Concord-bound author to describe tranquil, thrilling times on the waves
Author Michael Tougias
An image from the cover of “River Days” by Michael Tougias.
An image taken from the cover of “A Storm too Soon” by Michael Tougias.
Author Michael Tougias spent a year kayaking and canoeing the entire 400-mile length of the Connecticut River, from its source near the Canadian border all the way to Long Island Sound. He knows the best places to fish, camp and paddle, and the best spots to photograph moose and bald eagles.
He’ll tell you all about it at the Concord City Auditorium on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. when he presents a slide show of his journey, with a behind-the-scenes narrative, as part of the Walker Lecture Series. His presentation, laced with humor about some of his misadventures, will also discuss wildlife, environmental issues, the river’s role in U.S. history, and more.
“I grew up on the Connecticut River in Longmeadow, Mass., and always wanted to try to paddle it,” Tougias said. “I didn’t make the trip all at once. It was very slow, since I was taking notes and pictures. I kept going back on weekends.”
Tougias said that the best part of the trip was getting to know the northernmost section, the first 50 or 60 miles.
“It’s absolutely spectacular,” he said. “The water is crystal clear for swimming and snorkeling, and trout – I just fell in love. I’ve been going back every year.”
His book, River Days: Exploring the Connecticut River from Source to Sea , chronicles his experience.
While Tougias is well known for his books about the outdoors, he is perhaps even better known for his high-adventure stories of disaster, bravery and survival – all of them true.
Along with the river talk, he
will discuss his latest book, A Storm Too Soon: A True Story of Disaster, Survival, and Incredible Rescue, which will be released in January. And he’ll talk about the movie that Disney is producing based on an earlier book, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the Coast Guard’s Most Daring Rescue.
Tougias explained why he’s so interested in such stories, most of which are about the sea.
“I like the decision-making aspect that the survivors have to go through,” he said. “I say to myself, ‘There’s no way I could have made it.’ In your interviews, you get to know them and see how they make decisions, and how they pause before major turning points, and somehow just get through these ordeals. I’m fascinated to talk with them. It’s fascinating how they did it – that’s really the hook of the book.”
A Storm Too Soon relates the ordeal of three men cast adrift on a broken raft after 70-foot waves smashed their sailboat in one of the ocean’s most dangerous places, the Gulf Stream, during a 2007 storm. The four Coast Guardsmen who came to their rescue in a Jayhawk helicopter found themselves in as much danger as the sailors as they lowered the helicopter in hurricane-force winds to drop a rescue swimmer into the chaos.
Another of Tougias’s books, Overboard, is set in the same region. This area where many ships and planes have been lost is called the Bermuda Triangle, but, in his opinion, there’s nothing supernatural about it.
“The Gulf Stream’s flowing one way, the wind-generated waves are coming in from the other and it makes them steep,” he said. “The waves are twice as big in the Gulf Stream as they are on the outside, and they’re steep, which means they’re breaking. So in both A Storm Too Soon and an earlier book, Overboard – they happened in the same place – the survivors said they just couldn’t believe the size of the waves, and they broke right on their boat, and that caused all the headaches. And, the Gulf Stream creates its own microclimate. You have that warm air rising up hitting the cooler air from around it. The Gulf Stream is 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding water to the west. People say that when you see the Gulf Stream from a distance you can see lightning out there.”
Tougias said that what people do in disaster situations reveals much about human nature and the human spirit.
“A lot of them told me that at times they did give up out there,” he said of the people he interviewed. “They didn’t try to hide that. It was actually thinking of another person in their lives that kept them going. In A Storm Too Soon, the sailboat captain had just gotten married later in life, and life was good, and he said ‘I’ve finally found happiness and now it’s all going to be taken away.’ It gave him an extra reason to fight on. His 13-year-old daughter is what kept him going, thinking that she needs him in her life.
“And, they just focus on doing the next right thing. They don’t get hung up on how did they get in this mess, and they don’t think about all the stuff it’s going to take to survive, because it’s too overwhelming and they’d give up and get overwhelmed, so they just break it down to ‘What do I have to do in the next hour to keep going?’ One said ‘I was positive I wasn’t going to make it but I was going to go down fighting. Hour by hour, fight a little longer.’
“Another important thing: They talk to themselves. They give themselves a pat on the back when they do something right. I think all of us in life should do more of that. We’re always looking for approval from the outside, and most of the time it never comes.”
These characteristics don’t just benefit people in danger. Tougias gives presentations to business groups showing how they can learn from survivors and improve their own practices.
“I went through a divorce a while back,” Tougias said. “You’re just overwhelmed by everything that’s happening and everything you have to do. Finally I would just say to myself, ‘Take one day at a time – do what you need to do and don’t keep thinking about how did this happen or where’s it all going to end up.’ I got that from the survivors. It kept me kind of focused and grounded. That would also apply to illness and other things like that. I hear from readers – they write to me and say, ‘That’s what I used to get through such-and-such.’ ”
Tougias says he is excited about the upcoming movie of The Finest Hours, which he co-wrote with Casey Sherman.
“A producer from the Boston area read the book,” he said. “She contacted us – she said that she thought that the two screenwriters who did The Fighter would love this, so she shared it with them and the three of them pitched it to the studio. We got really lucky.”
While Tougias and Sherman won’t have any say in how the movie is made, they’re not worried.
“We’ve met with the screenwriters, and they say they’re going to be true to The Finest Hour book because some of the rescuers and a few survivors are still alive, and basically helped us write the book,” Tougias said. “Truth is stranger than fiction. You don’t have to make anything up – it happened that way. This was the rescue of the century. It already was the most incredible – you don’t need to go over the top.”
Tougias described his experience talking to the people that he interviewed for The Finest Hours.
“They were incredible,” he said. “These people were in their early 80s, and they remembered it like it happened yesterday. I asked how they could remember it. They said, ‘You would, too, if it was the most dangerous event in your life and maybe the biggest. If you were out in those conditions thinking you’re not going to make it, you’d remember every detail, too.’ ”
Their story is a harrowing one. The oil tanker Pendleton had cracked in two off the coast of Cape Cod, near Chatham Bar in the 1952 nor’easter. The captain and seven crew members went down with the bow section, and 33 remained on the fast-sinking stern. Four Coast Guard rescuers went out in an old wooden 36-foot lifeboat, in the dark, in 60-foot seas.
In spite of losing their windshield and their compass to the battering waves, they managed to save 32 of the 33 men and return safely to Chatham Harbor. The experience haunted the rescuers for the rest of their lives.
“They don’t even feel like it was a successful rescue,” Tougias said, “even though they got the Gold Lifesaving Medal, which is the highest honor you can get.
“The rescuers say, ‘When we close our eyes and think about this we see the face of the one man in the water we didn’t get.’ They lost one, and it happened right in front of them. That stays with them. Bernie Webber, one of the four rescuers, stayed in the Coast Guard. He became probably the most recognizable Coast Guard name there is.”
Webber died in January 2009, the year the book was published.
As far as future writing goes, Tougias, who also wrote the award-winning There’s a Porcupine in My Outhouse: Misadventures of a Vermont Mountain Man Wannabe, said, “I’ll probably do more fun books about my cabin in Vermont just for a change of pace – until the next survival story comes my way.”