An experienced Coast Guard pilot is flying a Jayhawk helicopter over the Fairweather Grounds, flying straight up, but notices that his altitude continues to be 40 feet. Horrified, he realizes that a huge rogue wave is rising under him at the same speed with which his screaming engines are carrying him aloft - as if alien wet fingers are reaching for the aircraft.
That is just one of the gripping scenes in Todd Lewan's story of bad weather, five fishermen, and a poorly maintained 79-year-old schooner named the Le Conte.
If you have loved ones who are now or intend to be fishermen, you may not want to read "The Last Run." Most of the plot involves fishing in Southeast Alaska in January 1998, but the book begins with the finding eight months later and 800 miles away of a eyeless and noseless corpse that has been washed ashore and mauled by brown bears. It ends with the other half of this frame: a rookie forensics investigator identifies the corpse by a single partial fingerprint.
In other words, "The Last Run" is a visceral tale of flesh and mind strained to the limit of human endurance. It can be hard to take.
The book is based on fact. Lewan, an Associated Press correspondent, first reported on this story in a five-part serial, and soon became obsessed with finding out the inside details and recording them at length. He wanted to discover and then convey the reasons why these five men pursued their dream catch - to the extent of overloading their vessel and risking their lives - in order to alter their lives.
To do this, he interviewed the survivors and their families, and re-created dialogue and thoughts. The five main characters are the Le Conte's crew, Bob Doyle, deckhand Mike DeCapua, Gig Mork, David Hanlon and skipper Mark Morley. Floating in and smothered by 70-foot waves of 38 degree water, the men tried to stay together after their ship went down. Some found new reserves of strength, both physical and psychic, during their hours in the cold and darkness.
Those who rescued three of them, including U. S. Coast Guard captain Ted LeFeuvre and pilot Russ Zullick, Bill Adickes, mechanic Rick Koval and Dan Molthen, were fighting nature while nature was turning itself inside out and upside down, and everything was jumping in the cockpit, "binoculars, flight manuals, maps, the pilots" themselves. The rescuers receive conflicting signals from beacon and EPIRB and radar altimeter, and argue among themselves about search patterns and basket deploying techniques. Three crews set out from Sitka, each determined to succeed, despite the dangers to themselves.
The re-created dialogue is thoroughly believable, and the contrast between what is happening in each rescue helicopter and what is happening among the men tossed on the surface of the stormy sea below is tantalizingly maintained. The progress of hypothermia is supplied in masterly detail.
Lewan supplies the back stories for his main characters - childhood memories, bad dreams, lurid tales of adultery, substance abuse, desertion, time spent in jail, overdoses, slick talk, selfish boat owners, and poor decision-making. Many of the characters are "wild men" who "raise their share of eyebrows...but also have admirers." Stir these unpredictable men in a boiling cauldron with lousy gear and foul weather, and you have a recipe for disaster.
To be sure, "The Last Run" has some lighter moments associated with Barbie-as-fisherwoman stories told to a child, jokes about cigarettes, soft bait and shoddy personal hygiene. Lewan knows his craft, and keeps a good tension going so that this is a hard book to put down no matter what the hour. He uses specific detail as in "A curler with a barrel big enough to carry two Winnebagos slammed them" so that non-mariners can imagine the scenes accurately.
The book also contains some lovely descriptions of Alaskan maritime scenery, in both its calm and storm-tossed moods. It encapsulates ports like Sitka, Valdez and Yakutat in all their off-season scruffiness, well-oiled with cheap whiskey. It demonstrates how something as seemingly as insignificant as reflective tape on the shoulders of a survival suit can be central in finding floating men in the dark.
As gritty and gripping as "The Perfect Storm," Lewan's "The Last Run" is sure to become a classic of human beings in dire straits, on the shelf beside books like Jon Krakauer's "Eiger Dreams."