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His brother's final hours
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 2000
The surviving brother's left arm bears an outline of The Man at the Wheel, a statue erected in their hometown, Gloucester, Mass., to honor thousands of fishermen who went "down to the sea in ships" off the New England coast.
One name is inscribed on Rick's tattoo: Bob Shatford, his younger "bro," who drowned in the 1991 weather phenomenon immortalized in print and film as The Perfect Storm.
Witnessing his brother's final hours was painful, even though it was a Hollywood re-creation with actor Mark Wahlberg battling nature, not Bobby doing it for real.
Rick Shatford, 41, knows what his brother experienced better than any filmmaker. He was the first Gloucesterman (as the town's fishermen are called) in his family, spending weeks at a time at sea. Tuna and swordfish are his specialties, hooked anywhere from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean.
Payment comes by the pound. Danger, from bad weather or just bad luck, is free and plentiful.
Rick Shatford's 20-year career continues today from his Pinellas County home. As you read this, he is somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico on a two-week search for grouper.
Different waters and fish, same risks. "But I've never gone out thinking that I wouldn't come back," he said. "Bobby didn't, either."
Several of his fishing trips -- including Rick Shatford's own closest brush with death -- were aboard the Andrea Gail, the 72-foot boat sunk a decade later by the "perfect storm." Captain Billy Tyne, played by George Clooney in the movie, was a frequent partner.
In 1982, Rick Shatford was part of a swordfishing crew caught in a fierce Nor'easter for four days. Winds belted the Andrea Gail with 100 mph winds while 30-foot waves washed on deck.
"It was just a horror show," Rick said, recalling his 1982 experience.
"It's so loud; it's really intimidating. The wind whistles through the rigging; everything is creaking and squeaking and howling. Then you see the waves, like, whoa, look at that one. Pretty intense."
The Andrea Gail weathered that storm well, leaving Rick with the impression that it was an "excellent" boat. "It was touch-and-go here and there, but she came through fine," he said.
"I was always surprised that she went down until I found out the magnitude of the storm. There's quite a difference between the storm I went through and the "perfect storm.' "
Weather experts estimated the rare convergence of three storm patterns in 1991 created 120 mph winds and waves up to 100 feet. The crew apparently never realized the catastrophe forming in the skies and seas. They rode the storm to disaster.
Rick Shatford was unaware of the storm's intensity until he read Sebastian Junger's 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, the inspiration for Petersen's film.
"(The storm) that I went through is the stuff those guys accepted that they were going to go through," Rick Shatford said. "They didn't know what they were dealing with."
Rick Shatford was tuna fishing off Hawaii in October 1991 when an emergency high-seas telephone call finally reached him. The search for the Andrea Gail had been under way for eight days. By the time he returned to port in Honolulu, all efforts to find survivors had ended.
Bobby Shatford was 30, separated from his wife, devoted to two children, in love again and still the best buddy of his older brother. They spoke on the telephone whenever work allowed and partnered when possible.
Rick convinced Bobby to join him in Madeira Beach in 1989. The younger brother fished gulf waters for more than two years before returning to Gloucester and his destiny.
Accepting another job offer in Hawaii from Rick could have saved his life.
"I called and said, "Bro, I just started running a 90-foot swordfishing boat,' " Rick Shatford said. " "Real nice, top of the line. I need an ace on deck who I can trust. Why don't you come fish with me?' "
Bobby Shatford declined. He was comfortable working with Tyne, liked docking at home and had fallen in love with a woman named Christina Cotter, played in the movie by Diane Lane. Their romance is the emotional core of Petersen's film.
"I understood what he meant," Rick Shatford said. "I've been there before, out on deck thinking about my girlfriend the whole time for a month and a half."
The brothers talked for a few more minutes before hanging up. "I said, "I love you,' and he said, "I love you' back," Rick said. "Those were the last words we ever spoke to each other."
Rick, who had read the magazine article Junger was expanding into a book, offered the writer a profane dismissal, no handshake.
Many Gloucestermen were upset that Junger portrayed them as chronic carousers, blowing entire paychecks on booze and women at the Crow's Nest and other dockside pubs. Today, Rick Shatford is trying to clean up his drinking habit. He was sober for two years until a relapse last month.
"When they started to make the movie, a lot of people were complaining: "Oh, they're just going to make us out to be a bunch of drunks,' " Rick said. "Oh, well. Truth hurts."
The job has its perks, like making a trip to Los Angeles for the film's premiere and attending two New England Patriots games with Wahlberg during production. They recently attended a Tonight Show taping together.
"I've grown to love him like a brother," Shatford said.
For millions of viewers, Wahlberg is Bobby Shatford. Rick approved of the way the actor conveyed his brother's easy-going personality. It doesn't bother Rick that moviegoers will watch Bobby and the rest of the Andrea Gail crew die for the sake of entertainment.
"I've done that with other people's tragedy, too. I'm a regular at Blockbuster Video," Rick said. "I don't know how many movies I've watched about other people's tragedies, and I enjoy them thoroughly as a spectator."
Rick Shatford's eyes were dry now, sparkling with pride:
"How many people have died? Sure, they're always remembered by their loved ones. But these guys are world-known. Everybody knows their story. They'll be remembered."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.