Nailing Sailing
Written by Denis Faye

(April 2, 2014)


Sailors are considerably easier to track down than FBI agents or extraterrestrials, so your first stop should be talking to a salty dog firsthand. A visit to your local yacht club should do the trick unless you’re landlocked, in which case google "boating expert" or "sailing expert" to plunder the vast knowledge of the Internet.

Some of the books you might want to investigate include Fries’ Start Sailing Right, a basic primer now in its sixth edition. If you wanted to get more technical, check out The Annapolis Book of Seamanship by John Rousmaniere, which gets into some serious deep knowledge.

As for Web sites, the International Sailing Federation and US Sailing will plunge you headlong into the organized, competitive aspects of the sport. And if you’re on the lookout for pirates, start with this Technically Speaking interview from the archives.

Remember that sailboats are various and sundry, so when researching one aspect of the sport, keep your searches as specific as possible. “You could find everything under the sun from kite sailing, to board sailing, to single-handed racing, to sloop racing, to collegiate racing, to big boat racing, to around the world racing,” lists Fries. “It's all there.”

So if you’re working on a screen adaptation of the song “Sloop John B,” there’s no point in following Catamaran Racing News and Design. Personally, given the Beach Boys’ version was based on a 1920s folksong from the Bahamas, I’d start with the contact list from The Royal Nassau Sailing Club where you’re bound to find one of those aforementioned salty dogs willing to wax poetically about the history of seafaring islanders.

Since more people watch sailing movies than actually sail, it’s logical that Hollywood focus more on Johnny Depp’s swagger and less on knowing the difference between a jib and a jigger.

But that doesn’t make mangling seafaring terminology right, claims sailing expert Derrick Fries, Ph.D., winner of six world sailing titles and author of the best-selling Start Sailing Right. “In the start, you’ve got to work on the concept,” he admits, “but when you’re getting close to the final draft, get an expert to proofread and double check the terminology.”

Adding to the problem is the fact that sailing isn’t the most cinematic of sports. Not every oceanic outing involves a perfect storm or cursed pirates, so sometimes reality needs to be heightened a little. That said, a screenwriter should still make an attempt to trim the sails of accuracy. “It doesn't have to be 100 percent right,” Fries explains to Technically Speaking, “but rather than be 20 percent, move it closer to 70 percent.”

What does Hollywood get right about sailing?

Not a lot actually. There are a lot of times they get nomenclature wrong where they incorrectly state boat parts, rigging parts, the way they describe boats coming at each other and passing and that sort of stuff. So it's often incorrect terminology, which could be corrected in the script if they would take the time to have a marine person proofread it.

So for instance, when you go to trim the large sail, the sail that is the mast, that's called the mainsail, the only thing that trims it is called a sheet, like a bed sheet. It's a main sheet. In 80 percent of the films, it's listed incorrectly. Same thing on the forward sail. If there's a mainsail and a forward sail, the forward sail is either a jib or genoa. The only thing that trims the jib or the genoa is the genoa sheet or the jib sheet, and they often get that incorrect. Just a lot of little stuff like that is not done to pretty standard specifications.

I guess people think that they can just kind of breeze through a sailing encyclopedia and know what they need to know. Is there anything they get right?

They do get stuff right and certainly it's hard to put it in context because there are so many different types of sailing movies, the historical Pirates of the Caribbean [Screenplay by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio] type stuff, the more futuristic stuff, and then there's the modern-day stuff.

But let's say, hypothetically, that you own a 60-foot sailboat. If you've taken the time to own a 60-foot sailboat, that's a sizable investment, so chances are you'll know the correct terminology for X, Y and Z. But sometimes the movies just dumb it down so the average person can follow it. It would be better to try to make it a little more authentic as to what they're actually describing. Let's say they’re on some sort of 60-foot powerboat and someone tells someone to go faster by giving it “more power.” Well, you don't say “more power” when you're on a boat. It would be better to use a nautical term to represent that.

That's like if a police officer saying, "Stop or I’ll make my gun go bang!"

Right! Exactly!

What are some of your favorite sailing movies?

The futuristic one with Kevin Costner, Waterworld [Written by Peter Rader and David Twohy]. They did a relatively good job on that piece. There isn't a lot of description in the dialogue; it’s more of a visual piece. But the few words that resulted were pretty consistent. So I'd give that one high marks.

And what about movies you didn’t care for so much?

The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are all way off and there's a lot of verbiage that is totally off for that era. I could see how they maybe changed it to make it relate more to the moviegoer; I could understand they don't want to do everything in the ways that it was done in the 1700s and 1800s, but they went overboard. They made it too neophyte. They certainly lost a lot of nautical terminology in how they wrote the script.

What would you like to see in a movie about sailing just once?

Some of the nuances of sailing, like when you motor out of the harbor. Usually, they're going out and all of a sudden the sails are up, and they're sailing away. It would be great to have a script where they steer the boat into the breeze, and then they took time to raise the halyard on a winch and the script would go more to some of the nuances using the appropriate terminology of what sailing entails. You could still make it interactive and exciting. Maybe stuff goes wrong, lines get tangled and winches get jammed, winches fall overboard or as the sail goes up the mast track, it gets caught – some of that nautical nuance.

You could get a lot of drama out of that. Also, screenwriters are always looking for something for the characters to do with their hands when they’re talking. They could just be having a conversation, Quentin Tarantino-style, talking about Madonna or something, while they're putting their sails up.

Right, right.

What about races where the hero is far behind, then he's close, and then he beats the other boats by a head? Is that accurate or is that pretty off?

It's pretty off. One of the things that has hurt sailing is it's not the world's greatest spectator sport. It's hard to follow boats if they're racing because much of the race is what's called “up wind,” when they're up wind they're crisscrossing tacks, they're going on port and starboard and it's kind of hard to follow because they’re at different angles. It's hard to determine who is winning. And the finish is often up wind so it does get a little harder to follow if you don't know anything about sailing.

They're not flying towards the finish line like they do in the movies?

Well, on the latest America's Cup in San Fran, to make it more spectator appealing, they did finish on what was called a “reach.” But generally, 99 percent of the races are not finishing on reaches. In the normal day-to-day races, they're finishing in this up wind mode.

Why? Wouldn't that be obvious to make it more exciting at the end?

When the boat is in up wind mode, where they're tacking back and forth and they're playing these subtle wind shifts, it’s the most complex part of the sport and the toughest to manage. That's why they always end there. If you go back to the America's Cup, it was exciting to watch the boats go fast through the water, but they never changed position. So it attracted fast-moving boats but there were no technical expertise.

Just like rolling downhill.


Do you think a writer should actually go out and sail a bit before writing a script on sailing?

That's a wonderful point, and I would totally, totally, totally, highly recommend that. They might want to go out on a light wind day and then go out a second time on a heavy wind day because those two days are grossly different.

How do you get access to boats?

Go out to the local yacht club or community sailing venue. The sailing community is pretty informal. You can go down to the dock, hang out for a couple of hours on a Saturday and hitch a ride.

I've been told a six-pack helps.

It absolutely does. Yeah.