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A Journey Through the North Atlantic

A-TrawlerO’Hanlon, a 50-something landlubber travel writer, is up for adventure once again—this time in the icy winter waters of the North Atlantic. When he joins the crew of a Scottish commercial fishing vessel, he’s determined to work with crewmembers surveying and inventorying the strange creatures trawled from the deep waters. A terrifying hurricane incapacitates O’Hanlon for a spell, but no worries. He’s soon back on his feet, befriending biologist Luke Bullough and cataloguing bizarre ocean denizens like jellycats, hagfish, and rat tail fish. It’s one long, masochistic, and terrifying journey, and O’Hanlon’s here to tell you all about it.
Knopf. 339 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400042755

Geographical 4 of 5 Stars
"Couple Luke’s encyclopaedic knowledge with O’Hanlon’s ability to wax lyrical about jungle tribes while seasick and his willingness to argue the toss after next to no sleep, and the scene is set for some surprisingly philosophical musings." Jo Sargent

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"… ostensibly an adventure book, it is also one of the most thrilling and inspiring books about science that I’ve ever read." Bruce Barcott

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"O’Hanlon’s is the inside scoop, what we always suspected but the pros won’t confide, the first-person, inglorious confession of a landlubber’s first date with the sea." Lynda V. Mapes

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The action is principally on the gutting floor, down below decks, in the fish room …. Here is where the science will be discussed—talk of otoliths and electroreceptors; fish with headlights … the very mystery of the world’s greatest biomass." Peter Lewis

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat separates Trawler from other hellishly funny travelogues is its vision of working conditions so extreme that trauma and shock are routine. … Trawler, at its best, reads like a black-box transcription of minds trying to stay afloat while crushed by remorseless labor, cold, stress, sleep loss and fear of sudden death." Tony Horwitz

Spectator 3 of 5 Stars
"It is a love letter written by O’Hanlon to the trawlermen and above all to Luke Bullough, the young handsome alpha male marine scientist who is O’Hanlon’s guide and mentor during the monstrous, sleep-deprived trip. … If you want information about the nature and practices of the North Atlantic deep trawling industry, this is not the place to look." Adam Nicolson

Critical Summary

In Trawler, O’Hanlon (No Mercy, In Trouble Again), a British naturalist and adventurer, takes readers on a hallucinogenic journey. Extraordinary (or nauseating, depending on the perspective) first-hand accounts of the ship, the close quarters, the smell, the fear, and the seasickness bring his experience to life. It’s no picnic—just call Trawler a hellish travelogue or dark comedy as O’Hanlon’s sleep-deprived sea companions slowly lose their minds. The best parts include conversations between the author and biologist Luke Bullough, who talk science as they examine their monstrous sea findings (portrayed in beautiful black and white drawings). The worst parts include these same musings, which a few critics described as overworked monologues. Still, armchair sailors will find much value in the unfamiliar, nightmarish world O’Hanlon depicts.

Supplemental Reading

The Outlaw Sea A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime | William Langewiesche (2004): 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004. You may remember the portion of the book that was published in The Atantic Monthly. Langewische looks at the terrible conditions suffered by those working in the shipping industry.