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Old 01-31-2001
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome


The colossal Category 5 storm, Hurricane Mitch, devastated much of Central America in 1998.
The Ship and the Storm
tells of Hurricane Mitch’s wild, stutter-step path through the western Caribbean in October 1998 as the hurricane brought about what one official termed "the total destruction of absolutely everything." With a drive that keeps the pages flipping well into the night, with clarity as he lays out a complex set of facts, and (not the least of his achievements) with empathy for the communities lying in the storm’s path, journalist-sailor Jim Carrier brilliantly takes us through one of the deadliest of all storms. His narrative evolves day-by-day as Mitch traces its long, erratic path of pain, and mile-by-mile outwards from the storm’s tightly wound eye to the fascinated and, in the end, horrified sailors, meteorologists, and friends of the victims who have followed its bitter, unpredicted history.

The ship in the title is a 282-foot motorsailer hosting sybaritic Windjammer cruises. Cornered deep in the Gulf of Honduras with only two routes of escape, Fantome’s skipper, Guyan March, influenced by an incomplete evaluation of weather forecasts, decided to head east only to meet the storm. With waves characterized as "like avalanches," Mitch proceeded to wipe the vessel and her crew off the face of the sea. The many questions suggested or posed in this story about naval architecture, seamanship, and route selection have been debated for more than two years. I can add nothing except to repeat the advice of an authority on hurricanes at a safety-at-sea seminar several years ago: "If one comes your way, tie up your boat and get the hell off it."

This superb book is a reminder that recent storm stories take a different form than their predecessors of more than about 20 years ago. For a very long time, this was a speciality of authors writing explicitly about alienation — whether they were religious writers like the anonymous author of the Biblical Book of Job (one of the wisest books ever written) or psychological novelists like Joseph Conrad (who rightly observed in Typhoon, "This is the disintegrating power of a great wind: it isolates one from one’s kind"). A storm to them was chaos that can only be reduced by belief and human connection.


The 282-foot Fantome was no match for Hurricane Mitch.
Today’s typical good storm story, however, is in the genre of thriller. Here’s the basic plot: Some people are happily going about their innocuous business when there appears on the horizon a savage, unpredictable, random character who threatens first their good cheer and finally (and very violently) their lives. We proceed to watch this character explode everything it touches. Think of the great white shark in Jaws, Humphrey’s Bogart’s Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, or Joe Pesci in any of his movies and you get an idea of the natural protagonist in a modern storm-at-sea book. In response, all the victim can do is bleakly endure.

Whatever approach writers chose, their challenge is to make the story credible without tarting up the story with hyperbole, the people sympathetic, the context sweeping, and the storm deadly. Jim Carrier does all that (and more) in The Ship and the Storm.

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