Alone With the Sharks

By Jeff Nichols
John Aldridge Courtesy of Robert Hovey

“A Speck in the Sea”
John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski
Weinstein Books, $27

Perhaps, at a superficial glance, one might think the publisher of “A Speck in the Sea” was too ambitious. After all, other books in the survival genre include “The Perfect Storm,” “To Build a Fire,” and what about “Unbroken”? In case you forgot, the hero of that story was shot down in the South Pacific by a Japanese fighter plane, spent weeks on a raft eating jellyfish and drinking the limited rainwater he could capture, only to wash ashore at a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where he was routinely beaten for years. 

By comparison, John Aldridge, a Montauk lobster fisherman, fell off a boat in calm 70-degree seas and was rescued some 12 hours later.

But stop right there, cynic: This is a powerful and moving story of survival and not giving up hope in the face of certain demise. As was sadly proved just last week off our shores, when a Coast Guard search and rescue effort for a commercial fisherman (God rest his soul) was called off after a couple of days, the facts bear out that men who fall overboard simply do not make it. They become statistics. John Aldridge beat these grim odds. 

In July 2013, Mr. Aldridge was in the water (and in this book you are right there with him), he did not have the relative luxury of a raft, nor did he have an expansive beach where he could write “HELP” in coconuts a la Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” No, all he had was a lobster pot and his boots, which he ingeniously turned into a flotation device. He was extremely and ultimately alone on a vast and inhospitable frontier.

The strength of this book lies in fact that Mr. Aldridge did not mentally give in to the undeniable reality that every hour he was adrift 40 miles off Montauk Point meant his chances of rescue grew more minuscule. A needle in a haystack is a dead-on cliché.

To put this in perspective, even with high-tech radar and GPS it is hard to find a 21-foot boat in a 100-square-mile search radius, let alone a bobbing human being. Mr. Aldridge knew this reality all too well.

Readers will be impressed by his ability to shrug off the poor odds of being found, and also by the fact that he was in shark-infested waters. The waters off Montauk Point are known to be a major breeding ground for great whites, and there were sharks around him as he paddled in the darkness. His ability to compartmentalize his fear was impressive — if a shark was going eat him, so be it. His job was to try to control his breathing, to not show fear, and to focus on what he could do — get to a lobster pot at daybreak so he could be more visible for the inevitable search party. He had no energy to give to fear. 

Mr. Aldridge also had great faith that his lifelong friend and fishing partner, Anthony Sosinski, would not give up looking for him. 

It turns out the fisherman’s knowledge of current and drift proved to be more valuable than the most high-tech search apparatuses the Coast Guard could apply. And it resulted in Mr. Aldridge’s rescue.

The reader is in Mr. Sosinski’s head when he finally snaps out of shock at the realization that his friend was gone, notices a handle missing from a cooler, and mentally re-enacts the accident. The boat had no backside, as is the case with many boats that pull pots and cages. If you think this accident was inevitable, so did the victim, as he says he had visualized it happening many times. 

The book has the obligatory side stories and does an adequate job of describing the fishing hamlet of Montauk (although the boys are from Oakdale). At times, though, it seems the publisher was going through formulaic motions (a movie is in the works). The reader might also want to know who put the book together, as a third name is conspicuously absent from the cover. There is no “with” or “by,” only the names of John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski. This is too bad because the story is well laid out: You are in the water with this fisherman, and the recurring flashbacks serve as an effective narrative device. Certainly the two spent a lot of time getting the story down, but who helped them?

You really do come to understand how tough the job is, how hard these guys work.

The best sections of “A Speck in the Sea” are when Mr. Aldridge is in the water for hours, completely alone with his thoughts, which included but were not limited to old loves, family members, and regrets: If only he’d stayed in college, for one, which contradicts earlier statements about how the only job he ever wanted and loved was fishing. (Well, which is it?) He’s lucky he didn’t get drunk in some upstate cornfield, or work at some desk job like many of us.

The corrosive elements of the sea were getting to him, as he was sunburned, swallowing a lot of seawater, and having problems keeping his head above water. The seductive and reoccurring thought of giving up and letting the sea take him to his grave, giving the lobsters their ultimate revenge, as he puts it, was appealing, but he fought it off — he thought of his nephew, who adored him.

A helicopter arrives!

Metaphorically, all of us have been, or will be, in the water alone someday, with sharks around us and little hope, but if we’re lucky we will be able to exhibit Mr. Aldridge’s resolve. 

This is an inspiring book at its core, and a good read.

Jeff Nichols is the author of “My Life (Direct to DVD): How to Sell Your Self-Published Book to Hollywood, and Other Disaster Stories.” He lives in Montauk.

John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski will talk about “A Speck in the Sea” at BookHampton in East Hampton on July 13 at 5 p.m.

The Anna Mary, with its open stern showing, docked at Montauk.
John Aldridge and a freshly caught crustacean.
Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer Third Class Robert Hovey with a rescued John Aldridge on July 24, 2013. Courtesy of Robert Hovey
Anthony Sosinski showing off fishing equipment with John Aldridge’s “tag,” which refers to his nickname, “Johnny Load.”