In late October 1991, Sebastian Junger was living in Gloucester, Mass., and eking out a precarious living as a freelance journalist when a drastic turn in the weather changed his life.
What would become known as the Storm of the Century _ the unheard-of convergence of three massive weather systems in the Atlantic _ slammed into America's oldest seaport. "The wind was unbelievable, and there were 30-foot waves _ in the harbor," Junger recalled.
Out in the churning, mountainous seas of Georges Bank, 120 miles southeast of Gloucester, 10-story-high waves pounded the swordfish boat Andrea Gail, and its fate became the subject of Junger's mega-seller "The Perfect Storm." Besides inspiring Wolfgang Petersen's visually astonishing movie of the same name, which flooded into the nation's multiplexes last weekend, Junger's book became a publishing phenomenon that has unleashed a tsunami of seagoing terror in the nation's bookstores.
If you want to write a best-seller today, forget sex and go to sea, and don't forget your laptop to note all the calamities landlubbers love to read about from a safe and dry distance. Drop in at the local bookstore, and you need a sou'wester and high waders to get near the shelves dripping with maritime mayhem from killer storms to a whole subgenre of cannibalism and other low crimes on the high seas.
In the wake of "The Perfect Storm," published in 1997, came a veritable sea of trouble: Linda Greenlaw's "The Hungry Ocean" (life on the ocean waves with the only female swordfish-boat captain in the world), Erik Larson's "Isaac's Storm" (the most devastating hurricane in history), Kevin Patterson's "The Water in Between" (a voyage across the Pacific with a novice sailor), and Derek Lundy's "Godforsaken Sea" (disaster strikes an around-the-world yachting race).
Readers who wouldn't know a gunwhale from a grappling hook have lapped up Gordon Chaplin's "Dark Wind" (sailboat meets killer typhoon), Rob Mundle's "Fatal Storm" (disaster strikes another yacht race), John Toohey's "Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare" (adrift in a rowboat after the mutiny on the Bounty), Timothy Severin's "In Search of Moby Dick" (a travel writer's account of his search for the great white whale), and Patrick Dillon's "Lost at Sea" (vanished crab boats in the Bering Sea).
Connoisseurs of cannibalism have made Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" _ the survivalist saga of 19th-century shipwrecked whalers and edible adventures that inspired Melville to pen "Moby Dick" _ into a hot title. If you're hungry for more, there's a second helping in Neil Hanson's "The Custom of the Sea".
In the current feeding frenzy among publishers, you could probably encounter a modest breeze on a ferry and expect to find an editor waiting with a six-figure advance check for your heart-stopping tale when you dock.
Landlocked catastrophes such as the Everest disaster that led to Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" also do well, but nothing matches the memoirs of those in peril of the sea.
Petersen, the German filmmaker who made that classic of submarine claustrophobia "Das Boot, argues that "The Perfect Storm" and its imitators tap into something primal.
"Most of the sea is still to be explored, and it covers three-quarters of the planet," he said in an interview from his Los Angeles office. "It is mythic and mysterious. Whatever progress we humans may make, the ocean is the one thing that will never change. It's beautiful, but it can become a terrifying monster in an instant. There's no experience you can find on land that offers anything like it."
"The Perfect Storm," which stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, fuses state-of-the-art computer imagery with soundstage footage of the actors. The climax of the film is breathtaking, and the book's millions of admirers will be pleased to learn that the movie remains faithful to the unsparing narrative. Petersen said he would have passed on making the $140 million movie if Warner Bros. had wanted to make drastic changes.
A storm on the scale so skillfully recounted by Junger is hard enough to convey on paper. Petersen, who directed such popular fare as "In the Line of Fire" and "Air Force One," said that only recent breakthroughs in screen technology made the film a reality.
"It would not have been possible even a few years ago," he pointed out. "I think Sebastian did a wonderful job of re-creating a world unknown to most of us, and how dangerous it is. With today's technology, anything you can imagine can be filmed."
Sea adventure, in fiction such as Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic-era naval novels featuring Jack Aubrey and in nonfiction like Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki," has always had a loyal following. But the current cresting wave is unprecedented.
"These stories aren't fantasies," noted Starling Lawrence, the respected W.W. Norton editor who bought "The Perfect Storm" for $30,000 and was responsible for bringing the hugely successful O'Brian series to American readers. "The best of them are extremely rooted in facts, research and detail. They are intensely believable, and they offer great armchair adventures for those who don't fancy trying this kind of thing themselves. It's all in how the author does it _ the mystery of what happened and how it grips the reader."
Norton recently began a joint publishing effort with Outside magazine to issue a series of true-life adventures to meet a seemingly insatiable demand.
But, at a deeper level, what feeds this appetite?
Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who has spent decades researching and writing about what motivates people to take great risks and why others love hearing about it, says we are a country of "Type-T personalities." The T is for thrill-seeking, and it's no accident that a show such as "Survivor" is a hit.
"Look at the popularity of really extreme sports and really adventurous vacations where you don't just go on a cruise to the Antarctic, you land on the ice and spend time there," Farley said. "We're a country of people who love to push the envelope. With "The Perfect Storm and the sea, you're dealing with the fact that people feel that the sea is riskier than the land and always will be. "The Perfect Storm" captures all the qualities we admire today _ courage and danger and confronting uncertainty and the absolute extreme.
"We have passed the age of austerity and the age of the Cold War, and we're in what I call the age of extremes," he explained. "We don't take an interest in the middle or the norm anymore, and movies and books are following in that direction. Most of us lead pretty safe, structured and predictable lives, but our history as a species is one where confrontation with nature was immediate, constant and dangerous. A movie like "The Perfect Storm" and these other stories put us foursquare back into that kind of situation, and we're fascinated."
Linda Greenlaw, the swordfish-boat captain who wrote "The Hungry Ocean" and who has since retired to the safer shoals of lobstering off the coast of Maine, had a closer view than anyone would want of the Storm of the Century. She was out on her boat, the Hannah Boden, when it struck, and was in frequent radio contact with the Andrea Gail. The Hannah Boden was battered, but ultimately reached the safety of Gloucester.
After Junger's book made such a splash, publishers approached Greenlaw with open checkbooks, even though she had "never written a book before and never expected to," she said cheerfully.
"When you write about life at sea and what it's really like on a 30-day trip in a swordboat, you're telling people on the shore things they couldn't possibly know," she said. "My editor kept after me to put in more details even though nobody knows what a gangion is. 1/8It's the assembly for a bait hook. 3/8 My opinion is that people don't have much adventure in their own lives, and they live vicariously through these stories. It got bigger because they read one book and liked it, and they went looking for another."
Hal Espen, editor of Outside magazine, published the article by Junger that grew into "The Perfect Storm." The 22-year-old glossy monthly has ridden the boom in outdoor adventure and now has 2 million readers.
Espen says that when so many people are primed by such pastimes, it's hardly surprising that elemental stories of valor under unbearable stress and tragedy grab them.
"And then there are many more people today who spend a lot of their lives in front of a computer screen and hours in virtual and artificial worlds," he said. "Clearly, they have formed a huge additional readership that is horrified and thrilled by these books."
Some measure of the skyrocketing marketplace for marine life and death can be found in the $1.2 million that Viking paid Nathaniel Philbrick for "In the Heart of the Sea." Before its publication in the spring, Philbrick was a well-regarded but little-known maritime historian and sailor. The 1820s tale of the whale that sank the ship stalking it and the subsequent voyage of the survivors across the Pacific was devoured by avid 19th-century readers when the captain published his story.
Philbrick's engrossing reconstruction has everything you could ask in a salty misadventure. "It's been amazing. I haven't had time to take it all in," he said from the San Francisco stop on a grueling promotional tour for the book.
"We had two frontiers in our history _ the sea and the West," he contended. "The West has been tamed and civilized beyond recognition. You can pollute the sea, but you can never control and change it in the same way. It's one reason readers are so interested now. Space has been done to death in popular culture, but the sea is the eternal unknown. And it's very dangerous. All you have to do is get on a boat and once you're out of sight of the land, you're intensely aware of the terror it can bring."
Whether "The Perfect Storm" is followed by other movies about disasters on the high seas (one called "Titanic" did pretty well) will depend on how Petersen's picture performs at the cutthroat summer box office.
But in bookstores, the wave isn't about to turn into a trickle anytime soon. As Philbrick said: "The sea is truly vast, and there are so many great stories that haven't been told yet."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times