There are few times when your choice which movie to start does not only turn out to be a good one, but turns out to be so amazingly good, that you take out your smartphone and immediately text your friends to watch that particular movie as well. Yesterday I went through Amazon Prime Video again in search and hope that maybe an acceptable movie would be offered and I found “Following Seas”, a 2016 documentary. I started it and I can tell you right away: This one is indeed very, very different, gripping, exciting and so beautiful, that even during watching my whatsapp-recommendations to friends went out.
The film is narrated by Nancy Griffith in the early 2010s, looking back onto her life. Those interview scenes are filmed in New York City, in her home with two of her daughters and very, very late in her life somewhere undisclosed. At first you may think “well, that´s an old lady talking, what could have been so exciting about her sailing life?” But after 10 minutes you know: This is something very special!
A wild, romantic love story
I do not want to spoil you on the story all too much, but the start of her amazing voyage through life is exciting alone: Back in the Fifties, being a 25 years old single mother with a 5 years young son, she watches a beautiful sailing yacht tacking into the harbor under sails. Which, she says, was very uncommon since currents and prevailing winds made all the other boats enter harbor by engine. Not this one. So she approached the guy at the helm of that boat and started a conversation.
This is how she got to know Bob Griffith. Although much older than her, he instantaneously fell in love and not much time later they began to date, started a relationship and eventually she became his wife. It seems that Bob and Nancy were able to form that magic between man and women, this secret recipe of a working relationship based on mutual respect, admiration for each other and a common passion, which of course was sailing. Soon she and her Son moved aboard, home schooling provided, literally fled the United States and set off for the greatest adventure. Not of her life, but as it turned out, all of their lives started to be this seemingly never ending dream voyage aboard their 53 feet sailing yacht.
The DELOS of the Sixties
“Following Seas” is a true contemporary document. The material shown is absolutely gorgeous 8 or 9 millimeter footages filmed, sometimes shaky, by the Griffiths themselves. Footage we all know now well too good from our own snapshots when sailing done with our iPhones or from the omnipresent blogger stars and vlogging-celebrities of sailing like the DELOS-crew or “Sailing La Vagabonde”. But this is so precious because Nancy, Bob and her kids (there will be many more) have done this 60 years ago!
And believe me, this is not just a crazy American couple fleeing the turbulent Sixties to live a sea-nomad´s life on a boat, this is serious sailing! In the end, Nancy and the crew of AWAHNEE will have completed over 20 long haul journeys of which three will have been full circumnavigations including the Cape Horn. They follow Captain Cook, the great explorer, around Antarctica (and set a world record for fastest circumnavigation under sails at that time) and crossed literally all Seven Seas in their boat. This in itself is amazing and the footage shows an unspoiled long gone yachting world.
An unbelievably exciting story
The more this movie runs the more you are able to dive into the feeling of that past time: Vietnam War, Sixties rumbling, Cold War ramping up. But also a world not yet conquered by smartphones and social media. A sailing so pure and feeling primordial that them talking of navigating by means of stars and sextant like it was nothing feels out of this world. No GPS, no chart plotters, no autopilots and sometimes not even paper charts, just seamanship, intuition and pure human will. Those two guys exert much more seamanship that you and I together will never be able to develop, I guess.
The story they are telling is so absolutely unbelievable and exciting, that just the first 25 minutes are more gripping that Tom Hank´s “Cast Away” may not be in its complete runtime: AWAHNEE is mauled by a reef, Nancy, Bob and her son Reid have to abandon ship in the raging breaking waves onto a deserted small island. They start to salvage what they can and suddenly the movie turns into a Robinson Crusue-type documentary. Just as if it was the most normal thing in the world, Nancy tells the story of their survival.
Even the island turns out to be not-so uninhabited as they thought. Thy meet two guys who are literal convicts who have been put on this island by the government to serve their sentence there, inhabiting the island. This, as if this wasn´t strange coincidence enough, was done so that the island may acquire the “inhabited” status to prohibit Greenpeace from taking possession of it in course of their anti-nuclear bomb-testing campaign against neighbouring Mururoa …
Building their own yacht – and conquering the world
The Griffith family and the convicts start to share their resources, work together, Reid is even “back” in home school as they are able to salvage most of the schooling material and books. At one point they even construct an A-frame to dismount and salvage the Diesel engine from the boat´s wreckage. This engine is not only cleansed and worked upon in a way that it could be re-started, this engine will be the powerhouse of their next yacht as well!
As the story goes, the family is taken off the island by a supply ship. They return to civilization where they immediately begin to build their second boat. I mean, imagine this today: You are setting your boat onto a reef, are stranded on a “deserted” island, have to survive working together with two ex-criminals and when you are rescued eventually you are saying: “Well, that was quite an experience … let´s get another boat!” And not just another boat!
They start to set up a working shed and, as if circumnavigation with sextant and chronometer isn´t enough, they build their own new boat. It makes us unable to speak, such a daring venture, building a 53 feet yacht, would today be a huge project. In this movie, making their ferro-cement replica of destroyed AWAAHNE seems like a small episode. And it is indeed! They set sails and continue on their life-adventure. All this article up to now, this long text, is just the first 25 minutes of the movie! It just starts here! Can you imagine that? As I said, I don´t want to spoil you, but the true adventures starts after christening of their second boat.
A deeply philosophical journey
The movie has some very, very emotional parts where I must admit I couldn´t keep tears from rolling. There are funny bits and exciting parts. Astounding how they managed to make a living from sailing by exerting “modern” marketing instruments, like selling berths on their trips or even selling film material, not unlike modern sailing vloggers. In all this, the film is deeply philosophical. Be it the relationship between Nancy´s mother who disapproved all of it and her, be it the relationship between them meeting sailors on the remotest parts of the world or be it Nancy, surrounded by her daughters and sons, having to explain why she always put her sailing passion above the needs of her kids.
In the end, this film is emotionally touching at a very deep level. It is a document from a past time that feels equally distant like watching a film about the Clipper ships. I was gone when her son, now a grown up man, says that he decided, unlike his parents did, to be at his son´s side as a father always. The tragedy, the joy, the emotions, the judgement of this alternative life, the understanding that each decision a mother and a father makes will inevitably decide not only the fate of their children but also the life of later generations is deeply moving and sobering. This is not just an amazing sailing movie, this is one of those rare gems that has the power to change your life.
My assessment of “Following Seas” is -never given!- 10 out of 10 points
You may also like to read:
Review of “The Mercy”, the Donald Crowhurst-story
Building one´s own dream boat