Book review: ‘Last Man Off’ details remarkable survival in ‘hostile place’ | VailDaily.com

Book review: ‘Last Man Off’ details remarkable survival in ‘hostile place’

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
Matt Lewis arrived on the Sudur Havid a rookie of the seas, and by the boat's tragic end, he was the very last to step off its sinking deck in the Southern Ocean.
Special to the Daily |

Probably the worst moment to joke about the epic sinking scenes in the movie “Titanic” is while on a rusty old fishing boat heading to the frigid waters near Antarctica.

But, that is what author Matt Lewis did when he joined the patchwork crew of a deep sea fishing vessel, the Sudur Havid, where he served as a scientific observer as required by international fishing regulations. Fresh out of college and unaccustomed to nautical living, Lewis’ quip was merely an attempt to calm his nerves, but little did he know how prophetic his flippant joke would become.

In his riveting book, “Last Man Off; A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas,” Lewis details the series of chance events and avoidable missteps that culminated in unimaginable tragedy and remarkable survival.

ALL WAS NOT RIGHT

In the spring of 1998, Lewis took advantage of a short notice offer to accompany a crew heading to the Southern Ocean, even though he knew the frigid waters had a reputation as a “hostile place.” And though the work would satisfy an empty space on his resume, he felt he would be seen as little more than “a university upstart recording the conduct of hardened fisherman.”

Though initially his naivete was glaringly apparent and did indeed set him apart from the 37 other crewmen, he held his own, ultimately playing a pivotal role in the saving of lives when disaster eventually struck. And, the way Lewis tells it, disaster was all but inevitable.

Even before leaving port in Cape Town, South Africa, Lewis’ instincts told him that all was not right aboard the vessel. No emergency preparedness drills took place and the men were hastily given whatever equipment was on hand, which amounted to incomplete kits for each person.

“Given that we were expected to work on deck in all conditions, the omissions were troubling,” Lewis wrote.

Worse still, the life vests were kept under lock and key to prevent theft.

‘No law, no god’

Challenging weather conditions put a strain on the old, refitted boat, and the Southern Ocean was infamous for its rough seas and punishing storms. They passed the 40-degree latitude line, known in navigational terms as the start of the “Roaring Forties,” and the further south they moved, the more grey the world became — above, below and all around.

“Below 40 degrees south there is no law. Below 50 degree there is no god,” goes one sailor saying, according to Lewis, and the ominous nature of his account of those darkest days before bad luck mingled with poor preparation and hubris-fueled carelessness had the men fighting for their lives makes for chilling and engrossing reading.

Even before calamity struck, Lewis’ descriptions of the daily ins and outs of deep sea commercial fishing is fascinating. The prized catch in those arctic waters were Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish, more glamorously known as Chilean sea bass. Upon tasting the fish they were slaving to collect, Lewis said it “wasn’t worth risking our lives so far from home.”

Point of No Return

Clearly, though, the fishermen felt differently, for most of them were at sea upwards of nine months a year, bouncing from one crew to the next, following the catch and the money it brought in. Interestingly, Lewis points out that, in spite of the time spent on treacherous waters, most of the crew had never learned to swim.

In spite of worsening conditions well into their months-long stint off the remote South Georgia Island, the Sudur Havid took on more fuel, as the captain was reluctant to turn back without a hold full of the valuable fish, which would equal larger paychecks for everyone upon return to South Africa.

Lewis watched with increasing unease as the already heavy boat rode lower in the water, in weather that was slowly reaching “near-gale” conditions. Yet, fishing continued, even though circumstances in the fish factory in the hold became increasingly precarious and dangerous, slippery with water, slime and sharp objects — and soon with a failing water pump — and then a second failing emergency pump.

A veritable newbie to the perils of seafaring, Lewis seemed to be the only one worried, saying, “everyone I asked for help seemed unconcerned.” Those on the bridge refused to acknowledge the chaos unfolding below, for a stoppage would mean valuable fishing time lost. But as conditions worsened to the point that the radar was picking up the crests of the largest waves, fishing was finally called off — hours too late, for momentum had gone too far, and the boat began to list.

The Sudur Havid was beyond the point of no return, delivered there by the crew’s own greed and cockiness.

Abandon Ship

As “Titanic” shifts into dramatic overdrive once the iceberg hits, so to does Lewis’ narrative ratchet up into “un-put-downable” territory. The decision was made to abandon ship, and Lewis says he made the conscious choice to fight to live.

“At that moment I made a simple promise, to myself. If I was going to die, then I would die doing my best, trying my hardest and by helping others. I would not panic or fall part,” he wrote.

What follows is nightmarish and riveting reading, with Lewis including accounts of what took place from multiple perspectives besides his own. He weaves together stories of human error keeping agitated company with human heroism, as the crew of the Sudur Havid began a formidable fight against the icy water and the tormenting relentlessness of the waves, where “a whole ship could be hidden in a trough of a swell, let alone a life raft.”

Lewis arrived on the Sudur Havid a rookie of the seas, and by the boat’s tragic end, he was the very last to step off its sinking deck. “Last Man Off” is an unforgettable, brutal story of survival and loss, miscalculations and modesty — a must-read.