Yes, I know it’s summer and everyone’s at the beach reading the latest paperback thriller about a transgender monk who stumbles into a secret society of nuclear physicists trying to save the world from fanatical terrorists—but I’ve never been the type who wants to turn those melodramatic pages (into anything but kindling). For me, the best books of any season are filled with deep reporting, the kind that brings a real subject to life through the stories of the people involved. Even better is a book like that about something having to do with life on the water.
Here are three such books to add to your summer reading list, published during the past few years, that have made my days all the better for reading them.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Author: Dan Egan (W.W. Norton, 2017)
Egan is a longtime Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter and a good one, having twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. One of his go-to topics is the Great Lakes, and this book is a collection of science and stories that detail the past, present and likely future of the massive freshwater miracle that he knows better than most, and that so many boaters love.
In other writers’ hands, this book could have been a boring layer cake of densely layered facts, but Egan’s passion brings the Great Lakes to life through the people who live there, and who struggle as mankind and nature seem to do everything in their power to destroy the ecosystem.
Back in the 1890s, Great Lakes fishermen were hauling in more than 8 million pounds of trout a year; by the 1930s, the trout fishery had collapsed thanks to the sea lamprey, a devastating creature that found its way inland from the Atlantic Ocean after we built it a giant welcome mat called the Erie Canal. Then came the zebra mussels, which arrived in ballast water that our great ships sucked up in foreign seas and then dumped into the freshwater mix, while delivering us so much precious commercial cargo. Now, there’s the global warming that has decreased the lakes’ annual ice cover by 63 percent during the past four decades, increasing the water temperature year-round and driving up evaporation rates.
A doomsday scenario, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is not. It is, however, a reasoned and researched warning that one of the greatest freshwater boating meccas in the United States is not immune to destruction, and that we all need to take conservation seriously if we want our children to know the beauty that we enjoy today.
Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro
Author: Rachel Slade (HarperCollins, 2018)
Slade is a former Boston magazine staff writer who crafted this book’s backbone from the black-box recordings recovered aboard the El Faro, a 791-foot cargo ship that went down, losing all 33 souls, during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015—the deadliest disaster involving a U.S.-flagged ship in three decades.
This book’s chapters alternate between action on the El Faro and flashbacks into the lives and clashes of the crewmembers, the legacy of business decisions that led to equipment and other failures, and the challenges that even the most modern weather systems can have when trying to keep up with a fast-changing storm.
For boaters, the story of the El Faro is a cautionary tale about the need for harmony among deckhands and skippers, the necessity of regular onboard upgrades and inspections, and the paramount importance of having reliable weather-forecasting services. The El Faro’s captain—apparently failing to realize that he was relying on weather data some 18 hours old, or older—drove his ship and crew straight into Category 4 hurricane, destroying them all.
If that detail alone doesn’t get us all to read the fine print in our chart plotter instruction manuals, then nothing will.
Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story
Author: John Bloom (Grove Atlantic, 2016)
Bloom’s background as an investigative journalist shines in this telling of the story behind the satellite phone service that’s now in use aboard superyachts worldwide. The Iridium satellite network was a massive project that involved Motorola, the military and investors around the globe. Iridium was the first non-country to receive an international country code for calls; an intellectual venture that broke all records in the history of rocket science; and a financial monstrosity that required $1.45 billion in junk bonds to finance, and that became the most expensive startup business in U.S. history.
Astoundingly, some of the same people who put the Iridium satellite network into space also nearly brought it crashing to the ground amid backroom battles that went on for years about money, liability and more. Eccentric Orbits puts readers inside the rooms where those conversations and arguments took place, from private homes to the Pentagon, with such deeply reported detail that it feels, at times, like the subjects had been secretly mic’d.
This book is for every boater who has ever imagined sailing off to faraway ports, wondering how it’s possible to maintain communications with the world back home, and wanting to know who, exactly, is behind making such seafaring dreams a reality.