GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- "Going to sea is like going to prison, with a chance at drowning besides," wrote Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English poet and essayist.
Longtime commercial fishermen truly understand the comparison Johnson makes -- they know offshore fishing boats can become floating jails after weeks at sea, where crews often endure gales, accidents, monotony and isolation.
Those of us who stay ashore and seldom get our feet wet, as the old mariners say, have a hard time comprehending routine hardships of life on the open water, hundreds of miles from land.
But the nonfiction bestseller "The Perfect Storm," which chronicles a marine disaster that threw its shadow across New England in 1991, leaves readers with the unsteady feeling of having just ridden out a deadly storm on the North Atlantic.
In the book, author Sebastian Junger explores the killer gale of October '91, which blindsided New England and sank a Gloucester, Mass., swordfish boat with all six hands lost at sea.
In the fall of that year, several intense weather patterns combined into what meteorologists described as a "perfect" storm, with winds that howled past 90 mph and seas that towered to 100 feet. The 70-foot swordfish longliner Andrea Gail was heading back toward Gloucester from Canada's Grand Banks when it ran into hurricane-force winds Oct. 28.
The vessel went down somewhere off Sable Island, apparently with the whole crew aboard.
Capt. Billy Tyne and crewmen Bobby Shatford and David Sullivan of Gloucester died, along with crewmen Dale Murphy and Michael Moran of Florida, and Alfred Pierre of New York.
Mysteries surrounded the longliner's sinking and "The Perfect Storm" tries to explain some events that led to the tragedy.
It turns out that Andrea Gail's crew may have intended to drive through the storm rather than around it. No mayday call was ever heard. And the exact location where the steel-hulled vessel went down is unclear. An unarmed emergency beacon and some fuel drums were the only pieces of equipment ever recovered.
Junger, the author, witnessed the storm's immense power as it hit Gloucester's coast, heaving boulders into shoreside homes and washing out streets and piers. When he learned the storm was one of the worst on record in the region, Junger spent more than two years gathering information about it and researching its effects on vessels such as Andrea Gail.
Junger started his research with a "black hole" of missing information, since the only people who know for certain how the swordfish boat sank are the lost crewmen.
But the author pieced his account together by interviewing family members of the deceased and other local mariners, including crews from boats that survived the weather in which Andrea Gail sank. He studied the ways storms evolve, why boats sink, and how people drown.
What emerges is a tale that gives life to the crew of the doomed boat and a narrative that sheds light on various mariners who made it through the gale.
A complex background unfolds in the book -- including a rich history of the origins of commercial fishing in New England and the fishing crisis that plagues the area today.
Gloucester's waterfront comes into sharp focus. Readers get an accurate, up-to-date portrait of Gloucester Harbor's shabby dignity, and the rotting wharves, empty fish plants and stunted dreams ashore.
The book also lays bare the everyday peaks and valleys entailed in fishing for a living. Some young crewmen might spend a month offshore and return to port with a $5,000 bankroll, only to blow much of it on drinking or drugs before heading out again for more weeks aboard a floating steel box.
On the water, tedious days of setting gear and hauling fish blend together, punctuated by emergencies that might include a hook embedded in someone's hand or heavy seas pounding a boat apart.
The grief felt by lost fishermen's wives, girlfriends and families becomes apparent in the narrative as well.
Many days after the shipwreck, the fiancee' of one of the lost fishermen drives out to Gloucester's fish pier and waits for her man's boat that never arrives. "Bobby's coming home tonight, I know it," she says.
"The Perfect Storm" contains flaws -- the book's construction seems awkward in some respects because the author has no way to document Andrea Gail's final hours.
The entire section about the way the Andrea Gail sank is loaded with conjecture. That part of the book seems misleading, since no one will ever know exactly how or why the swordfish vessel sank, and no one will ever know what was going through the minds of the crewmen in their final moments -- even though Junger puts thoughts into their heads. Junger tries to patch together the most plausible scenario of the sinking, in part by using vignettes from boats that were out at sea and survived the storm.
But above all, the book holds a mirror up to the fishing industry and the nation's oldest seaport, showing both in sometimes-unsettling detail. It's an impressive account and an incredible read about Gloucester and its fishing industry, which has faltered but continues to define the port.
"The Perfect Storm", by Sebastian Junger, 225 pages, $23.95