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'Simple Courage' founders as a story of heroism at sea

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In Simple Courage, Frank Delaney departs from the gifted storytelling that made his 2005 novel Ireland a best seller to recount in documentary style the true tale of the rescue operation in late December 1951 to save the brutally damaged freighter S.S. Flying Enterprise.

Cracked apart by an ocean storm, slammed on its side by rogue waves 60 feet high, the ship floundered helplessly off the coast of England. While other vessels raced to its aid, the world watched news reports of a stoic captain who refused to abandon ship.

Capt. Kurt Carlsen defined heroism by defying bleak odds to save his passengers and his crew before stubbornly trying to bring his crippled ship to port. During the two-week ordeal, he endured hammering high seas, hurricane-force winds and winter temperatures so cold they turned sea foam into ice missiles.

On its surface, this is an engaging story of bygone days when character counted more than celebrity or money. But for readers less maritime-mesmerized than the author, the book's ballast brims with technical flotsam -- seafaring minutiae and merchant-marine legalities that never let the suspense get up to full speed.

More difficult to navigate, however, is an undertow throughout the book that tugs at the reader to believe that this harrowing rescue attempt was one of the most meaningful stories of its time -- one that "marks a generation," as Delaney puts it, in the same way the Kennedy assassination did.

For the author, maybe so. Then a boy in a coastal town of Ireland, young Delaney stayed glued to radio bulletins of the perils Carlsen faced. With World War II a recent memory, the man-vs.-sea theme had wind in its sails back then. Humphrey Bogart captained The African Queen to an Oscar that year, and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny won a Pulitzer. But the Flying Enterprise was no Titanic. It was no Andrea Doria, no Lusitania, not even an Edmund Fitzgerald. And Courage is not The Perfect Storm.

By the book's end, Delaney tries to tie together an underwhelming finale with personal dunnage -- his troubled relationship with a strict and unloving Irish father and how the two of them found, if only for a short time that winter 55 years ago, an escape from the perils of their own home life in the uncommon courage of a heroic skipper and ship lost to the seas.

Simple Courage: A True Story

of Peril on the Sea

By Frank Delaney

Random House, 300 pp., $24.95

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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