Book review: Lewis’s “Last Man Off”
Special to the Daily
Probably the worst moment to joke about the epic sinking scenes in the movie, “Titanic” is while on a rusty old fishing boat heading to the frigid waters off Antarctica. But, that is just what author Matt Lewis did when he joined the patchwork crew of the deep sea fishing vessel, the “Sudur Havid,” where he served as a scientific observer as required by international fishing regulations. Fresh out of college and unaccustomed to nautical living, Lewis’ quip was merely an attempt to calm his nerves, but little did he know how prophetic his flippant joke would become.
In his riveting book, “Last Man Off; A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas,” Lewis details the series of chance events that culminated in tragedy and survival. In the spring of 1998, Lewis took advantage of a short notice offer to accompany a crew heading to the Southern Ocean, even though he knew the frigid waters had a reputation as a “hostile place.”
Though initially his naiveté was glaringly apparent and did indeed set him apart from the 37 other crewmen, he held his own, ultimately playing a pivotal role in the saving of lives when disaster eventually struck.
Even before leaving port in Cape Town, South Africa, Lewis’ instincts told him that all was not right aboard the vessel. No emergency preparedness drills took place and the men were hastily given whatever equipment was on hand, which amounted to incomplete kits for each person. Worse still, the life vests were kept under lock and key to prevent theft.
Challenging weather conditions put a strain on the old, refitted boat. They passed the 40º latitude line, known in navigational terms as the start of the “Roaring Forties,” and the further south they moved, the more grey the world became — above, below, and all around. “Below forty degrees south there is no law. Below fifty degree there is no god,” goes one sailor saying, according to Lewis.
Even before calamity struck, Lewis’ descriptions of the daily ins and outs of deep sea commercial fishing is fascinating. The prized catch in those arctic waters were Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish, more glamorously known as Chilean sea bass. Upon tasting the fish they were slaving to collect, Lewis says it, “wasn’t worth risking our lives so far from home.”
Clearly, though, the fishermen felt differently, for most of them were at sea upwards of nine months a year, bouncing from one crew to the next, following the catch and the money it brought in. Interestingly, Lewis points out that, in spite of the time spent on treacherous waters, most of the crew had never learned to swim.
In spite of worsening conditions well into their months-long stint off remote South Georgia Island, the “Sudur Havid” took on more fuel, as the captain was reluctant to turn back without a hold full of the valuable fish. Lewis watched with increasing unease as the already heavy boat rode lower in the water, in weather that was slowly reaching “near-gale” conditions. Yet, fishing continued, even though circumstances in the fish factory in the hold became increasingly precarious and dangerous, slippery with water, slime, and sharp object s… and soon with a failing water pump … and then a second failing emergency pump.
A veritable newbie to the perils of seafaring, Lewis seemed to be the only one worried, saying, “everyone I asked for help seemed unconcerned.” Those on the bridge refused to acknowledge the chaos unfolding below, for a stoppage would mean valuable fishing time lost. But as conditions worsened to the point that the radar was picking up the crests of the largest waves, fishing was finally called off — hours too late. The “Sudur Havid” was beyond the point of no return, delivered there by the crew’s own greed and cockiness.
Just as “Titanic” shifts into dramatic overdrive once the iceberg hits, Lewis’ narrative ratchets up into “un-put-downable” territory. The decision was made to abandon ship, and Lewis says he made the conscious choice to fight to live. “At that moment I made a simple promise, to myself. If I was going to die, then I would die doing my best, trying my hardest and by helping others. I would not panic or fall part.”
What follows is nightmarish and riveting reading, with Lewis including accounts of what took place from multiple perspective besides his own. He weaves together stories of human error and human heroism, as the crew of the “Sudur Havid” began a formidable fight against the icy water, where “a whole ship could be hidden in a trough of a swell, let alone a life raft.”
Lewis arrived on the “Sudur Havid” a rookie of the seas, and by the boat’s tragic end, he was the very last to step off its sinking deck. “Last Man Off” is an unforgettable, brutal story of survival and loss, miscalculations and modesty — a must-read.
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