Ever since his own epic storm experience led to Fastnet, Force 10, pub-
lished in 1980, author, historian and sailor John Rousmaniere has sought to come to terms with the extreme adversity of the sea.
The Fastnet storm of 1979, where 15 sailors lost their lives, is a modern yachting tragedy, but history is full of great storms and disasters, and Rousmaniere touches upon 10 significant events in his latest book, After the Storm (Chartroom Chatter, Issue 123, July/Aug. 2002). Rousmaniere uncovers fascinating detail on maritime disasters but remains most interested in how those who are left behind are altered by an unspeakable loss.
In person, Rousmaniere appears to be more of an intellectual than the rugged sailor who has logged more than 35,000 miles offshore. And this quiet man, originally from Oyster Bay, Long Island, prefers to tell a sea story and see if it resonates with the reader as it resonates within him.
When asked if his own experiences in a storm like the Fastnet had changed him, Rousmaniere said absolutely yes.
“I went to divinity school after that storm and nearly joined the clergy,” he said. “I think that when people are lost in a storm, there is that absence of a body. It is an elemental need to have a body, or you are literally lost.”
After the Storm includes at least four stories focused on the North Atlantic and the waters around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
“New England maritime history is older (than the rest of the United States), and there are more storms in it. People have been on boats here since the 1620s out of Gloucester and Maine,” he said. “There were huge events that occurred here.”
In a particularly poignant story on the Ames family of New England, a father and two sons were lost at sea in one of the early trans-Atlantic yacht races. Two college boys survived to sail the boat home and tell the story. In an event that occurred in 1935, at the dawn of ocean racing, Rousmaniere focused part of the story on the wife and mother who lost her entire family in that tragic yacht race.
“What saved her was she began leading a life where she helped other people,” the author explained. “Of her losses, she explains ‘my own sons gave their lives to save their father. They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.'”
The author noted that in the earlier days of ocean racing, boats were badly built, poorly sailed and undermanned. Though things have improved, sailing tragedies still occur, as Rousmaniere noted, “Yes, 15 people died during the Fastnet race, and it was a terrible thing. But 100 boats turned over,” he said. “It was also a truly bad storm. It was the third-lowest barometric pressure drop in England in August in the entire 20th century.”
For Rousmaniere, the experience of the Fastnet race also led him to write The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, considered by many as the definitive tome.
“I think that race started a big movement towards more safety; yet, as boats become more modern, they are less forgiving of mistakes. People have to really be on the ball now,” he said.
With the ever-increasing popularity of large-scale, long-distance, solo and team races around the globe, Rousmaniere reflected that the risks cannot be measured against any particular code.
“You really can’t second guess why people are out there today,” he said. “In the great age of sail, more boats were being lost than they are today. However, there is a difference between the reasonable and the unreasonable challenge. You choose your challenge, and often these events, unintentionally, change people on the sidelines into better people. The sea teaches a lesson, at all times.”