Monday, November 16, 2015

Book review: "A Storm Too Soon" by Michael J. Tougias

A horrific storm. A sinking sailboat. Three men lost at sea. What's not to like?

Michael J. Tougias, author of the gripping "Fatal Forecast," has once again put together a terrific story of maritime disaster.

This one, called "A Storm Too Soon," is set in 2007 when three men – J.P. de Lutz, Rudy Snel, and Ben Tye – set out from Florida aboard the sailboat Sean Seymour II on their way to France. Two days out in the Atlantic Ocean, they found themselves engulfed in a massive storm with 80-foot waves and are soon fighting for their lives.

Tougias, having interviewed all the players in this drama, gives us a detailed look at both the struggles of the three sailors as well as the Coast Guard crew that comes looking for them. He also includes some other stories of ocean survival to give some perspective on the complicated nature of ocean rescues.

Tougias has a real talent for offering just the right details to give a real you-are-there feel to the book while also keeping the story moving forward. For example, with the sailboat tossed over and the men struggling to get out, Togias writes:

"JP somehow manages to slide open the hatch and swim out, barely able to hold his breath. He needs air, yet he doesn't shoot directly for the surface. Instead he lets his hands feel their way to the starboard leg of the arch that rises from the stern of the boat, not far from the companion way hatch. He sweeps with his arm, feeling for the life raft canister, and follows the arch to the port side. Still no raft. It should be in the canister just a few inches aft of the arch. His lungs are screaming for air, and he's fighting their call. He can sense that his body will ignore the commands from his brain to hold his breath and that his mouth will open on its own."

The bravery and skill of the Coast Guard crew, as portrayed by Tougias, is impressive. While they all are heroes in this story, the hero among heroes is rescue swimmer Drew Dazzo. He's the one who enters the surging seas, putting his own life in peril to rescue the sailors. What he does is almost superhuman.

I also liked that Tougias stays with the characters after rescue. A lot of stories end abruptly with the characters riding into the sunset, with all their problems seemingly solved. But Tougias notes that the rescued men from the Sean Seymour II have real issues to confront right away: They need to replace their lost driver's licenses and credit cards, for one thing, and they need to figure out how to get home.

There were two things I was disappointed in with this book. First, the cover photo gives away – sort of – the end of the book.  Second, I was disappointed that the book has no pictures inside, not even headshots of the characters. However, you can find a large collection of photos posted by J.P. de Lutz here.  Even better, a video of the rescue is here.  Suggestion: Don't look at the video until you're nearly done with the book.

If you like this sort of book, you will also like "Deadliest Sea," by Kaylee Thompson, an outstanding of the sinking of a fishing boat in Alaska and the Coast Guard efforts to save the crew.

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New York Times story on Long Beach schools get facts wrong

The New York Times just published a column praising the school system in Long Beach, California, but the piece gets at least three facts wrong.

First, author David L. Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, describes Long Beach as a "predominantly immigrant city."

"Predominately" means "mostly" or "majority of." So Long Beach is made up mostly of immigrants?

No, it's not. Census data shows that 26% of Long Beach's population is foreign-born, pretty much the same as state average (27%).

Second, the article says that in Long Beach "a third of the children under age 17 live in poverty." This is not true, either. The actually share, according to the Census, is 28%.  Sure, this is not a great difference from 33%, but if you're rounding things off, it would be more accurate to say that "a quarter" of children under 17 live in poverty.

What's particular troubling about these two mistakes is that they're very easy to check. I found the answers to both on the Census website in about a minute each. Doesn't anyone at the NYT check facts?

The third mistake is Kirp's statement that in Long Beach "all fourth and fifth graders, together with their parents, tour the local college campuses."  It's the "with the parents" part that's untrue. I have two children in Long Beach public schools, and they did tour colleges, but parents didn't come along.

Are there other mistakes in the article? Maybe. I didn't check every fact, and in some cases it's pretty much impossible to. The author, for example, states that "two-thirds" of new U.S. college students "arrive on campus unprepared for college rigor."  What does that mean? He doesn't explain, and like most other assertions in the piece, he doesn't cite a source. 


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