On July 24, 2013, the very day he fell off his lobster boat into the shark-infested waters off Montauk, John Aldridge had read his horoscope in his old hometown newspaper on Long Island. It said – “You are strong and you are resilient…you will have the strength to survive the current circumstances.” He did survive the current…of the swirling Atlantic Ocean, an ordeal that lasted 12 agonizing hours in the dead of night, with only his boots and a three-inch knife by his side. He wore no life vest – none of the fishermen did.
His survival became the stuff of legend and song in Montauk, and soon after his rescue, Johnny, as he’s called, was featured in a nine-minute spot on “CBS Sunday Morning.” The harrowing tale of his plight and rescue is now a memoir. Called “A Speck in the Sea,” it was written in conjunction with his fishing partner and long-time friend from childhood, Anthony Sosinski, on board at the time. Two guys, so different in looks and behavior but united in their love of fishing. They also had assistance from editors.
Though overly detailed about the United States Coast Guard’s impressive Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System – which went down at one point! – “A Speck in the Sea” pulses with dramatic excitement, quite an accomplishment since we know Johnny was saved. The book cleverly alternates Johnny’s suspenseful first-hand gasping account of being in the water, with third-person chapters on the history and significance of Montauk, and on the Coast Guard technology and extraordinary volunteer efforts of family and friends.
When Anthony discovered Johnny was missing, he started calling everyone he could think of. Within minutes, it seemed as though the entire “End,” as Montauk is sometimes referred to, was totally mobilized for Mayday. Learning about the origin of the word “Mayday,” by the way, is one of the many info gems of the book – it comes from the French “m’aidez” – help me.
“A Speck in the Sea” is more than a tale of survival, however, even though Johnny made it against the odds. Montauk fishermen know those odds. There’s a memorial in town, a tribute to the lives of commercial fishermen lost at sea. The book though essentially is about friendship, community and the United States Coast Guard, an arm of the military most of us know little about. The book is also a loving tribute to Montauk, a “tough place” to live but a close-knit commercial fishing town where every shop and bar owner – and there are lots of bars – knows everyone.
Johnny and Anthony, they’re hardly kids, maybe the last of their breed. Writing about what they do – 30 years after Peter Matthiessen’s “Men’s Lives” chronicled the plight of Long Island baymen – they know that commercial fishermen have a “fatality rate 39 times higher than the national average” as the government has pointed out and that the Northeast Atlantic has “the most dangerous fishing grounds in the country.” But they love, love what they do. “A Speck in the Sea” memorably captures a moment in time when people cared about other people and Nature.
Joan Baum is a book critic who lives in Springs, Long Island. She's also the host of the podcast Baum on Books.