After The Storm

True Stories of Disaster and Recovery at Sea
by John Rousmaniere

Review by Peter H. Vanderwaart

I start with a disclosure. I know John Rousmaniere and although our paths rarely cross, I count him as a friend. I admire his intelligence, his talent and his character. I've read several of his books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles and found them consistently insightful and well-written. So I had high expectations for this book.

And my expectations were met or exceeded. Many authors have compiled accounts of storm and tragedy at sea, but few have woven the common threads into a cohesive narrative. The first seven chapters describe as many storms, carefully chosen for their variety, social or historic significance, and pedagogic value. Cause, effect, and aftereffect are examined, not for each storm alone, but each in the context of the others. Modern ideas of physiology (hypothermia) and psychology (post traumatic stress syndrome) are used as prisms to glean new insights from 19th century accounts. The final three chapters apply those notions to old problems and new. In striking contrast to the majority of sea stories, the emphasis is on culture, sociology, and spirituality. Rousmaniere's message is that technique may improve the odds of survival but that risk is a constant. The comparison to the tragedy of the shuttle Columbia is obvious.

It's difficult to convey the breadth and depth of the discussion. In addition to the bare facts of the storms and sailors involved, I learned something about the following topics: the romantic poets, the origins of feminism, the mackerel fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Samoa crisis of 1889, the origins of the Weather Bureau, the Battle of the Atlantic, the prophet Jonah, the apostle Paul and the hymnist John Newton. Now, who wouldn't want to know all that.

Rousmaniere is often identified as the author of Fastnet, Force Ten. If journalism is the "first rough draft of history" as reporters like to say, then first-person stories like Fastnet, Force Ten are the second. After The Storm is true history, researched and cross-referenced, narrated and interpreted. By his own testimony, the Fastnet storm changed John's life, and, eventually, brought us this book about the mutative power of storms at sea.

Peter Vanderwaart