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Books: Suspense on Alaska's high seas

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

A review of "Coming Back Alive: The True Story of the Most Harrowing Search and Rescue Mission Ever Attempted on Alaska's High Seas" by Spike Walker (St. Martin's Press, hard cover, 268 pages, $24.95.)

"Coming Back Alive" is a work of suspense that succeeds even if you know the historical outcome of the true Alaskan events it describes.

It would be easy to write off "Coming Back Alive" as a non-fiction lame duck, with Walker's thunder stolen by Sebastian Junger's best-selling 1997 book, "The Perfect Storm," and the subsequent movie starring George Clooney. "The Perfect Storm" tells the tale of a 1991 event that killed six Gloucester, Mass. fishermen aboard the Andrea Gail.

However, the differences between the books are sufficient to make each stand on its own two feet. As the subtitle of "Coming Back Alive" makes clear, there were survivors of the January 1998 storm 60 miles off Yakutat on the Fairweather Grounds and the final voyage of the 77-foot La Conte and her five crewmen. The situation is so desperate and the odds so great against the men, that if this story weren't true, it would be hard to believe.

But due to the professional excellence and grit of the U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue teams, and due to a working emergency beacon and the guts and courage of the fishermen themselves, three men come home.

Reading "Coming Back Alive" quickens the pulse. The reason is that Spike Walker knows boats and the sea and understands seamen. He has spent more than 10 seasons aboard crab boats in the Alaska fleet, as readers of his memoir "Working on the Edge" well know. When he describes invisible williwaws with 100 mile-per-hour winds and stadium-size wave troughs, he does so from inside rather than outside the experience.

Walker warms up for the main feature in a Prologue which tells the tale of a 1981 rescue in the Copper River Delta. It's a daring ploy to spend 94 pages of a book gearing up for the real story, but it gives Walker a chance to tell two stories of the incredible power of the Pacific and the incredible skill of Coast Guard personnel.

When the crewmen of the La Conte have been washing among 90-foot waves for an hour and a half, and helicopter pilot Dan Molthen finds them, "To (captain Mike) DeCapua and his crewmates, the chopper seemed like the very hand of the Almighty."

Walker conducted hundreds of hours of taped interviews with the survivors, their rescuers and their families in order to craft his seamless book. It has the lift and swell of dark waves and the greasy terror of fiction, but the undeniable taste of truth. The armchair adventurer should prickle with goose bumps over this one.

*****

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com



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