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Sometimes, Hollywood exaggerates nature’s fury on screen. Today, we’ll learn about one of the stories that reminds us how scary it can really be.

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Learn the true story behind The Perfect Storm

Our story today opens with that text we’re so familiar with on this podcast, “This film is based on a true story.”

After this, we see some text on screen to give us context. We’re in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the fall of 1991. There’re a few different cuts to give us a sense of the place.

It starts with a ship with the name Midnight Sun on the side moving through a harbor. Then there’s some men dumping out fish, letting us know these are fishing ships. Finally, we see it’s night time and there’s a bad storm outside the window. As a massive wave starts to swell, we see Diane Lane’s character, Christina Cotter, inside waking up from what appears to be a bad dream.

She yells, “Bobby! No!” before waking up in a cold sweat.

She gets up and looks out the window. The storm that was there just moments ago isn’t there anymore. It must’ve been in her dream. Instead, she’s looking out over calm, dark waters.

As far as I can tell, this was made up for the movie. That’s not to say sailors or their significant others wouldn’t have premonitions about what’s to come—quite the opposite, there’s a long history of that sort of thing happening. Although, such premonitions didn’t always guarantee a tragedy.

And what we see happening here for Christina wasn’t something that happened prior to the Andrea Gail setting off.

Speaking of the Andrea Gail, back in the movie we get introduced to her crew as they arrive home from a long trip. Even though their haul wasn’t the big payday they’d hoped it’d be, there’s still a big party at a small bar for the crew.

Then, George Clooney’s character, Captain Billy Tyne, informs the crew he’s made the decision they’re going back out before the season is over. Two days.

That timeline is sped up a bit for the movie.

In truth, the Andrea Gail arrived back in port at Gloucester in early September of 1991 after leaving the month before. That’s how these trips went—they’d be out to sea for weeks at a time. When they get back home, just like we see in the movie, the long time at sea transitions into a party at home that can last for days on end.

And why not? For the crew that left a month prior, if things went well, they might arrive back home with a catch of up to $250,000 worth of swordfish. That sort of a payday coupled with the mere surviving the high seas yet again is a cause to celebrate.

It was on September 20th that the Andrea Gail set out for another trip. Although, according to the official Coast Guard report it was on the 21st when they left. Regardless, the ship was packed with supplies for up to 50 days at sea.

And while the movie makes it seem like the reason for their going back was because of a bad haul, I couldn’t find anything in my research to indicate that was the reason. Their previous haul had been sold for over a little under $150,000 for about a month and a half out at sea.

After the ship’s owner, Bob Brown, took out money for things like fuel, equipment, etc. the rest was divvied up according to seniority. Checks ranged from $20,000 for Captain Billy Tyne down to about $4,500 for the new crew members, Bobby Shatford and Doug Kosco.

Instead, it’d seem that they were going back out because…well, that’s what fishers do.

Different regions have different timelines for when they’re opened or closed for commercial fishing, but the movie is correct in stating that leaving in late September was getting late into the fishing season for the Andrea Gail. Moreover, as the temperatures dropped into October, the weather would become more and more of an issue.

Oh, and the movie never mentions this, but Billy Tyne wasn’t the captain of the Andrea Gail for long. In fact, the trip just before heading out at the end of September was his first as the skipper. So, he’d only been captain for about three months by the time they left Gloucester for the last time.

Although that doesn’t mean he’d only been on her for three months. He’d spent some time on board as a crewmember for roughly a year or so before taking over as captain.

Back in the movie, before they head out to sea, we get to know some of the crew a bit more.

We already saw Christina Cotter. She’s played by Diane Lane in the movie. Her boyfriend, Bobby Shatford, is played by Mark Wahlberg.

Then there’s Dale Murphy, or Murph as the rest of the crew calls him. In the movie he’s played by John C. Reilly. The movie shows Murph as being divorced but having a great relationship with his son. At least, it seems that way from the few minutes we get to see the two interacting with each other in the movie.

Finally, the last crew member we see the movie focus on here is the Captain, Billy Tyne. He’s played by George Clooney. While she’s not a part of the Andrea Gail crew, we also get introduced to Linda Greenlaw. She’s played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in the movie. According to their conversation here we can sort of get a sense that there’s something between Billy and Linda.

Then, after she leaves, Billy looks at a photograph of two girls. Not to get too far ahead of our story, but later in the movie we find out those are his two daughters who live with Billy’s ex, Jodi.

Those names are all real and, for the most part, so are the relationships we see. Bobby Shatford and Christina Cotter, for example. The same for Dale Murphy and his ex-wife, whose name we find out through dialog is Debra. She’s played by Merle Kennedy in the movie.

As for Murph’s son, he’s played by Hayden Tank and, yes, he’s also based on the real Dale Murphy, Jr.

Probably the biggest change here that we see is with Captain Billy Tyne and what looks like some sort of a relationship between he and Linda Greenlaw. While they’re both based on real people, the two captains didn’t have any sort of a romantic relationship.

Back in the movie, after waving goodbye to their loved ones on the dock, we see the Andrea Gail set out for another trip to the Grand Banks.

That’s true. By that, I mean that’s where the Andrea Gail was heading when she left Gloucester Harbor on September 20th, 1991.

For a bit of geographical context, the Grand Banks are located off the eastern coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Because of the way the currents mix the cold waters of the Labrador Current with warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, the Grand Banks are some of the richest fishing waters in the world.

That is, until they were fished so heavily over the centuries that officials decided to close off most of the area to fishing. Of course, we don’t hear about that in the movie, but that’s because it didn’t happen until the mid-1990s—so after the timeline of the movie.

Oh, and since I mentioned the movie, it’s worth pointing out that anything after the moment where we see the Andrea Gail going out to sea…well, we just don’t know what happened after that.

As we learned in the introduction to this episode, unfortunately this story isn’t a happy one. And because there were no survivors, there was no one to tell the tale of exactly what happened.

So, that probably gives you an idea for how accurate the movie is after this point.

Although, with that said, it’s not like the movie just made everything up after this. After all, there’s a lot we can glean from the activities of others who survived through the storm.

Speaking of the storm, we start to see it forming through a meteorologist named Todd Gross out of Channel 9 in Boston. He’s played by Christopher McDonald in the movie. Not to get too far ahead of our story, but a little later is when we see Todd Gross pointing out the three storms combining into one, and he calls it the perfect storm.

That’s true, although Todd Gross was really a meteorologist out of WHDH, Channel 7 in Boston, and not WFTV, Channel 9, when he coined the term, “the perfect storm” referring to the nor’easter in 1991.

16 years later, in 2007, Merriam-Webster added the phrase to the dictionary. Thanks in no small part to Sebastian Junger’s book and the movie of the same name, of course.

At the time, the storm was simply known as The No-Name Storm, though.

The basic idea for how the movie depicts the storm coming together is pretty accurate. It started with a cold front on the eastern United States. This developed into a nor’easter that merged with Hurricane Grace, which was coming up from the south.

The cold air coming from the north and the warm air coming from the south exploded into a storm that meteorologists say only happens once every 100 years or so. That’s why many considered it to be the storm of the century.

Back in the movie, the storm hasn’t hit the Andrea Gail yet, so the waters are calm, but there’s a sequence of events we see happen that leads the crew to believe they have bad luck. The first happens when we see them catch something massive—but it’s not a swordfish, it’s a great white shark!

Then, a little later, there’s an accident while they’re putting out the lines. Murph’s hand gets hooked and he’s pulled out to sea. But the others don’t notice right away because they’re distracted by helping Sully clean up some lights that spilled on deck. By the time they notice, Murph almost drowns before they manage to save him.

Then, a little later in the movie, the ship gets hit by a rogue wave. It’s not enough to sink the ship but combined with the other events is enough to make them think there’s something going on.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, there’s no way to know for sure if any of this happened. However, these are all things that are possible.

For example, while great white sharks typically live in warmer waters like near California or South Africa, they have been spotted as far north as the Grand Banks. And on top of that, we also know it’s common for longliners to catch sharks. Although it’s usually makos—a smaller, but still an extremely dangerous shark to find on your line.

As for the accident with Dale Murphy getting his hand hooked…according to the great book that the movie is based on, that’s something Murph’s son dreamed about after the loss of his father. This jumps forward in time to after the Andrea Gail was lost.

But, Dale, Jr. was only three years old at the time when he told his mom that he saw dad in his room. He went on to explain to his mom, Debra, that his dad said that he got caught by a hook on his shirt. He couldn’t get the hook off and he was dragged under…and that’s how he died.

I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like to hear that from your three-year-old son after such a horrible tragedy.

Oh, and I mentioned the term longliners. That’s a nickname for boats going after swordfish because their fishing lines can be up to 40 miles in length. We actually hear John C. Reilly’s version of Murph mention this in the movie.

Heading back to the movie’s timeline, after the Andrea Gail doesn’t have much luck in the Grand Banks, Captain Tyne decides to go even further out.

They’re going for somewhere called the Flemish Cap. He radios this to Captain Linda Greenlaw of the Hannah Boden.

And that is true. One of the reasons why Billy and Linda communicated more than other captains was simply because both Billy and Linda’s boats were owned by the same company.

We know that Billy decided to take his ship to the Flemish Cap in hopes of filling their holds with swordfish. And, it’d seem that worked.

In the movie, the decision for heading home is because their ice machine is broken. The logic the movie puts forward is that if they don’t head home right away then all the fish they’ve caught will go bad—it’ll be for nothing.

And while it is true that a lack of ice would make the fish go bad, we don’t know if that happened on the Andrea Gail quite yet. By that, what I mean is that Captain Tyne did mention their ice machine was malfunctioning, but we don’t know for sure exactly how bad it was.

Did it not work at all? Was it just not working up to 100%? We don’t really know.

But, with a hold full of fish that meant a good payday and after being at sea for over a month, many have speculated Captain Tyne and his men decided they probably just wanted to make a mad dash for home—storm or no storm.

Although it’s worth pointing out that one of the key factors in the lawsuit from Billy Tyne’s family against the movie’s producers was how they portrayed him recklessly driving the ship into the storm just to save the catch.

The movie doesn’t give us any sort of timing on this, but we know it was on October 27th, 1991 that the Andrea Gail left the Flemish Cap and made their way back home. The reason we know this isn’t because of the communication we saw in the movie, though.

It’s because at about 3:15 PM on the 27th, Captain Tyne radioed the Canadian Coast Guard and said:

This is the American fishing vessel Andrea Gail, WYC 6681. We’re at 44.25 north, 49.05 west, bound for New England. All our fishing gear is stowed.

In response, the Coast Guard gave the Andrea Gail the go-ahead to proceed into Canadian waters on their journey home. Around this time, too, Captain Tyne got informed about a hurricane coming off Bermuda and a cold front coming down off Canada, along with a storm circling over the Great Lakes.

After this, there was another call between Linda and Billy. On this call they talk a little about the weather and agree to chat the following day.

Going back to the movie, the next day we see the weather getting really bad. We see another boat, the Mistral, with three people on board. There’s Edie Bailey, Melissa Brown, and the captain of the 32-foot sailboat, Alexander McAnally.

Despite Alexander’s insistence they ride out the storm, things get so bad that Melissa calls, “Mayday!”

This ship isn’t real. I mean, it is. But the name was changed. So were all the people’s names.

The real ship was the Satori, and it was a 32-foot sailboat skippered by a man named Ray Leonard. The two women on the boat with him were Karen Stimson and Susan Bylander. Just like the movie shows, the three were headed to Bermuda when they were caught in the storm.

There are some conflicting stories between the three on exactly what happened. For example, some reported 30-foot waves while others reported 15-foot waves…but, in the end the Coast Guard received a Mayday call from the Satori and sent out crews to rescue them.

Back in the movie, we see the Andrea Gail starting to get pounded by the storm now. The camera focuses on the radio antenna on the ship as one of the waves knocks it down. It’s not completely broken, but it causes some delays when Linda tries to reach Captain Tyne.

Finally, she’s able to get through and they chat for a little while. When Billy gives Linda his coordinates, he says they’re at 44° north, 56.4° west. Linda looks at the map and we can see that’s right, smack dab in the middle of the convergence of the two storms. She tells Billy to get out of there!

But, it’s too late. The antenna breaks off more, and the radio is reduced to static. There’s no more communication with the Andrea Gail.

After this, Linda immediately gets on the radio with the Coast Guard to repeat the location for the Andrea Gail and issue a Mayday for them.

That didn’t happen.

It is true that Linda and Billy talked on October 28th, 1991. Their chat happened at about 6:00 PM, and although neither knew it at the time it’d end up being the last time anyone heard from the Andrea Gail.

The movie gives the correct coordinates of 44° north, 56.4° west. Those were the coordinates that Captain Tyne gave to Linda on that last call. That’s roughly 700 miles or about 1,100 kilometers to the east of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Except it’s not really on a path back to Gloucester. It’s closer to Nova Scotia, making some believe perhaps Billy decided to make a dash for closer land.

In the radio call, Billy gave a weather report. He mentioned they were facing winds up to 80 knots. That’s over 90 mph, or about 150 km/h. The waves were up to 30 feet tall, or over 9 meters.

However, the part where the movie shows Linda calling the Coast Guard was incorrect. She didn’t because there wasn’t a reason to. Sure, there was a bad storm, but they’d faced bad storms before. In fact, Linda would later recall that Billy told her, “The weather sucks. You probably won’t be fishing tomorrow night.”

Despite the storm, there wasn’t anything in that final conversation to make Linda believe it might be their final conversation.

The final words ever heard from the Andrea Gail was when Billy Tyne said, “She’s comin’ on boys, and she’s comin’ on strong.”

Going back to the movie, we see the Coast Guard responding to multiple Mayday calls. One comes from the Mistral. After a harrowing rescue that sees the chopper pilots have to rescue the three people on board the ship from the water, they’re on their way back when they get the word about the Andrea Gail.

They decide to drop off the people they rescued on a nearby Coast Guard ship, the Tamaroa, and head to try to save the Andrea Gail. But, they don’t make it. Despite trying to refuel, it doesn’t go as they’d hoped and the pararescue jumpers are forced to ditch the helicopter and issue their own Mayday.

For the most part, all that happened…but not in the way the movie shows.

We already learned about some of the differences. For example, the Mistral was really the Satori. However, the Tamaroa was the real name of the Coast Guard ship. And, yes, there were also helicopters and even refueling airplanes involved in the rescue.

It seems impossible to believe they could refuel in mid-air in the middle of hurricane-level winds, but that can happen.

Of course, we don’t see it happen in the movie. The refueling attempt is unsuccessful. And for that part of the story, there’s some truth in that.

By that, what I mean is that there wasn’t a refueling operation that happened for the chopper rescuing the Satori.

What really happened was the rescue for the Satori crew involved the Tamaroa cutter ship, a helicopter, a Falcon jet, and even a large freighter called the Gold Bond Conveyor.

Oh, and this happened during the day and not the nighttime like we see in the movie. Two hours after arriving on the scene and beginning the rescue operation, all three people from the Satori were safely aboard the helicopter.

Another couple hours later, and they were safe back at the Cape Cod Air Station.

At no time did that chopper get a call for the Andrea Gail because, well, as we learned earlier, there was no Mayday for her. With that said, though, as soon as the chopper arrived back at Cape Cod with the survivors of the Satori, they got a call. It was a rescue helicopter that had been forced to ditch.

So, it wasn’t that helicopter forced to ditch due to low fuel, but rather another one. Although, that doesn’t make the rescue of the men in the water any less remarkable.

Back in the movie, we see George Clooney’s version of Captain Tyne decide to turn around. They’ve been battling the storm this whole time and nearly lost some of their men over the side, but finally it seems to be too much.

It’s not easy, but they’re barely able to turn the ship around. It’s a moment of celebration! Soon after this, the rain stops. The seas calm down. Is the storm over?

Or…is this just the eye of the storm? The storm starts back up again before long, and the Andrea Gail is going right back to being battered and beaten by the waves.

Then, Mark Wahlberg’s version of Bobby Shatford looks out the bridge and just says, “No.”

He has a look of disbelief. In front of them is a wall of water. This is the moment that made it onto the cover of the movie as we see the Andrea Gail trying to make it over the top of the wave before it crests.

And they almost do!

But, the wave crests and pushes the ship back for a bit before flipping it over on its belly. The wave crashes down on top, leaving the Andrea Gail overturned and flooding water.

It’s only a matter of time now. The only one we see make it off the Andrea Gail is Bobby. He’s in the bridge with Billy and even though he gets out, we see Billy decide to stay with the ship as she slips beneath the surface.

All of that is made up.

The truth is we just don’t know what caused the final demise for the Andrea Gail. We don’t know if Bobby made it out before she sank. We don’t know if anyone did.

We don’t even know for sure how big the waves were out there. According to Sebastian Junger’s book that the movie is based on, there were some waves over 100 feet high. That’s over 30 meters, and could certainly be enough to flip over the 72-foot—or 22 meter—long Andrea Gail.

But then, according to data reported from the buoys, the wave heights peaked out around 39 feet, or about 12 meters. Could that be enough to flip over a 72-foot ship? Maybe. Depends on the angle it hits at. Did that happen? Maybe. We just don’t know.

With that said, I’d recommend checking out Junger’s book for some great insights into what might’ve happened.

The movie comes to a close as we see a helicopter flying over calm waters. They’re searching the area. We can hear a news anchor’s audio in the background explain that it’s been a week of around-the-clock flights, but as of this hour the Coast Guard has officially suspended the search for pararescue jumper Millard Jones.

We didn’t really mention him, but when we saw the chopper team get rescued by the Tamaroa we heard them calling back out for Jonesy. Sadly, that happened…but not to Millard Jones. The real pararescue jumper who died that night was named Rick Smith.

And just like the movie says, the Coast Guard had round-the-clock flights searching for Rick Smith for over a week. Nine days to be precise.

Back in the movie, the news anchor’s audio continues as the camera cuts from the rescue choppers back to the bar from the beginning of the movie. It’s the Crow’s Nest, and unlike the happy place it was in the beginning of the movie, now it’s almost entirely deserted.

According to the news channel in the movie, they’re permanently suspending the search for the Andrea Gail, too, after searching 116,000 square miles of ocean.

For the most part, that’s true. I say that because technically the search for the Andrea Gail was called off at about 11:00 PM while the movie shows this scene at the bar being during the day…but, we also don’t see what day it is.

Two weeks after the Andrea Gail disappeared, the Coast Guard searched over 116,000 square miles of ocean. All six men on board were presumed dead:

  • Captain Frank William “Billy” Tyne.
  • Michael “Bugsy” Moran.
  • Dale “Murph” Murphy.
  • Alfred Pierre.
  • Robert “Bobby” Shatford.
  • David “Sully” Sullivan.

When it’s a tragedy like being lost at sea…there has to be a moment where you realize the end is near. There’s nothing you can do to stop it from coming.

During our final moments, what thoughts cross our minds? A lot of people think that your life flashes before your eyes. You think of loved ones. You wish you could have a second chance at life.

But what of those who have that second chance?

We haven’t talked much about Doug Kosco, but he’s played by Joseph Reitman in the movie. We see him returning with the rest of the Andrea Gail crew at the very beginning of the movie. But he doesn’t go back out with them.

Then, at the end of the movie, there’re only a couple patrons at the bar watching the news…one of them is Joseph Reitman’s character, Doug Kosco.

The movie doesn’t mention much about this, but the real Doug Kosco was almost on board the Andrea Gail that trip. About six hours before they were set to cast off, Doug had a bad feeling about it and walked off.

When he found out about the fate of the Andrea Gail, Doug slipped into a depression that lasted for months.

Unless you’ve had a brush with death, it’s impossible to fathom. There are no words to describe it. If nothing else, though, I hope you don’t need to have a brush with death to hold your loved ones a little tighter tonight.