The film 180 South through a different man’s eyes

The film 180 South through a different man’s eyes
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Final letter to the cast and production team of the documentary 180 South in which the SeaBear was featured.

Long time no see,

I have been in Seattle the last three weeks obtaining my USCG 100 ton
Masters license.

Last night I had the opportunity to view the film 180 South for the first time.  At least with Tyler and Jeff we lived through enough for me to feel like I have the liberty to speak frankly.  I think you guys saw me in action enough to realize that I am not a natural born critic that by definition is someone on the sidelines that passes judgment over the efforts of others. In general that is a pretty easy position to be in.  So in this case, my comments are directed in a no BS – man to man level.  You can take them at face value or not.  The case might be that you have become so accustomed to preaching to the choir that my comments might come as a surprise.  Then again my friends, it is hard for me to imagine that what I am going to point out hasn’t bothered more than one of you at some point or another.

I clearly don’t understand the editorial constraints you had to deal with, but in the process of trying to create some kind of cohesive narrative to the story, at least the parts I experienced, come across as completely contrived.  I for one don’t see what was gained by it. In fact by treading this fine line between fact and fiction you in essence end up betraying the underlying message the film offers up to its viewers.  This being that the most important thing in life is not whether we are successful in obtaining our objectives, but the integrity, spontaneity, and sincerity with which we undertake the journey.  Fritz Carraldo by Werner Herzog (starring Klaus Kinsky) is for me a film that even though it is fiction portrays this spirit probably better than any other movie I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it you should check it out, because for one this character is the original “Conqueror of the Useless”.

I guess this ties in with what I said before, but on a personal level. I am pissed that Kari wasn’t even included in the credits at the end of the film after all her hard work to make your time aboard the SeaBear more pleasant.  Kari is a strong women (I hear she is making a name for herself up in Alaska as a commercial fisherman) but regardless the day she sees the film this fact has got to sting especially when it required such a minimum amount of effort to say thanks.

Sad to say but if we measure ourselves up against the bar set by the films own narrative, “We set sail from Ventura assholes, and 7,000 nautical miles later we pulled in to port assholes all the same.”  What a shame.

Take care,  Bear

Maybe you saw the film 180 South in which the SeaBear was featured as it “chronicled” the climactic event of getting dismasted as we sailed in the SE trade winds from Galapagos to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Here is the inside story of the true events as they unfolded after our world literally came crashing down upon us.

On board at the time of the dismasting besides myself was my then girlfriend Kari Vannice a Montana native and wildland firefighter, David McGuire a experienced sailor and advocate for ocean conservation, the film’s protagonist Jeff Johnson, cameraman Tyler Emmet a charismatic young man with considerable time at sea, and Timmy O’Neil also featured in the film.

I had just gotten off watch and was in my cabin asleep when the event occurred at 08:30 hours. I simply awoke to the sound of the lower backstay pulling free. It kind of sounded like a guitar string breaking except exponentially louder and with thousands of dollars more of collateral damage. Jeff Johnson was on watch eating his breakfast so he definitely got the best seat in the house to see our perfectly good rigging turning in the blink of an eye into a jumbled mass of twisted spars and tangled halyards, shrouds, and stays. It must have been quite a sight, and no doubt one of the most eventful bowels of cereals in his life.

Just as quickly the entire crew assembled on deck to view the wreckage strewn across our deck. Also our starboard rail was gone and a section of the mast still attached to the lower shrouds was ramming into our hull rhythmically with each passing swell. The mainsail and the genoa billowed below the transparent ocean surface. Upon inspection there was very little good news to be had except that no one had been injured, and the sun was out. More importantly the seastate was very manageable.

I found your initial knee jerk reaction is to just want to cut everything away and give your rigging an honorable burial at sea as it were. However, at least to me it was soon obvious that we had the opportunity to salvage a good majority of the wreckage thanks to the favorable weather. It wasn’t going to be easy that was for sure, but I had read about other sailor’s experiences making jury rigs after a dismasting and so I knew that the more gear we could wrestle back on deck the better. Although they might be broken beyond repair the spars, lines, halyards, winches, sails, shrouds and backstays still provide the raw materials you need to jury rig something that can get you back to port.

It took us eleven hours of solid work, but by evening at 19:30 hours we had the deck loaded with most of what was left of our old rig. The rolling furling foil now served as our new starboard rail. Our twenty-two meter mast was now cut into four sections of about 5 meters each. The main and the genoa that had been split in two were lashed down on deck in bundles. The boom which had snapped at the goose-neck where it attaches to the mast was also tied down along with the other sections of spars. The steel hull had been deformed slightly where the mast had been pounding but in no way did it affect its integrity.

On that day I take my hat off to the entire crew of the SeaBear. Through the entire laborious, sometimes precarious, process we had managed to work as a team. Looking back this was probably the only time through the entire trip on the SeaBear that the cast of 180 South truly rose to the occasion and put their backs behind it. For that I will always be grateful.

Once we were underway again, I started to determine what are options where. Since leaving Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz of the Galapagos Archipelago we had not used the engine, so we had a full load of Diesel fuel on board. This allows the SeaBear a range of about 1200 nautical miles. We were still 600 nautical miles from Easter Island, about 2000 nautical miles from either Arica or Iquique in northern Chile. Although the obvious choice seemed to be to head for the nearest land, being Easter Island, my gut told me that we should head instead for the mainland even though we only had enough fuel to make it fifty percent of the way. I thought with the amount of tools and hardware aboard the SeaBear we could jury rig something while underway and thanks to the SE trade winds we would have steady enough a wind to gets us the rest of the way. We had plenty of provisions and thanks to the solar panels we could still make water even if we didn’t have fuel for the generator any longer. Also after speaking with family and friends in Chile every body was pulling their contacts to figure out how to arrange for a ship to intercept us in route and deliver us fuel.

Although the closest inhabited land to our position continuing our course to Rapa Nui in my view added several complexities to the situation. First of all the island does not have a protected harbor for a vessel with the SeaBear’s draft. The nearest thing to one is in Hanga Piko and its approach can only be made at high tide through a narrow channel between breakers rolling mightily up against the rocky coast. When we finally did negotiate the entrance to Hanga Piko on two occasions it was like making a Hail Mary pass. The exposed anchorage in front of the main town Hanga Roa is in deep open water so the Chilean navy requires that all vessels maintain a constant watch on board in case the wind shifts and shelter has to be found on the other side of the island. Another problem is all spares have to be flown in from the mainland and it has no repair facilities. Also Easter Island is over 2000 nautical miles from the continent so regardless we still had to figure out away to address the fuel deficiency.

I approached my crew with my suggestion of altering course and heading instead towards the mainland. Kari would have sailed to the end of the earth with me, (what a second, she already was), so I of course had her full support. David McGuire would have been an asset to this endeavor. He had more time at sea than anyone else on board, including myself so mentally he would have been able to cope with the weeks at sea that this crossing would require. The crew of 180 South on the other hand were an entirely different story. Although we were still a week away from making landfall their minds had already latched on to the island and their choreographed arrival. Even before the incident Jeff and Timmy were pretty much doing time aboard the SeaBear, to be blunt basically because that is what the script at that point required of them. There was not a chance that mentally they could have adapted to this new much more challenging situation which had no certain out come, especially when they benefited from it directly in no way.

As captain and owner of the SeaBear of course I had the prerogative to make the choice that I thought was best. Discussing it with Kari we decided that without the entire crew on the same page the plan to head for the mainland was a non-starter. To actually pull it off and jury rig at sea and then sail close hauled a 1000 nautical miles with no mechanical power, would have required that everybody contribute at the same level as during the salvage process, and be mentally prepared for the weeks at sea that this would entail. Bottom line we decided we had enough problems to have to deal with, so the last thing we needed was to have the Patagonia Clothing Company breathing down our neck with a pending lawsuit after their people potentially lost it at sea.

Revisiting the scenario again with years more of sailing experience under my belt it is clearer to me than ever that altering course to head to the mainland would have been the best option at least as far as the SeaBear was concerned. Of course hindsight is 20/20 vision, but the month that Kari and I spent at the Hanga Roa Anchorage preparing the jury rig, and the means to step it taxed both of us to the extreme. Also the delay that occurred with our shipment from the U.S added an extra layer of stress to the situation. Amongst other items we had purchased several fuel bladders that all together would allow us to carry and additional 1000 liters of fuel and permit us to motor if necessary all the way to central Chile.

While I tackled the splice that was required to join together two sections of mast and other rigging details, Kari took charge of the repair and adaptation of the torn main sail. Due to the fact that a constant watch was required on board we had only limited opportunities to enjoy the sights of this world famous island. To decompress in the evenings I instead would go free diving. At the anchorage there was not much to see even though the water visibility was incredible. I spent my time practicing my descent to the few coral heads spread across the bottom. At 25 to 30 meters depth I soon was setting my personal record in this regard at 29 meters.

After all the difficulties we had faced the day we finally managed to step the mast Kari and I certainly felt like we had accomplished something extraordinary. The cast and crew of 180 South came out on that day to add some muscle and extra hands to the operation, but of course they were there mainly because they wanted the photo op. From my perspective the fact that it is implied in the films narrative that they contributed in a substantial way to the work that was ultimately required to pull off the jury rig is pretty humorous. All I can say is that it would be hard for me after viewing it to classify 180 South as a documentary. I think you would have to call it a boutiqumentary, this would be a documentary but with plenty of window dressing to all people, places, and events.

If we had taken the bulls by the horn and sailed straight to the mainland rather than limping to Easter Island, we would have soon figured out that it was going to be very difficult to sail to either Iquique or Arica as I had originally envisioned because the wind would have been almost right on our nose. We would have had to give up on that idea in all honesty. However it soon would have jumped out at us from the chart that Lima Peru was less than 1000 nautical miles from our position due to the westward push of the South American Continent and that we would be able to take full advantage of the SE trade winds because our heading would allowed us to sail close reaching with our jury rig.

The revolution will not be televised as they say, well what I discovered during my involvement in the film 180 South is neither will the real adventure.

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