Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | October 16, 2012

When boats are movie stars

The postmodern tall ship:  The Earl of Pembroke in a poster for the upcoming Cloud Atlas

Outside of genre films, it’s not very often that a boat gets to be a movie star.  The Lady Washington, thanks to her role as the Interceptor in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, is now recognizable to fans worldwide and is essentially the modern image of the pirate ship, even tho’ not only as brig would she have not been common in the Golden Age Caribbean but also the ship was built as a replica of a late 18th century vessel of the U.S. Navy.  The HMS Rose, after her moment in the spotlight as Lucky Jack’s dear ship in Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World, was even renamed the Surprise and is now educating thousands at the San Diego Maritime Museum on the ways of the old Royal Navy.  Now the barque Earl of Pembroke of Bristol, already a veteran of the Hornblower series among other roles, is hitting the big screen in the new Cloud Atlas.  All of these are, at least in part, historical dramas, and readers of this blog should know these ships well.  But, the other night, the DVR captured a modern film that was all about the boats.  This is especially worth pausing for as one of the vessels is no longer with us.

At sea, no one can hear you scream

Dead Calm came out back in 1989, based on the novel from 1963 and directed by Australia’s Philip Noyce.  There are only three human cast members:  the always intense Sam Neill, a young Nicole Kidman (only 22 at the time), and, the sole Yank, Billy Zane (with hair!).  Without giving too much away, as this is a film I would recommend, the premise is that Neill and Kidman are cruising the South Pacific when they are overtaken by the psychopathic Zane.  Other than some set up at the beginning, the film takes place entirely at sea.  It is a psychological thriller, but the tension would be nothing without some realistic nautical elements.  Thus one must give equal billing to the film’s two boats.  The identity of these vessels are revealed in Dead Calm‘s production notes here.

Stormvogel with sails set for running downwind, from

The protagonists are sailing aboard a ketch named the Saracen.  In reality, this was a rather famous yacht named the Stormvogel.  Details of her design can be found here at boat designer Tad Roberts’ blog, while a discussion of her history is here at the Wooden Boat Forum.  She was built in in 1961, commissioned by one C. Bruynzeel.  Not surprisingly, as Bruynzeel was at the time the head of a long-standing and still extant producer of plywood, he had the boat made of marine plywood.  Stormvogel was built in South Africa, purportedly the “first truly light displacement maxi ocean racer.”  She has won numerous blue-water race trophies.  She is also a big boat, 74′ LOA, with three double-bed cabins and a fourth twin-bed cabin.  Bruynzeel died on Stormvogel while racing her in Greece.  The producers of Dead Calm found her in Sydney, doing their filming in the Whitsunday Passage between Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.  The latest I can find on the Stormvogel is that she is on the charter list at

The Golden Plover in all her finery

The Stormvogel appears to be alive and well, but her costar in Dead Calm did not fare well.  In the movie, the villainous Zane has just abandoned the “schooner” Orpheus.  The ship was in fact a 30-meter (ca. 98′) brigantine, the Golden Plover, and had been around since 1910.  A well-written narrative on the ship can be found here at blog The Fo’c’sle.  She began life as a steam-powered tug in Melbourne and worked various jobs for decades until she caught fire.  She lay sunken in the Maribyrnong River until she was resurrected by the brothers Helmut, Gunther and Gerhardt Jacoby.  In 1974 she lived again, and by the 1980’s was not only the oldest working boat in Australia but regularly used in film, including 14-year-old Brooke Shields‘ notorious softcore disguised as cinema, The Blue Lagoon.  In the 1990’s, the Golden Plover was based in Cairns and spent time doing “Great Barrier Reef boat partying tours.”  Whether as a result of this lifestyle or not, at the turn of the century she was in horrible disrepair.  In 2011, at the age of 101, she was broken up.

Golden Plover in 2009, looking weary

I don’t mean to be a downer, but fame does not equal preservation when it comes to boats.  The Surprise was deemed unseaworthy by the Coast Guard for quite some time after filming Master and Commander, tho’ she is now fully operational and was back in form in On Stranger TidesLady Washington underwent major hull restoration over the summer that required nearly $200,000 dollars in state and private funding.  There is even a web site, still to be seen, that tried to save the Golden Plover.  The point is simple:  If we are to continue to enjoy our tall ships, on the water or on the screen, then we must contribute how we can.  That message must and will be repeated.  You can help the San Diego Maritime Museum here, and the Historical Seaport, home of the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain, can be supported here.  If there is a boat dear or close to you, and you can’t give money, give time.  Every effort counts.


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