger brings us back to Albert Johnson, who had stepped of the Andrea Gail hours before she was meant to leave, due to a ‘bad feeling’. “I was supposed to have been on that boat. That was supposed to have been me,” he said. He ended up the following year on the Terri Lei, a tuna longliner out of Georgetown, South Carolina. On April 6, 1993, a little over a year after the Andrea Gail went missing, the Terri Lei sunk and no one, including Johnson, survived.
Junger describes the Terri Lei’s sinking as a butterfly effect of the Halloween Gale. These traumatic events do have rippling affects, which is an interesting account to read given the increased focus on climate change and how it will impact coastal communities. Ending on the Randall’s death on the Terri Lei, however, unsettled me in a different way. It is the understanding that you could make all the right choices, following gut feelings and premonitions, and still step on the wrong boat. That perhaps those gut feelings were not based on anything, or as fine-tuned as you once thought. That we are truly flying blind, and that the comfort we find in making safe predictions is a flimsy illusion. Superstitions cannot cut through the universe’s chaos.
In the movie, everything after Linda Greenlaw’s last contact with the vessel is sheer speculation and based on anecdotes from a variety of swordfishing stories. The movie frames the events as a ‘warning’ – that the shark and Murph going overboard and the rogue wave are all meant to warn the crew that they should go home. It is possible that something like this happened, but it’s also more likely that the crew saw this as a typical trip, and the lack of warning is what is truly unsettling. You could be making a series of decisions that take you directly in to the eye of a storm from which you can’t escape. Fishermen, more-so than many professions, are confronted with this reality more bluntly and regularly. Some may see the Halloween Gale in the movie as the dragon that could not be vanquished. What is more terrifying is realizing that the dragon doesn’t exist, but you’ll fail just the same.