AP features writer Lewan crafts a painful, exhilarating narrative from the ordeal of a fishing schooner that tried to cheat the weather forecasts in the Gulf of Alaska and got caught.
In the winter of 1998, an old boat with bad gear and a hard crew set off for the Gulf of Alaska’s Fairweather Grounds. No place could have been more inappropriately named. The Fairweather, 18 hours out of port, was a cluster of shoals in the open gulf known for good rockfishing, but venturing there in January was a dicey gamble. The gamble failed, the boat went south in the dark of night, and the five crewmembers went into 38-degree seas with rough waves and winds topping 100 miles per hour. Lewan masterfully evokes both the crewmembers and the approaching storm; occasionally he overcooks the metaphors (“the wind howled like a gut-shot wolf”), but for the most part he keeps the action real and terrifying (“the wind peeled their eyelids up and the salt water burned their eyes”). The author cuts back and forth between the men in the water and the three, count ’em, three helicopter rescue teams sent one after the other in an effort to pull them out. Lewan steals your breath as he describes the fandango inside a helicopter slammed by gale-force winds, the gradual loss of all bodily sensation in a frigid sea, the bizarre experience of castaways who rode up the wall of a rogue wave to actually see the rescue helicopter below their watery perch, its crew fighting to gain elevation. He also reveals a gratifying tie-in between one of the fishermen and one of the rescuers.
Immediate and terrifying, so edge-of-the-seat readers will have creases in their glutei maximi.