The author of 19 books, the last six survival-at-sea sagas, Michael Tougias said a photo of a tiny raft afloat between enormous waves got him started on “A Storm Too Soon.”
“It was hard to believe that anybody could have survived in that raft,” Tougias said recently. “It was a freaky storm.”
The three men wouldn’t have survived without the efforts of a Coast Guard helicopter, a rescue swimmer, and a score of life-and-death decisions that kept the possibility of survival alive.
The Plymouth author, who spends time on the ocean himself, will give a slide-show presentation he promises will put viewers “right there” next month at two local libraries.
Tougias is the author of widely admired character-driven sea stories, including “Overboard,” praised by the Globe as “a heart-pounding account of the storm that tore apart a 45-foot sailboat”; ”Fatal Forecast,” called “a marvelous and terrifying yarn” by the Los Angeles Times; and “Ten Hours Until Dawn,” a book about a vessel caught in the Blizzard of 1978. He also coauthored (with Casey Sherman of Marshfield) “The Finest Hours,” the story of a daring 1952 Coast Guard rescue off Chatham that is being turned into a film by Disney.
The storm that struck the Sean Seamour II, a yacht sailing from Florida to France in May 2007, was not only early for a tropical storm, it also took an unusual path before colliding with the ship about 200 miles off the Carolinas. That storm struck in the waters of the Gulf Stream, whose northeastern current drove into the winds, resulting in unpredictable waves twice as high as forecast.
After their ship went down, its crew of three — a Canadian, a Brit, and the ship’s captain, a dual citizen of America and France who suffered broken ribs and was on the verge of death from hypothermia — were left hanging onto a raft. The great waves would flip over the raft and send the men into the sea. One of them would risk his own life to retrieve the raft and return to the others.
“Three strangers take a boat across the ocean and end up saving each other’s lives, repeatedly,” Tougias said. “That’s what pulled me into the story. There were 20 to 30 life-or-death decisions they had to make.”
When a Coast Guard helicopter arrives, its crew is astounded to find crashing seas of 70 feet, some waves topping 80. The pilots question whether rescue is even possible and what risks to them it will involve, and once they commit themselves to it they face their own life-and-death decisions.
They lower a rescue swimmer into the wild seas on a cable, release him, then drop the basket. Fighting the seas, the swimmer manages to help the survivors into the basket.
However, Tougias said, “He’s taking a beating from the waves, expending his energy.” Before they can get him up, “a wave picked him up so high that he was at the same level as the nose of the helicopter and the pilot said ‘I could see his face.’ The pilot said the blood drained from him.”
The rescue swimmer, Drew Dazzo, fell from the cliff of raging water and disappeared. The next words on the cockpit transcript are: “We lost Drew. I can’t see Drew.” After 90 seconds of silence, when the pilots catch sight of him, Dazzo gives the emergency signal that means he’s drowning. The pilots lower their craft between waves so the hoist operator can drop a hooked cable close enough for the swimmer to retrieve. When they succeed, Dazzo hooks on, but the cable begins to fray. Since he lacks the strength to hold on properly, the operator fears they have broken his back hauling him up.
Fortunately, his back is not broken, and after a hospital stay all are well in the end.
Another ship caught in the Gulf current by the same storm was not as fortunate. The Flying Colours went down with a crew of four.
“The Gulf Stream is like another character,” Tougias said.
His research into the storms that strike there suggests it’s the explanation for the tragic disappearances blamed on the Bermuda Triangle.
Another conclusion the author draws from his survival books concerns the lessons learned from those who survive extreme situations.
“Over the years, I’ve interviewed 60 people who shouldn’t have been on the planet,” Tougias said.
Tougias said he doesn’t read from his book in his slide presentations.
“I say, pretend you’re watching a movie. And I’ll give you the inside scoop,” he said. “You’re going to be put right into the storm.”