Sebastian Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm, yet he is also in many ways the main character. He is part of the story, as he recognizes to his discomfort: not really a journalist in his own mind but rather "just a guy with a pen and paper and an idea for a book." While Junger is a first person presence in the foreword and afterword, he is also very much present throughout, unapologetically taking the reader aside on digressions to explain the dynamics of waves, the physics of storms, and the physiology of drowning. He is overtly uncomfortable about his standing in Gloucester: he is an outsider, he has never fished, and he is intruding on the lives and grief of real people, whose misery he will write about for all the world to read. Even worse, neither Junger nor anyone else knows what happened in the last hours to the Andrea Gail, and thus the climax of the book, the fulfillment of its opening promise stimulated by the sinking of the fishing boat off Georges Bank in 1896, to answer the question, "How do men act on a sinking ship?", must be pure speculation. Fictional characters can be made to run a gamut of literary emotions, but what is the protocol when the men were real and family members still mourn them? Junger builds credibility with his ethical punctiliousness and restraint, repeating "undoubtedly" and "maybe" as the case requires when actions and feelings must be inferred, and further by establishing his own thoroughness and familiarity with fishing practices, equipment, and situations through researched information. His self-evident respect for the particular families and the people of Gloucester in general is admirable, a restraint unusual in an age when journalists encourage victims to vent their emotions while they are still in shock and when irresponsible speculation is the order of many news reports. Junger avoids both emotional voyeurism and speculation unfounded in scientific and technological fact. Junger the character, then, comes across not as a researcher nearly obsessed with finding the truth, but one with a firm moral sense about boundaries he must not cross.
Billy Tyne is somewhat mysterious since as the captain he is the ultimate decision- maker responsible for the fate of the Andrea Gail. But Junger has few land-based close relatives who can give insight into his thinking. Tyne is a Gloucester boy who grew up in non-fishing work settings, yet became a whole-hearted competitor when he went to sea. His less-than-stellar performance at finding fish on the Andrea Gail's previous trip perhaps provokes his aggressive search on the final, fatal trip, with forays into fishing grounds at the limits of safety given the time of year. He is the key figure in the failure of the Andrea Gail to survive, for even trivial, harmless decisions might have built on each other pyramid-like to seal the fate of the boat. However, as Junger is at pains to point out, the last hours of captain and crew are sealed in mystery, and perhaps a freak wave drove the boat past the point of recovery. Words like "perhaps" and are used to describe Billy Tyne's thoughts and acts, emphasizing the speculative nature of Junger's reconstruction of events. Nevertheless, Tyne comes across favorably, as a true Gloucester fisherman, who will do all within his power to return his crew to land safely. The reader inevitably identifies with Tyne's predicament, and thus feels his loss more deeply than that of the other men on the boat, who have fairly passive roles once the storm begins to...
(This entire section contains 1541 words.)
Bobby Shatford and, to a lesser degree, his mother, Ethel, who works behind the bar at the Crow's Nest where Bobby drinks and sometimes stays, come into sharper focus as fully rounded characters in the literary sense. Ethel was Junger's first personal informant about Bobby and the crew, a grieving mother who trusted a personable working man (Junger was then working as a tree cutter) with ideas for a book about the Andrea Gail. In the dynamic of the story, Bobby is portrayed as a reluctant fisherman in contrast to the driven Billy Tyne, a young man with a new girlfriend and the promise of a happy life ahead of him if he can pay off his debts with a successful outing.
Christina Cotter, Bobby Shatford's girlfriend, also served as an informant for Junger, especially about the aftereffects of the tragedy. Junger's point about death at sea is that it offers no "closure," in current jargon: the sailors just "disappeared off the face of the earth and, strictly speaking, it's just a matter of faith that these men will never return." Both Ethel Shatford and Christina Cotter cannot "willfully extract" their loved ones "from their lives and banish them to another world." A Bobby Shatford look-alike gives Ethel a bad turn, while Christina cannot get on with her life. Those "lost at sea" leave equal numbers lost on shore.
The crew of the Andrea Gail in general are often considered as a collective, sometimes in opposition to Billy Tyne, who must drag them out of the Crow's Nest bar and out to sea, and sometimes as frightened human beings putting all their trust in their captain to bring them back alive. Bobby Shatford is given a great deal of individuality, largely through information provided by Christina Cotter and Ethel Shatford, but at times he is simply part of the work force on the boat. Readers find out some personal information about Michael "Bugsy" Moran, Dale "Murph" Murphy, and David "Sully" Sullivan, but the fifth crew member, Alfred Pierre, is an outsider with a new "site" or berth on the Andrea Gail and is sketchily drawn. Unlike Billy Tyne, who "really, truly loved to fish," all the crew see fishing as demanding, dangerous work to be gotten through as quickly as possible, but all are trapped by circumstances into continuing the life and venturing out one more time. The tight bonding created by demanding, dangerous work for weeks on end, isolated from the rest of society, survives squabbles and shore-leave drunken excess, and accounts for the crew staying together over the years: they all know each other in ways shore workers can never fathom.
Bobby Brown is the land-based owner of the Andrea Gail and as a highly successful former fisherman turned entrepreneur, he is perfectly cut out to be seen as a villain by the people of Gloucester and the grieving friends and relatives of the lost men. Since he had the Andrea Gail rebuilt and refitted, he bears possible legal liability for the loss of her crew, but the fishing industry is so loosely regulated he escapes with financial payments to survivors. Junger quotes the generally negative feelings about Brown held by the people of Gloucester (the author is clearly on their side) but is careful to depict the pressures and difficulties inherent in ownership of boats in such a hazardous occupation. As both owner and general manager of the Andrea Gail, Brown has personal knowledge of her refitting and potential for foundering that even Billy Tyne might not have known about. He is thus another shadowy figure, perhaps himself a victim of his own success at managing boats, but also in the difficult moral position of sending men out under circumstances which might well kill them. War justifies such decisions on the part of officers; here, only the profit motive is involved.
Rescue jumpers provide the perfect contrast to Bob Brown and the self-interested side of the fishing trade. Rescue jumpers put their lives at risk to save complete strangers. Without hesitation, parajumpers/ rescue swimmers launch themselves out of helicopters into the sea, sometimes at night, trusting their colleagues will recover them but well aware that storms at sea can overwhelm even modern technology. While readers can see that one of the attractions of rescue operations is belonging to an elite outfit doing very dangerous and exciting work, there is no question about the willingness of these public servants to put their lives on the line for others. Their stories leave the reader astonished at their physical bravery and their psychological toughness. Finally, "The Perfect Storm" itself is anthropomorphized into a near-living creature. The sea has always been romanticized into human terms, and the sailors in the book are no different: "It's a beautiful lady . . . but she'll kill ya without a second thought." The storm, however, a product of a named hurricane and an unusual concatenation of weather fronts, is not given the benefit of a human personality, only raw and destructive emotions: "Thirty-foot seas are rolling in from the North Atlantic and attacking the town of Gloucester with a cold, heavy rage." The virulent unpredictability of the storm is repeatedly equated to a living, organic force, but not as personification; rather, it is nature itself showing both its irresistible power and its utter unconcern for human wishes. Even the shorefront itself is under assault, houses are lost, and widespread flooding takes place; away from land, the magnitude of the storm tests the limits of measurement techniques. Weather systems at sea are simply beyond human comprehension, let alone human ability to control their effects on flimsy fishing crafts and even ocean liners.