4 out of 4 stars
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Charlie Sheldon's Adrift tells the story of how a salvage tugboat, the Warhorse, rescues the Seattle Express, a containership that catches fire at sea. This action-packed adventure will hold the reader's interest throughout the entire story, from the suspenseful first chapter all the way to the book's riveting conclusion.
Setting sail from Petropavlovsk in his enormous ship, the Seattle Express, Captain Steve Procida hears the fire alarm sound. He dispatches William, his assistant, to locate the fire in the engine room, where a faulty electrical switch has shorted, spreading a fatal charge across the circuit. Complicating affairs, a full-blown ice storm pelts the ship with ice and snow, the rough winds tossing the ship across the high seas. After Steve learns the fire has spread from port to starboard, endangering all lives aboard the vessel by possibly spreading to the lifeboats, the captain decides to abandon ship. Two self-righting lifeboats are lowered to the sea, one commanded by himself, the other by William and the captain's first mate, Randall. The self-righting boats have waterproof internal chambers to prevent them from sinking. The sturdy design of the boats gives the crew enough time to get their boats onto the radar so they can be pulled out of danger fast.
While Steve's boat is able to establish radio contact with the Coast Guard, William's boat loses communications and runs aground along the rugged coastal shoals of the Haida Gwaii. He and ten other castoffs are stranded on the coast without food and water, as the snow and the elements create even greater challenges for them to face in their fight for survival. As they compete against nature, a salvage tugboat, the Warhorse, races to the rescue of the burning ship. An older, diesel-propelled model clad for success, the Warhorse races against the Coast Guard and big industry to take control of the boat and the proceeds from the rescue. The mission locates the Seattle on its marine systems display, speeding blindly toward the ship as the fire continues to spread across the decks. The crew must climb aboard the burning vessel without a ladder or gangway to help them onto the deck. The tugboat's owner, Louise, maintains the boat's direction so that the crew can rescue the Seattle and tow it back to shore.
Adrift is one of several nautical books by Charlie Sheldon in a list that includes Chasing Davy Jones (2003) and Strong Heart (2017). Sheldon spent many hours tracing the events surrounding the story, and it shows in this elaborate, detailed, and highly polished account of the industries and northwest seas around the Haida Gwaii. Each of the 60 chapters is devoted to a fictional character, a form of character-unit which advances the plot. Sheldon selected two characters, Steve and Myra (William's daughter, the archaeologist heroine in Strong Heart), to narrate the book in the first person, each of them pondering the notion that humanity matters more to people than do the machines and corporations that run their lives. The back-to-back depictions of the race to save the Seattle (conducted by Louise) and the race to save the lifeboat are interlaced with parallelism to demonstrate how the human heart wins the victory. Just as Louise and Warhorse battle Buckhorn, a mining-and-shipping facility, for the rights to salvage the Seattle, Sheldon gives Myra the ability to tell a story within a story. She dreams of her travels across the remote coastal areas of the Northwest with her father William, remembering the days when he had put the skills of fire-building in her hands and had shown her all the survival skills their native ancestors used to confront the outdoors. The narrative underscores the import of native culture to the wilderness.
Overall, Sheldon employs a third-person omniscient narrator to get into the minds of the other characters and to develop the storyline. At times distant, at other times filled with irascible insights, the narrator uses economical, poetic diction to reveal the emotional strength of his characters. This is evident in the scene depicting the second lifeboat's wreck off the coast of the Haida Gwaii, where William and his castoffs must rekindle the past culture of the native peoples, learning to overcome adversity just as they did. Survival is more than just crafting a lean-to, starting a campfire, hunting bears and seals, and charting the seas. The narrator uses a shifting perspective to demonstrate the irony in the conflict between the lifeboat and the powers beyond. His gaze lifts us from the lower vantage point of the lifeboat swinging on its pivots, buried in snowfall, to the higher vantage point, the boat seen as a boulder covered in snow. These passages highlight the conflict between the logging-and-mining corporations that run the area and the diverse peoples who populate its outskirts.
The book is well plotted and filled with brilliant, contrastive figures of speech. The author does a good job of creating suspense in the scenes where a 160-foot tugboat and its crew pull a burning 700-foot vessel out of the sea. At times the relationships between the various rescue operations seem sketchy and in need of clarification. In charting the rescue, the author leaves the question of the lifeboats' positions in suspense for too long, leading us to wonder why the Coast Guard would be more interested in rescuing the ship than the lifeboats. However, he does make it clear that people, rather than governments, should run their own futures.
Sheldon has written a maverick, stand-out adventure, filled with the beautiful, majestic world of the Northwest Territory. The book will be a delight to anyone who loves a good sea story. In addition, the author has included two helpful maps of the Northwest Pacific and a photo of himself standing next to the sculpture of a short-faced bear. I rate the book 4 out of 4 stars due to its exciting storyline and outstanding writing.
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