A circumnavigator’s favorite ocean films

Documentary film Maiden
Documentary film Maiden
A still from the documentary Maiden, which tells the story of the the first all-female crew in the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989-90.

While essentially the entire world was on lockdown and almost all borders closed, sailors suddenly found themselves unable to sail. Some cruisers were stuck aboard their boats, forbidden to move and, in some cases, even forbidden to go for a swim over the side.

Quite a few scrambled to get out of the tropics before hurricane season arrived, and some made unexpectedly long passages as they were turned away from place after place. Still, others were ashore when the virus struck and were unable to return to their boats.

I found myself ashore and so, like so many people, I escaped to my happy place — the ocean — virtually. In other words, I watched a number of sailing and ocean films. Here’s a list of my favorites:

1. Seven Worlds, One Planet: Topping the list is the first in the recent BBC series, Seven Worlds, One Planet. Released last fall, the seven-part documentary features one continent in each feature-length episode. The first one covers Antarctica, which really means it covers the abundant life of the Southern Ocean surrounding the frozen continent. Narrated by the illustrious David Attenborough, Antarctica opens with an absolutely incredible moment: the birth of a Weddell seal on the Ross Ice Shelf off McMurdo Station. The stunning footage just continues from there: leopard seals and orcas hunting gentoo penguins, humpback whales bubble-net feeding, elephant seals defending their harems, baby albatross struggling for survival in a gale.

2. Maiden: Tied with Antarctica for first place on my list is Maiden. I found this film to be one of the most inspiring I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think that is simply because I’m a female ocean sailor. Despite ridicule, dismissal and no money, Tracy Edwards skippered the first all-female crew to compete in a round-the-world yacht race. Not only did they finish the 1989 Whitbread Race (which none of their detractors believed they would), but they finished second in class. They won two of the six legs, and each of those wins tested a very different skill set: the long, arduous Southern Ocean passage to Australia, and the short, almost-match race from there to New Zealand. The footage of the race is riveting and the interviews with Edwards, her crew, the men they raced against and the journalists who covered the race are fascinating. If you’re looking for an inspirational, uplifting film in a time when not much feels all that uplifting, this is it.

3. David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef: This film is a delightful virtual trip to this beautiful, vibrant part of the world. The renowned naturalist revisits one of his favorite places on Earth, which he first visited in 1957. He says in the film that one of his most vivid memories in his long and varied life was formed donning scuba gear and seeing the coral reef for the first time. Nearly 60 years later, he returns to the reef in a submersible for the making of this series. From footage of coral spawning to a 10,000-year-old Aboriginal legend that closely mirrors what science has recently discovered about the creation of the reef, the four episodes are a captivating exploration of the world’s biggest coral reef.

4. Around Cape Horn: Some of the most remarkable sailing footage ever filmed was captured by Irving Johnson on his voyage aboard Peking in 1929. Around Cape Horn shows life aboard one of the last square-riggers — an enormous steel vessel with more than an acre of sail area — displacing more than 8,000 tons when fully loaded with cargo, and sailed entirely by hand. Johnson shipped aboard her in Germany in December and so the film opens with a ferocious North Sea storm, which wrecked 68 ships along the coast. As Peking heads south, the footage shifts to show the continuous repair and maintenance needed to keep these entirely self-sufficient vessels in seaworthy condition. Everything to keep the ship running is carried on board, eliminating the need to call in port for anything outside the reason for the trip: the cargo. Johnson, narrating his footage some 50 years after the fact, comments that the square-riggers often arrived in port looking better than when they left. He also comments on the equanimity with which the sailors accepted risks, going aloft with only their hands and feet and brains to keep them there, no harness of any kind. Off Cape Horn, Johnson films a storm so terrific that all the square-rigger captains who saw the footage claimed they’d never seen so much water over the deck of vessel that had not sunk. This film is a unique and fascinating glimpse into the bygone era of commercial sailing.

5. Shackleton’s Captain: “Docu-drama” is not generally my favorite genre, as I sometimes find it jarring to shift between actors, original footage and interviews with people knowledgeable on the subject. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Shackleton’s Captain, which focuses on Frank Worsley, whose phenomenal stamina and navigational talents played a major role in saving every member of the expedition. In one of the most amazing feats of polar exploration, all of them came home despite their many disasters. The first half of this film has the majority of the original photography and film footage from the expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley; this was my favorite part. The second half, covering the voyage of the lifeboat James Caird from Elephant Island to South Georgia and then the trek across that high, glaciated island is where most of the reenactment occurs. This is very well done and gives you quite a sense of the ordeal those men went through to save themselves and their 22 crewmates left on Elephant Island. The film is interspersed throughout by fascinating interviews with people knowledgeable about the Shackleton expedition, including Pauline Carr, the late curator of the South Georgia museum who first sailed to South Georgia in 1992 with her husband Tim aboard their 28-foot yacht Curlew, a wooden, engineless gaff-rigged cutter built in 1898.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl: I don’t think I really need to explain this one. How could any sailor not see a little bit of our most philosophically inebriated selves in Jack Sparrow when he proclaims, “It’s not just a keel and hull and a deck and sails. That’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is … what the Black Pearl really is … is freedom!”

Ellen Massey Leonard is a circumnavigator who, with her husband Seth, won the Cruising Club of America’s Young Voyager Award in 2018.

By Ocean Navigator