Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Kalee Thompson's "Deadliest Sea"

Kalee Thompson is a freelance writer focused on science, environmental, and outdoor stories. She has worked as a senior editor at National Geographic Adventure and Popular Science magazines and has contributed to publications including Popular Mechanics, Women’s Health, Wired, Skiing, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History, and reported the following:
Deadliest Sea is the story of a tragic shipwreck, a harrowing rescue in frigid Alaskan waters, and the basic human drama of survival and perseverance in the face of death. There's not much of any of that on page 99, though. Would Ford Madox Ford--inventor of that all-knowing number test--put the book down? Instead, I'd hope he'd become deeply absorbed in the troubling but fascinating backstory behind the Alaska Ranger disaster: namely, the failure of many in the commercial fishing industry to take basic steps to ensure the seaworthiness of their ships--and the safety of their crews.

Commercial fishing is the deadliest job in the United States, with a 2008 fatality rate nineteen times higher than for firefighters. On page 99, I'm introducing a rogue effort by Coast Guard fishing vessel examiners to improve safety standards in the Bering Sea "Head & Gut" fleet (so called because the boats behead and de-gut their catch before packing it into freezers built right into the hull of the ship). The Alaska Ranger was one of about 60 boats in that fleet, and was among the ships enrolled in the innovative Coast Guard program, known as the Alternative Compliance and Safety Agreement (ACSA).

The goal of ACSA was to improve seaworthiness standards for a group of boats with an abysmal safety record. Since 2001, there have four major casualties in the Bering Sea Head & Gut fleet, resulting in the deaths of 30 men. Of course, for the Alaska Ranger, ACSA turned out to be too little, too late. The ship hadn't yet reached compliance with the new standards when it sank on March 23, 2008.

Though it was the freezing sea that threatened men's lives as they clung to each other in the waves, praying for the buzz of a helicopter on the horizon, it wasn't an angry ocean that sank their ship. It was the fact that the 35-year-old fishing trawler dropped a rudder, and then didn't have the watertight integrity required to keep the flooding from dooming the ship--as well as a number of the men onboard. On page 99, the story of how those failures could have been avoided begins.
Read an excerpt from Deadliest Sea, and learn more about the book and author at Kalee Thompson's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue