Jim Carrier has written a comprehensive and very well researched account of a tragic event that reminds us “not to mess with Mother Nature.” Many readers may be tempted to compare this to a rather famous movie “The Perfect Storm.” The comparison in this book extends beyond the factors contributing to the meteorological storm itself, but goes on to describe a perfect storm formed by technological breakdowns, greed on the part of ship company owners, a legal system that invites avoidance rather than compliance with safety regulations, and an economic system that exploits developing world workers.
Carrier explores the history of the national Weather Service, its successes and failures and the continuing attempts to develop better predictive technologies to forecast Hurricanes and other serious weather threats. In this part on technology, we also get to read about the hurricane hunters that fly into storms, drop sensors, and provide real time updates to those in headquarters issuing the latest information to those in harm’s way from weather events. This event happened in 1998. By this time, the average people in the street trusted government services such as these to provide accurate forecasts. Those in the government looked for ways to politely say “these are estimates” while at the same time reassuring the general populace about agency credibility. This quite possibly led to a major reason for the Fantome being at exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Captain Guyan March trusted the technology.
The Windjammer company owners at this time were two generations, both named Burke. Carrier describes the history of the company and the history of the ship, the Fantome. The ship had a history from 1925, the senior Mike Burke bought the ship in 1972 when it was in such a condition that it needed major overhauls and renovation. These types of operations can be done at great expense or on the cheap. As revealed in this book, when some parts needed replacement, there were no original parts in production to be purchased for replacement. Talented crew members could create workaround parts. These same crewmembers did not have education as machinists. To get the most profit for the least monetary outlay seemed to be the de facto motto of the founding Burke.
Passengers on a cruise ship expect safety regulations as to operations and ship construction to be met. As Carrier reports, there are all kinds of regulations. They are written in various countries. Choosing a country of registration, adopting its flag, and following the regulations of “adopted citizenship” could be much cheaper than registering in and following the rules of, say, the US, despite the fact that the majority of passengers might be from the US. The friendlier regulations may have even been written by officials friendly to the industry for which they were being written. Even when a ship might be inspected by US officials; compliance was only measured by standards of the registering country.
Although there are formal licenses and accreditation procedures for ship personnel, they don’t apply to everyone. Many of the Fantome crew seem to be either self-taught or educated through a type of mentoring system from experienced crew. The extreme example of this was when three crew members could not disembark the sip at one port because they did not have proper visas. Trained professionals would not be lax in such a small administrative matter; a responsible monitoring company would not allow this to happen. The locally hired crew were paid much less than crew hired in more developed countries. Carrier details how, although aware, crew members accepted this system as better than available alternatives. Several may have felt obligated to stay with the ship when alternatives to leave were given them.
I would have given five stars to the book except for two parts. There were the dream sequences on the part of several family members of those lost. This lent a paranormal, fiction quality to an excellent non-fiction work. Then there was the part toward the end of the book in which Carrier interviewed several marine professionals where they speculated on what may have been the last thing the dying men may have seen. This, for me, disrupted the serious, factual tone of the book.
It is good, it is informative, and a book I would recommend for those who like the sea, people with angst about income inequality in a global environment, and (really this is not a stretch) even global warming.