, Gloucester, MA

June 3, 2008

Author Returns to Scene of Tragic Tale

Rob Jagodzinski

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- Some 400 people filed past the statue of the patron saint of fishermen on their way into the St. Peter's Club last night to hear the author of "The Perfect Storm" read from his nonfiction sea story.

The old mariner's hall seemed a fitting place for writer Sebastian Junger to explain how he came to pen his bestselling book about a Gloucester fishing crew lost at sea in an October 1991 gale.

People from hundreds of miles away heard Junger read some of the most compelling and emotional passages. Then they waited up to an hour to have their copies of the book signed.

And while waiting, some discussed their thoughts on the book that's been near the top of the New York Times bestseller list for six months, putting our small community in the national spotlight. That spotlight may get even brighter soon, since Warner Brothers has bought the rights to turn the tale into a movie.

"It's a great story," said Joyce Phinney, who grew up in East Gloucester. "I knew some of the Gloucester fishermen who died aboard the Andrea Gail," the swordfish boat that sank with all six hands lost during the killer storm that hit New England on Oct. 28, 1991.

"The book is realistic, full of local color. My brothers were swordfishermen and every time they go out to sea, you don't know if they're coming back," Phinney said.

The book derives its name from intense weather patterns that combined into what meteorologists described as a "perfect" storm that day. Winds howled past 90 mph and seas 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. It sank with little trace hundreds of miles offshore.

Capt. Billy Tyne and crewmen Bobby Shatford and David Sullivan of Gloucester died, along with fellow crewmen Dale Murphy and Michael Moran of Florida and Alfred Pierre of New York.

Mary Anne Shatford, Bobby Shatford's sister, said she was surprised at the large turnout at the St. Peter's Club last night. She feels the book's popularity stems from the way it portrays ordinary folks caught in extraordinary circumstances.

"These were everyday people doing everyday jobs," she said.

At the start of last night's reading, Junger recounted how he was a free-lance writer living in Gloucester when the storm hit and the boat sank.

As he began putting the book together, he said he wrestled with the way Gloucester people would accept his telling of the true story.

"I can't know what was in the minds of these men in the last hours," the thirty-something Junger told the crowd. "But I could get an idea about what it was like by talking to people who had almost drowned, and reading about people who had near-death experiences."

In addition, the first-time author also drew from personal experience -- he nearly drowned while surfing off Cape Cod several years ago.

Still, "I was terrified of what people in Gloucester would think of this book," when it first came out last spring, the author said. Now he's ending his six-month book tour where it started with more confidence in his work.

In fact, last night he read from some of the more graphic parts of the book -- about what may have happened to the crew of the doomed boat during its last moments afloat.

Junger speculates about what goes through a crewman's head as he drowns.

"He wound up, by one route or another, on this trip, in this storm, with this boat filling up with water and one or two minutes left to live," the author read. "There's no going back now, no rescue helicopter that could possibly save him. All that's left is to hope it's over fast."

Such passages raise some eyebrows, since no one knows what happened when the boat went down.

Despite such conjecture, the community has largely accepted the story, described by some as a humane account of inhumane events.

But the tale is too real for some people in town -- such as skipper Billy Muniz. He was among the few local fishermen at the reading yesterday, and the book spooked him.

"I fished with Billy Tyne years ago, and I fished with David Sullivan on the Andrea Gail" a few years before the sinking, Muniz said.

"I'm having trouble dealing with the book because I live that life and I'm out fishing every day and I've been in situations where I almost died at sea," Muniz said.

A family member of one of the men lost on the Andrea Gail also said the book dredges up grief she would prefer to leave at rest.

Readers without such strong personal ties to the fishermen and the sea may find other messages in the book.

"As humans, we think we're so powerful," said Tony Toledo of Beverly. "But the power of the ocean will always put us in awe."