One man. A raging sea. A wounded ship.
Life and death.
I’d put “Simple Courage” right up there with Caroline Alexander’s “The Endurance; Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition” and Sebastian Junger’s “The Perfect Storm,” to name just two.
Ironically, as I was reading this, I was comparing it to Robert Kurson’s “Shadow Divers” and then, suddenly, two of the main “superstars of scuba diving” in that book, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, show up here as “Simple Courage” continues to peel back layers of the story like a sweet, meaty onion.
But the capper, for me, is how well Frank Delaney weaves himself into the story. The events that comprise the core of “Simple Courage,” in fact, are a childhood memory for Delaney and the reporting becomes a both a reporter’s journey and trip down memory lane. “I was nine years old in December 1951; and, if a shade too shrewd for Santa Claus, I believed in everything else: miracles, the power of magnets, haunted houses, the truth of all stories, time travel.”
The vast emphasis of the book, however, is on the blow-by-blow account of how one cargo ship “laden with passengers and nearly forty metric tons of cargo” encountered Force 12 winds and was slammed by two rogue waves more than sixty feet high. In short, “Simple Courage” is the story of captain Kurt Carlsen’s extraordinary cool in the face of the storm as he works to save his cargo, his crew and a dozen European emigrants who were using “The Flying Enterprise” as transportation from Hamburg to the New York.
The ship was carrying peat moss, a dozen Volkswagen cars, a few tons of birdcages, antiques, early Chippendale chairs, china pitchers, “a small orchestra’s worth of priceless antique musical instruments,” several hundred typewriters and, among other items, 30 tons of the volatile chemical naphthalene.
When the storm attacks and the waves whack “The Flying Enterprise,” Carlsen manages to get the people off (in forty-foot seas) to ships that have arrived to help. This section of the book, with passengers jumping into the freezing North Atlantic and swimming to lifeboats, which were hardly secure in the tossing seas, is positively harrowing. And then Carlsen, the last one on board the foundering “Flying Enterprise,” in a move that surprises all who are tracking the ship’s struggles, decides to stay with his wreck and becomes, instantly, the man that the whole world is watching.
Delaney writes beautifully throughout his recap of the events in his very matter-of-fact, low-key style. (I “read” this on audio CD and Delaney performs the narration. Delaney has got one of the most engaging story-telling voices I’ve heard, particularly with his gentle Irish lilt. The writing might have been jotted down from a well-rehearsed campfire story.) Delaney is fascinated by words and word origins, in addition to everything else, and the nautical vocabulary gives him plenty of fodder.
Delaney’s style makes every moment crystal clear. “But when a hurricane throws a ship around the sea, what makes it strong also makes it dangerous. The ship’s very being becomes, in part, an enemy. Her iron substance becomes the sailor’s foe as well as his friend. The walls and floors bruise, and bones break against them. Blood flows from the cuts and abrasions they deliver. The cabin or corridor, secure and iron hard, changes into a doubtful ally who fights on both sides.”
But “Simple Courage” is much more than a book about a shipwreck and the rescue. Delaney follows the story wherever it leads—to the shipping business of the day, to the difference between abandoned cargo ship and one where the captain remains on board (in terms of both insurance and tug boat contracts), the competitive media storm that tracked the around-the-clock developments and to the captain of a salvage tug named Kenneth Dancy who manages to jump from his tugboat to Carlsen’s ship in attempt to help tow the wounded ship in. Delaney also follows the post-accident investigation and the conspiracy theories that developed over the years and decades that followed.
As Delaney points out, “Simple Courage” is a story that “insists on being told.”