Book review: Fisherman’s will to live on display in ‘A Speck in the Sea’
Sailors and fishermen are famed for their stoicism and patience under trying conditions over punishing hours, and they are fabled for their love of solitude and their passion for the serenity of wide-open waters.
But to be utterly alone upon a vast ocean, without even an emergency vessel to ward off the crippling feelings of vulnerability, is the stuff of nightmares for even the most seasoned of sailors. For John Aldridge, co-author of “A Speck in the Sea,” that nightmare became reality one routine night of fishing in the summer of 2013.
Having grown up on Long Island, where the brine of the ocean carried with it a tangy scent of nostalgia, Aldridge and life-long best friend Anthony Sosinski, the co-owner (and book’s co-author) of their hard-earned lobster boat, had their fishing business running like clockwork. A bare bones crew of three and a routine nighttime trip to their established fishing grounds in the deeper waters about eight hours from Montauk Harbor is the setting for a night that would become anything but normal.
The book’s perspective shifts from Aldridge’s first person, fast-paced narration — which is paced like a novel, with very vivid and evocative imagery, revealing the immediacy of the panic and desperation Aldridge felt when his world changed in the blink of an eye — to the perspective of those involved in the methodical search and rescue that followed.
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Drawing first watch on that fateful night out, with his two crew mates fast asleep deep in the belly of the noisy vessel, its course set on auto-pilot to the fishing grounds, Aldridge makes the pivotal decision to not wake his co-pilot, Sosinski for scheduled watch duty. The boat is an adapted 44-foot lobster boat with an open stern for fishing, and it is there that Aldridge’s night becomes a nightmare.
While pulling on a heavy cooler of ice, the handle breaks, and he stumbles backwards, meaning that at three o’clock in the morning, with no one else awake on board, he falls off the back of the moving boat. “Red-hot adrenaline is coursing through me, and I am flailing, gagging on seawater, thrashing my arms as I reach for the receding Anna Mary.”
Against all he knows about survival, panic grabs him in those first moments, and he expends crucial energy kicking about and screaming worthlessly into the void. He is wearing heavy boots that quickly begin to fill with water, drawing him down as his heart thuds in his chest and the roar of the boat’s motor fades into the moonlit darkness.
Pulling off his boots, he holds onto them like a lifejacket, since “the wearable flotation device that is a safety requirement aboard every commercial fishing boat is no good if you’re not wearing it.”
‘Take Away the Darkness’
After the engine of the boat fades, “the silence is deafening — scary,” and the fight to survive begins. As the deep night engulfs him, Aldridge is keenly aware that he needs to make a concerted effort to hope — against all certain hopelessness.
He reasons that essentially, a philosophical and psychological abstraction stands between him and drowning, for his biggest struggle is fighting those thoughts in his mind that will lead to despair and will have him giving up and letting the depths take him.
He sets himself a goal of making it until daylight, for he knows once the sun rises his crew mates will know he is missing and will order a search. The helplessness he feels is compounded as he sees shark fins approaching — blue sharks, who seem content with merely circling, but which becomes another layer to a mounting feeling akin to Chinese-water torture, another thing he must try to ignore.
In spite of normally relishing the solitude of the sea, and the presence of the living creatures around him he feels painfully alone. “This aloneness is different. This feels cosmic; it feels like I am the last person alive on the planet. I can’t be seen, I can’t be heard, I can’t be found.”
Aware that all he can do is wait until morning, expending as little energy as possible, means he is entirely at the mercy of planetary machinations, with the coming sunrise, and the moon influencing the tides that are sweeping over him with persistence. It is a bad time to have an existential crisis.
With the sun comes new hope, even in his desperate situation. “Like being a little kid: take away the dark and everything seems better.” With the sunrise, too, comes a shift in the story, as Aldridge’s crew mates discover that he is not on board the boat. They, too, have to suppress panic, for a quick search reveals that the only possible option for their missing mate is that he went overboard sometime during the nighttime hours.
The book then becomes a race toward convergence, with both sides giving exciting accounts of the first hours of daylight when a search commences, for the odds for Aldridge’s survival diminishes each minute that passes. The remarkable talents of the Coast Guard team assigned to his rescue and the close bonds of the tight-knit fishing community all play a part in the well-executed search.
“A Speck in the Sea” is gripping and well-written, and highlights the fallibility of man, for no matter how experienced a person is, there are always greater forces that can change everything in an instant. “No one has yet come up with an algorithm that can either measure the will to live or predict how it will manifest itself.”
For Aldridge, that deep dark night on the Atlantic, his will to live made all the difference.
Karina Wetherbee has been a photographer for more than 30 years, taking her across the world on assignment. In addition to her work as a photographer, she published her first book in 2004, a memoir about her father’s childhood during World War II. She also writes book reviews for the Summit Daily and Vail Daily. Visit http://www.KarinaWetherbee.com for more information.