So they’ve finally repainted Lady Grace over Andrea Gail on the local Gloucester swordfishing boat used almost twenty years ago by Wolfgang Petersen to film establishing and background shots for Sebastian Junger’sThe Perfect Storm. Since those handful of weeks when the film crew took over much of the inner Gloucester harbor waterfront with lights and cameras and personnel, the Lady Grace continued to pretend she was the Andrea Gail only because no one ever got around to sandblasting off the ersatz name. And there she sits, out to pasture dockside, at the Maritime Heritage Center on Gloucester’s waterfront. Her longline buoys still read AG; apparently the crew that put this old boat back together after filming never got around to tying up all of the loose ends. AG, for Andrea Gail, remains the Lady Grace’s only remaining claim to Hollywood fame, if only as a stand-in.
The Lady Grace is the real thing, even if her stint as movie stunt-double and stand-in (remember the movie’s trailer?) had her clawing, implausibly, up the face of a digitally-rendered six-hundred foot wave so preposterous in proportions it towered over the boat like an NBA center taking a jumpshot in front of a frog. She still has her longline radio buoys onboard, controlled by toggles simple as kitchen light switches; the radios, enclosed within stainless steel boxes, have vinyl flotation rings sewn on. It’s summer, and college-aged AmeriCorps kids are hammering together an observation deck for the center, with both the movie and the book seeming not only abstractions but fabrications. This is my hometown, Gloucester, Massachusetts. I went to high school with Rick Shatford, brother of one of the men on the Andrea Gail. Rick’s still a fisherman: for a while, tuna off Hawaii and South America, then groundfish back here and now, like his brother, swordfish.
Since the Lady Grace isn’t roped off, I step aboard. Three drums of longline that hold the lines that form the120-mile-long strings of hooks. The spools are as large as the baking urns a baker would use to make donuts for regiment of a marines, the monofilament line thick as the shoelaces of hiking boot. The hooks, as the film showed, are indeed fat and long and large enough to impale a man’s hand and, like a winch’s grappling hook, yank him overboard.
The deck rigging — hawsers, hydraulic hoists, booms, hatches, bulkhead doors, tool shack and bait tables — are a messy clutter of disrepair and disuse: collapsed frameworks, rotted and rusted posts. I read the book, I saw the movie; seeing the Lady Grace allows you to see what you neither book nor movie would: that these are pretty cramped and teeny boats only a little longer than a tour bus, only fatter. No Hollywood drama. The book’s descriptions of oceanic forces, the mechanics of downflooding, the physiology of drowning – mute. Here is a boat. Here are bow and stern. Here is bent and dented steel. Here is the cramped and deteriorated deck of a superannuated longline swordfishing boat the museum staff hasn’t quite yet figured out what to do with.
A girlfriend and I once motored out in a skiff to climb aboard a fishing trawler that ran aground on the Salvages off Rockport, Gloucester’s smaller fishing village cousin about six miles up the coast. A cluster of ledge and rock jut up from outer Sandy Bay’s broad waters ten or so feet in the air and about three miles offshore, the Salvages are a bastardization of the French suavages, or savages, which these rocks look like when a storm passes over them
Surrounded by deep water, any swell that passes over the Salvages is transformed into tumbling and climbing walls of breaking whitewater, thick broad waves that exert thousands of tons of pressure as they climb up the rock faces. The trawler teetered there on the Dry Salvages for over a month. Story was, captain was on cocaine, watchstander fell asleep in the wheelhouse, a disgruntled crewmember deliberately steered the boat onto the rocks. The Coast Guard plucked the off the boat, and there the boat remained , its hold crammed with fish. Jean and I anchored our skiff near the rocks, swam over to them, and clambered aboard.
In the wheelhouse lay scatted the wet, torn pages of a several small composition notebooks that neatly noted the time, latitude and longitude of the captain’s trawling sets. A battered transistor radio hung from a cord by the wheelhouse front window. All of the electronics had been torn out: depthsounders, VHF radios, sonar, radar transceivers. All gone, wires dangling like thick shanks of hair. A color t.v. lay face-up on the floor, the screen a sagging cobweb. We went below, into the crew quarters. The bunks were strewn with clothing: socks, boots, a cowboy hat, grease-stained foul weather gear on top of a tattered checkerboard, several pair of blue jeans, several torn orange rubber fishing gloves, an inexplicable population of torn candy wrappers and crushed soda cans.
Then, back up on deck, which we crossed to peer down into the fish hold. The hold was filled with herring, perhaps ten or fifteen thousand pounds. Each fish had rotted clean of flesh, down to bare spindly bones. Bleached by the sun, the dried frames swayed in the shallow water that had flooded the hold, tinkling like china.
When fatalities occur offshore or in the mountains or woods, inevitably there’s a local if not a national news story, sometimes a book, oftentimes a movie if the book was a bestseller. The news report distracts us; the books, if they’re good, transport us into worlds of cold or snow or water or woods or, in the case of The Perfect Storm, into the engine room of a boat as it sinks, blows its electronics, and finally, in physiological detail, into the very lungs and bodies of the crew as drowning invades them. The news story informs; the book involves; the movies make us feel….something.
Like many outdoors people, I’ve read the news stories, bought the books, seen the movies and imagined the pain of adventurers’ mortality going AWOL. None caused me the same discomfort of climbing aboard that trawler or of walking the Lady Grace’s derelict decks. Neither had been transformed by writer or film crew or set designer into a trope meant to entertain or to goad, to arouse the intake of breath and fear and wonder Aristotle says art is meant for. These were workspaces of men with daily concerns and quibbles as mundane, as awkward and disconcerting to listen to, as those of the couple next door arguing over money the car or the house or the children. I’ve read the book, I’ve seen the movie, I clambered over the hull of a boat once subject of considerable gossip at a local breakfast joint, and how here it is, in all its spooky ordinariness: the torn blue jeans, candy wrappers, cans of soda, am radio and checkerboard.
Yet one wonders. What went on aboard these boats run by guys we don’t know. Who was yelling at whom, and what about, and what were the alliances of friendship and resentment among those on board — the details which would make them, as the subjects of movies and books, persons rather than figures, which would make them much more than just half-dozen more names among the hundreds listed on the plinth at the fishermen’s memorial statue on the Gloucester boulevard, where at the famous Man at the Wheel statue, men we can perhaps only feel thankful for not having been among when they met it are listed among five names with which so many are so familiar.