- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2002

By Douglas A. Campbell
Carroll & Graf, $25, 304 pages

Just what is it about a shipwreck? It must be that there is enduring interest in man's powerlessness against that great symbol of natural chaos, the ocean. Whether you regard it misty-eyed as the mother of life, or caustically as did Malcolm Lowry as "that great over-rated immensity," the ocean remains boring, frightful and unconquerable, swallowing the best and strongest creations whether submarine, ship, airplane or homo sapiens himself with awful regularity and complete disregard.
But the publication of a hit nonfiction book Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" has created, or at least authenticated, a new surge of wave whipped disaster writing on the theme of the ocean's bad record as a place to stay for long. Best of this recent crop of nonfiction books is Douglas Campbell's gripping story of the Jersey clammers, "The Sea's Bitter Harvest." Not the least of this book's surprising virtues is its utter humility.
Mr. Campbell is not, as most of the other authors in the disaster genre, a great expert. He was a reporter for the Philadephia Inquirer in the Cherry Hill, N.J. bureau not a glamor job. One January day the phone rang and on the other end was the Inquirer's justly famed editor, Robert J. Rosenthal (who has since left the Inquirer). Mr. Rosenthal had got word of the sinking of a clam boat off that notorious coast and sensed a story. He told Mr. Campbell he wanted the complete story and added, "I don't care if it takes a week or a year."
No doubt such instructions, intolerable as they must be to newspaper upper management, were part of the reason for Mr. Rosenthal's departure from the paper; but they also now, in book form, remain a monument to what a reporter can achieve if he is armed with the precious gifts of insatiable curiosity and … ignorance.
Poor Mr. Campbell, who seems seasick from the moment he steps aboard one of these ramshackle, overladen, overpowered vessels, has no pretension to sea lore or to literary art. He has, however the heart of a bulldog as regards this obscure, tragic story of dead-end men and their get-rich-quick livlihood on the edge of the Atlantic off the Jersey beaches.
The facts of clamming are brutally simple: The hardshell clam or Quahog, has become a delicacy. it is the ingredient in the "clam strip" and it has other culinary uses. Japanese gastronomes love them. Methods of capturing them are simple, too a dredge scrapes along the surface of the seabed much as a vacuum cleaner would. But its cutting edge is armed with vents, which spurt water pumped at high pressure. Clams are blown off the seabed into the mouth of the dredge as it bumps along, while sand and mud fall through steel meshes.
The clam-filled dredge is hauled and dumped when the captain estimates it is full. There is no processing the clams are simply dumped into large steel cages and stacked on deck. Trips are short and the work is quick and heart-pounding shifting heavy weights on a swaying deck, getting rid of trash and sea creatures accidentally caught, controlling the cable and booms. And it's usually cold, as cold weather keeps the clams alive longer.
The profits from clamming can be enormous. Working on the share system which splits profits among crew members by an arcane formula, deck hands can make as much as Wall Street brokers if they are both lucky and able to stand up to the 24-hour strain of the trip. The industry selects, therefore, men who want quick money, who are strong and fearless and immune to discomfort and careless of risks. Ashore, many rot quickly, running through their money with abandon, drinking, fighting and chasing women until they are flat; at which time they head for the clam docks to seek another trip.
These men tend to be alcoholics, binge drinkers, and drug takers and less educated athletes willing to trade their strength and nerves for cash. The captains often carry staggering loads of debt and goverment restrictions which tempt them to defy weather and logic. The boats (some of them at least) are makeovers from other sea fisheries, and because of the nature and the machinery of clam dredging, they are more often than not rust buckets overladen with added superstructures, steel booms, and the clam cages themselves.
All in all, the Jersey clam business is a stage set for disaster. Not to mention the savage nature of the shore and the tide-swept inlets, Abesecon, Barnegat, Manasquan, Little Egg, Atlantic City and others, where the sand is as hard as bricks and the wind can whip 15- to 20-foot short sharp seas against the tide.
Do the deaths of these fishermen rise to the level of tragedy? Or are these the stories of truth and consequences, no more than traffic accidents on the water? I would argue that man's battle with the ultimate hostile element the ocean is always a high drama combining pride, courage and hubris. Here, at least, man acts alone, and for a time is the master of his world. In this remarkable book, the clammers become symbols for the ever-aspiring spirit that is the best of humanity.
Douglas Campbell brings it all home to the reader in his detailed description of the 10 men who struggled and died on the winter Atlantic off Jersey. In little over a week, four large clam boats foundered and were lost. This is a masterpiece of investigative journalism; it shows what a good reporter can do with time and an assignment. Mr. Campbell has told the full story of the ships that sank and the men who died and the families that they left behind. As he says at one point, "three years after the last boat sank this is my effort to do justice to all these brave men."

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

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