Tales of Fateful Trips

Jon Foro on May 17, 2018
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They say that these are the two best days of boat ownership: The day you buy your boat, and the day you sell your boat. Still, the "romance of the sea" remains an irresistible siren song for many wishing for a life of freedom, adventure, and maybe a book contract. Unfortunately, sometimes you get exactly what you asked for. Here are five books about calamity on the open ocean, from the triumphant and inspirational to the mysterious and tragic.  

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In 1998, a young marine biologist named Matt Lewis secured a position as the scientific observer aboard the Sudur Havid, a South African boat bound for the outer waters of Antarctica’s frigid Southern Ocean. Even though his novice eyes, Lewis was immediately struck by the apparent unreadiness of both boat and crew. His misgivings were soon realized: As winds rose and whipped the seas into a ship-tossing frenzy, the fuel- and fish-heavy boat took on water. A disastrous chain of decisions doomed the ship, and the panic-struck crew stuffed themselves into three inadequate rafts and embarked on a nightmarish struggle on the open ocean. Last Man Off is no adventure story; it's a gritty tale of desperation and survival.

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Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man

If you remember Robert Shaw's signature soliloquy from Jaws, you already know something about the USS Indianapolis, the warship sunk by a pair of Japanese torpedoes following a top-secret mission delivering the core of the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima. Of its crew of 1200, 900 went into the water alive. But after almost a week of battling countless sharks and dehydration, only 316 survived. Indianapolis revisits the tragedy, going beyond the sensational in a mission to restore the reputation of Charles McVay III,  the ship's captain who was wrongly court-martialed for the sinking. 

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Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro

In October 2015, the container ship SS El Faro inexplicably sailed into the heart of Hurricane Joaquin, vanishing with its crew into the storm and becoming the worst shipping disaster in 35 years—a mystery big enough to produce this and two more books investigating it in the two-and-a-half years since. Journalist Rachel Slade interviewed hundreds of relatives and maritime experts in search of answers, and even examined conversations of the crew recovered from the ship's data recorder. The result is an enlightening exposé of the shipping industry and the risks it's willing to take for profit's sake.

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Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea

Here's one for Norman Vincent Peale fans. In 1982, Steve Callahan set out on a solo voyage across the Atlantic on his 21-foot sailboat. To paraphrase another iconic Jaws moment, he might have needed a bigger boat. Just six days in, Callahan's sloop sank, leaving him Adrift in a tent-like life raft, an 1,800-mile, seven-plus week ordeal. How did he do it? The power of positive thinking. Though much of his 76 days at sea were predictably desperate, Callahan summoned gratitude for the things that went right: the food he managed to find, the beauty of the ocean, the unlikely state of being alive.

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438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

So you were lost at sea 76 days? As the meme goes, Hold my beer. When a violent storm overtook a weekend fishing trip off the west coast of Mexico, captin Salvador Alvarenga was sent adrift (there's that word again) across the Pacific Ocean, ultimately landing 7,000 miles away on a nearly deserted island--transformed into a hairy madman, but miraculously alive. 438 Days is the closest thing to The Odyssey that we might ever see, or maybe Gilligan's Island: The Director's Cut.


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