Thirty years ago last month, Nelson Simon got a call from a friend, Peter, about an opportunity to crew a ship heading from Brooklyn to Bermuda.
Simon had practically no sailing experience, but he agreed to travel from his Park Slope apartment to meet Peter at the Museum of Natural History that night — Oct. 23, 1991 — and hear the ship’s captain speak about his adventures on the seas.
It was there he found himself accepting an invitation to help sail the 123-year-old Anne Kristine ship from Brooklyn’s Mill Basin to Bermuda, despite not necessarily wanting to.
“There’s an element of of my background as an immigrant, as someone wanting to accommodate people, falling into this, because I didn’t want to lose face,” Simon told BK Reader. Simon immigrated to the United States from Bolivia when he was a child.
“I couldn’t say no. If I could have said no I don’t think I would have gone.”
That ‘yes’ would change the course of his life.
What they didn’t know at the time was that the ship was headed into deadly Hurricane Grace, the southern end of what would later be known as “The Perfect Storm,” memorialized in the 2000 movie of the same title.
Over four harrowing days in October 1991, Simon and seven others went on to fight for their lives as the old schooner battled monster waves and slowly, then rapidly, took on water.
Somehow, the crew managed to hold out long enough to be rescued by the US Coast Guard. Other crews that found themselves in the storm — a seasonal anomaly — were not so fortunate.
Now, three decades later, the Prospect Lefferts Gardens resident has published a book telling the unlikely story of how he — a novice sailor — and his deck mates survived that now-infamous storm.
The book, Soul of the Hurricane: The Perfect Storm and an Accidental Sailor, is out now.
“It’s one of those things you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but you wouldn’t give it up, either,” Simon said.
“It defined a big part of my life, there are things I’m still learning about myself because of it.”
Simon decided to write the book in about 2018. A couple of years prior, he didn’t realize how fascinated others would be in his story.
While at his shuffleboard club in 2016, Simon got chatting with a team of people who came from a sailing club. He mentioned he was in Hurricane Grace, and the club invited him to come and talk at its upcoming speaker series.
That opportunity led to Simon doing a storytelling presentation at maritime museums and yacht clubs for a couple of years called “The Accidental Sailor.”
A friend saw it and insisted he present it at a New Jersey library. It was there Simon was spotted by an agent, who got him a publishing deal for a book on the incredible survival story.
Simon spent more than a year researching for the book. Although he and his crew mates had been through a life-threatening experience together, they had not known each other prior, and did not stay in touch.
Simon tracked them all down, and managed to interview six of his fellow sailors in depth. “I loved talking to them, it was a very moving experience for me,” he said.
He traveled around the country conducting interviews, pulling shipping records, weather bulletins, researching the ship and its explorer captain, Norman Baker, and diving into his own immigrant background and complicated relationship with water.
One of his most impactful interviews was with the Coast Guard pilot who rescued them in the night, as each crew member had to jump blindly into the pitch black ocean below as the Anne Kristine went down in the storm.
“This man rescued thousands of people of the years and I asked, ‘How does this one compare?’ He said nothing else comes close. He’s a religious man, he said, ‘I felt the hand of God. There was no way I was steering that helicopter, I don’t have that skill.”
The process of writing the book also brought up almost-physical memories of the experience for Simon.
He said, as he used to the tell the story, he would talk about being on the deck of the ship at the middle of the night and looking up at the light of the helicopter and not remembering if he felt afraid or not.
“At the time that was an honest assessment. But when I was writing the book I was thinking about it, trying to remember exactly how I felt, and I was sitting here in my living and I just started shaking. It was my body memory telling me, ‘You were afraid. You were terrified.'”
Soul of the Hurricane: The Perfect Storm and an Accidental Sailor is available at all major booksellers, as well as in Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore.
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