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Maritime misfortune – ‘Into the Raging Sea’

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So much of our country’s history is bound up in the sea. Our relationship to the ocean has defined us in many ways over the years. Even now, our waterways play vital roles in the way our nation operates. But all that time at sea comes with risk; it’s risk that we often forget or dismiss, but it never goes away.

And sometimes, it makes its presence known.

On Oct. 1, 2015, the merchant ship El Faro ran into Hurricane Joaquin off the Bahamas and sank, killing all 33 of the crew members and leading to months of questions about how something so tragic could have happened … and who should be held responsible.

Author Rachel Slade offers a comprehensive and compelling look at the disaster with her new book “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” (Ecco, $27.99). Over the course of nearly 400 pages, Slade brings together hours of research and hundreds of interviews – along with transcripts of voice recordings of El Faro’s final hours – to dive deep beneath the surface of this tragedy, introducing us to many of the people involved and offering a meticulous and thoughtful analysis of it all.

The sinking of the El Faro was the worst shipping disaster in 35 years. It was the sort of accident that most believed – thanks to advances in technology – simply couldn’t happen anymore. And yet it did, thanks to a confluence of circumstances that no one could have possibly predicted.

An old ship haphazardly modified to operate in a new way. A patchwork crew featuring mariners of different degrees of experience and interpersonal familiarity. A storm whose behavior inspired disparate predictions from different meteorological models. All of it coming together in such a way as to doom the ship and all aboard.

The book’s focus is on the final day aboard the ship, the 24 hours that led to the demise of so many. But interspersed throughout is a breakdown of just how we got to the place where such a thing could happen, hundreds of interviews with maritime experts all striving to help answer the same question – how did this happen?

“Into the Raging Sea” is a powerful reading experience. What Slade has done is bring the people aboard El Faro – the people whose lives are coming to a watery end – to heartbreakingly vivid life. Thanks to the voice recordings, she is able to place us on the bridge of that ship. She shares with us the creeping, growing fear, a feeling that starts as simple unease and steadily evolves into something much darker and terrifying. Over the course of mere hours, these people are forced to come to terms with an unavoidable end.

And we are there.

There’s also a wealth of maritime history sprinkled throughout the book as we learn more about the Merchant Marine and the harsh realities inherent to the business of shipping by sea. Whether it’s the surprising level of disrepair under which some companies allow their ships to operate or the potentially calamitous impact of the Jones Act or the rapidly-diminishing profit margins that drive modern shippers to make ethically questionable decisions, it’s all here. And all of it ties in neatly to the terrible tragedy of the El Faro.

Narrative nonfiction is a tricky business; it’s not always easy to turn true stories into compelling ones. It’s even more difficult when your story is one whose climactic event is likely already known by the reader. Yet Slade pulls it off. “Into the Raging Sea” is well-researched and thoughtfully presented, for sure, but it’s also just as gripping as any fictional thriller you’re likely to find. She finds a way to make foreknowledge about El Faro into a feature, rather than a bug; her mastery of tension will leave your nerves twanging no matter what your level of familiarity.

The nature of a story like this is that the full extent of the truth will likely never be truly known. There are elements to the sinking of El Faro that have been forever lost beneath the waves. And we can never know what fears and hopes reside in the depths of men’s hearts. It’s not possible to tell the whole story – but Rachel Slade has come about as close as anyone could.

“Into the Raging Sea” is an exceptional work. It is a story that very much needed to be told; that it was told so eloquently and meticulously is a welcome bonus. The loss of 33 lives was tragic and unnecessary; those lost deserve to have their voices heard. With this book, Rachel Slade gives them that chance.

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 14:33

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