After the Storm: True Stories of Disaster and Recovery at Sea by John Rousmaniere is an eclectic collection of tales of sea wrecks and harrowing survivals at the hand of marine storms. The dozen main stories cover a time-span from biblical accounts of the trials of Jonah and St Paul to the tribulations of recent trans-oceanic yacht racers, tossing in a pair of ghost ships for good measure. The book is fleshed out with insightful excursions into biography, social history, international politics, literary criticism, religion and the composition of popular hymns.
In telling these tales, the author looks in depth at the psychology of extreme stress, using his personal experience and the September 11 events as the nexus to the other stories. As the book's jacket informs us:
"When the last survivor is ashore and the last victim is memorialized, we feel horror and also relief. But though the storm may last only hours, the roots of the storm story reach far back in time, and the consequences ripple outward long after the last wave rolls by. The real stories of people and ships, of dreams and seamanship, of loss and recovery are richer, deeper, more complex, and at once more disturbing and rewarding than a mere headline suggests."
In this regard, Rousmaniere's "Introduction" is a most poignant discussion of the long-term impacts of storms often unseen in the news clips covering them.
But while the common thread of these tales is a ship's encounter with severe weather, this is not a "weather book." In fact, little is generally said about many of the storms, save they happened, compared with the detail that the author goes into concerning the psyche of those facing the powers of wind and wave aboard ships. When Rousmaniere does discuss the science of weather, he often gets the facts wrong. For example,
"The pressure in the center of a tornado has been know to drip several inches and cause a violent updraft that will tear the roof off a house unless the air has somewhere to go (people in tornado-prone areas open doors and windows as the twister approaches)."
While such a pressure drop within a tornado is true, observable fact, it is not the cause but the consequence of the strong updrafts in the funnel. And it is the wind speed rather than the pressure differential (aside from aerodynamic pressures that lift roofs like wings) that tears roofs off houses. Further, I pity anyone in a tornado-prone region who still thinks opening doors and windows will save their house from tornado damage. This dangerous myth dies hard. And any boat which ventured into a waterspout that could not stand up to the air pressure differentials would soon be crushed by the pounding sea.
Despite the general lack of discussions about the storms except as prime agents for the events and an unevenness in the amount of discussion among the stories (for some, it was hard to gather information when there were no survivors), After the Storm is an interesting read. Much of what I found interesting stemmed from the treatment of several stories missed or mythologized by the history books.
I was particular interested in the stories of the death of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in a less-than-seaworthy boat; the typhoon that averted a Pacific war among Britain, Germany and the United States in 1889; and the role a gale played in the writing of that classic hymn Amazing Grace.
If you are interested in sea-survival/wreck stories or the impact of such extremely stressful events on the survivors (often with comments to the recent September 11 event), you will find After the Storm a good read for this summer (just not one to read aboard a boat or ship). If weather is your main interest, I suggest looking for other titles.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
July 1, 2002
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