Monday, December 2, 2013

A sailor's review of "All is Lost"

To someone who has never sailed, the movie "All is Lost" is what it is intended to be, a harrowing tale of a lone sailor's struggle for survival at sea. To an experienced sailor, it becomes much more. Instead of trusting that Robert Redford's character, "Our Man", knows what he is doing and is mostly a victim of circumstance, a sailor puts himself in the character's person and asks, what would I do? The answer is, not exactly what he did.

There are many scenes in the film that had me squirming, starting from the very beginning when the man is awakened by water sloshing in his boat. He gets up to find that he has collided with a floating shipping container and that there is a large hole in the hull at the waterline on the starboard beam. Wouldn't the crash itself have woken him up? He sets about freeing the boat from the container by attaching a sea anchor to a corner with a methodically tied bowline and then returns to retrieve it, colliding hard with the container a second time, though with the prow this time, which is where I would have expected the first collision to have been if the boat had been underway at the time. Free from the container, the man smartly puts his boat in a starboard reach to keep the hole above water while he undertakes an elaborate fiberglass repair. Who carries a complete fiberglass repair kit on board? I would have fashioned a large patch out of a tarp or a spare sail and held it in place with lines and the pressure of the water while I bailed and headed for the nearest port.

Somehow, the man has lost his bilge pump handle, so he carefully crafts a replacement from a mop handle instead of reaching for a bucket. He dries out his water-logged radio and manages to get it working long enough to issue an outdated S.O.S., instead of a more modern Mayday, but there is no response, only the crackling sound of a distant broadcast in a foreign language.

The man resumes what we can only believe is his original heading, with his flimsy fiberglass patch in place, testing if it will hold by changing tack. But a moderate storm is brewing on the horizon, and soon he is testing the patch for real, but not before he takes the time for a quick shave. The patch holds, which is good because he leaves the companionway wide open to rain and waves while he struggles to put up a storm jib. The storm quickly abates, and the man sets about restoring order on his boat and catching up on his sleep.

A second, much more severe storm soon arrives. The man is overwhelmed by waves crashing into the cockpit and swept overboard, but he is wearing a harness and tether, and manages to climb back aboard. He goes below, leaving the boat to fend for itself. The boat rolls, breaking the mast, which punches a hole in the deck. The man struggles up to the deck and cuts the rig free with a miraculous single snip. He goes back below, but a big wave pitches him headfirst into the base of the mast and knocks him unconscious.

When he comes to, he has a bad gash on his forehead and his boat is slowly sinking. He treats the wound with peroxide and butterfly bandages, and deploys his life raft. He leaves it secured to the stern rail of his boat as he climbs aboard and again loses consciousness. When he comes to this time, he looks out to see that his boat is lying very low in the water and will soon sink. He pulls himself back and climbs aboard. Down below, he retrieves his sextant, still in its original packaging. The boat lurches and creaks, announcing its imminent demise. The man manages to get back into the life raft and cut the line before his boat finally disappears beneath the surface.

I watched the sinking scene in stunned disbelief. The man had patched the one hole, and the other was above the waterline, so any water entering the boat would be from wave action. It would have taken a herculean effort, but the man could have stayed aboard, after deploying the life raft as a safety measure, and bailed out enough water to keep the boat from sinking. Most sailors I know would much rather take their chances in a capsized boat than in a life raft.

At this point, the movie becomes more of a survival tale than a sailing story, and the man continues to make mistakes, though I will not spoil how it ends except to say that many questions go unanswered. What was the man's background? What was he doing alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean in a small sailboat? Where was he sailing from, and where was he heading? Answers to these questions would have helped to humanize the man and make us feel greater compassion for him. Instead, we're left to watch him, somewhat indifferently, as he struggles against nature and his own bad decisions.

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