Synopses & Reviews
It was the catch of a lifetime. In late January 1998, after a miserable stretch of fishing that hadn't paid for even their groceries, the five-man crew of a seventy-nine-year-old Alaska schooner called the La Conte
risked one last run to the Fairweather Grounds, despite the approach of bad weather. The young skipper, a father-to-be, was convinced fish could be found on the shoals, and his instincts were right: they hit the mother lode. For eighteen hours their lines had a fish on every hook: yellow eye, lingcod, calico, halibut, even the occasional sand shark; it was an incredible haul, one that would bring huge profits -- and respect -- back in port.
But they stayed out too long, and a hurricane-force Arctic storm caught them. Though in need of repair herself, the La Conte had weathered bad seas before -- and might have again. But in the cruelest of ironies, the additional burden of its magnificent catch sank the ship, and set the five men -- Bob Doyle, Mike DeCapua, Gig Mork, David Hanlon, and Mark Morley -- afloat in frigid seventy-foot seas. Their radio beacon was sending distress signals to the Coast Guard, but the chances of rescue under such conditions seemed remote.
Eight months later, on a deserted island nearly 800 miles away, two boys found a mutilated corpse that had washed ashore and been mauled by brown bears. A forensics investigator, haunted by the thought that this man's family might never know what had become of him, and with only a single partial fingerprint and scraps of a survival suit for clues, set out to identify the body.
Author Todd Lewan's painstaking investigation into these events began here, too, with the discovery that the man found dead on Shuyak Island had been one of the fishermen aboard the La Conte. Lewan became obsessed with learning what had become of the other crewmen; with understanding how five "end of the roaders" from different parts of the United States had come together in Alaska to fish one of the world's most treacherous patches of ocean in the dead of winter; and with conveying the way in which that "dream catch" represented an opportunity for each of the men to significantly alter his life. In the process he learned of the truly heroic efforts undertaken by no fewer than three different teams of Coast Guard helicopter rescue units to save these desperate men.
Lewan's re-creation of the events themselves -- the discovery of a lost fisherman's remains; the bonding of troubled men on the high seas; the horrifying hours spent fighting to keep from freezing to death in thirty-eight-degree water; the impossibly courageous efforts of the helicopter rescue crews; and the moving account of how one of the survivors, in particular, found during this tempest an unexpected inner strength that allowed him to turn his life around -- makes for an unforgettable tale, a page-turning narrative drama of the first order. It also provides a timeless, affecting portrait of hard-living seekers drawn to Alaska: of adventurers in search of roots, home, and the chance to remake themselves in the spirit of America's last frontier.
"Associated Press reporter Lewan offers a taut retelling of the 1998 story of five fishermen whose aging boat sank during an angry storm off the coast of Alaska, and of the predictably nail-biting Coast Guard rescue mission that followed. He capably explores the backgrounds and motivations of not only the small group of deckhands and their green skipper but also of their rescuers via helicopter, recreating believable dialogue and vividly evoking life on the harsh Alaskan coastline. He admirably resists the natural urge to overplay (toward the heroic) the fishermen's actions and unflinchingly looks at their alcoholism, marital discord and epic bouts of bad luck. They're not ennobled by their struggles, but rather simply challenged, changed and, in some cases, broken. But while Lewan focuses on the internal difficulties the men faced on their journey, he skimps on a detailed explanation of the role that overfishing played in the crew's decision to search out distant, more dangerous waters in their attempts to bring home a profitable-enough catch. Nonetheless, the book's flowing style and measured pacing succeed in making a familiar tale (fishermen go out, boat sinks, some don't make it) new and immediate, and in giving readers a sense of why the five fishermen were willing to risk so much for potentially so little. Agent, Owen Laster. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Todd Lewan raises the standard for non-fiction survival stories. Hair-raising...hilarious [and] engaging." Jason Kersten, author of Journal of the Dead
In the tradition of Black Hawk Down and The Perfect Storm comes an epic tale of the daring helicopter rescue of an Alaskan fishing vessel wrecked in the worst Arctic storm in years. 8-page photo excerpt.
About the Author
Todd Lewan joined the Associated Press as a correspondent in 1988. In 1996 he became an editor on AP's international desk, and later a national features writer. In 1998 he received several feature-writing prizes for this story.