Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 21, 2016 12:17 pm 
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A sailing family that voyaged the world

Nancy Griffith saw her future husband sail his sleek 53-foot cutter into a Hawaiian harbor, tacking this big boat into the narrow channel so swiftly and confidently she, a sailing enthusiast, fell in love with the boat, the way it was being sailed, and then with the man. They became a team, married, had two kids, and sailed for decades. This is their story told by the 79-year-old Nancy and illustrated with Bolex 16mm. film footage taken by her and her son by a previous marriage, Reid (who traveled a great deal with them), as well as 35mm. slides. The beautiful color and texture of the film footage has an extra patina of occasional crazing, a frequent weathering overlay from aging and exposure to water. Nancy is a fine storyteller, calm, precise, detailed -- what an excellent memory! -- yet enthusiastic. It's a great combination: the archival images and the voice make a lifetime of world class sailing come to life.

Nancy and Bob were extraordinary sailors and went on 13 major voyages, three times circumnavigating the globe. Bob had retired early from a highly successful career as a California veterinarian after a heart attack led him to do what he loved most. He is described by one former crew member as a "martinet." He was a stern captain, but also the kind you'd like in charge in a tough sail. One is awed by the strength and ability of Nancy and Bob and their lives, whose simplicity, strength, and joy are inspirational. This film ought to satisfy anyone who likes stories of adventure and the simple life but especially sailors. The filmmakers, Tyler Kelley and Araby Williams, make their blend of new and archival image, storytelling and interview, flow smoothly and seem effortless.

This film happened because Tyler met Robert Teno (Tenoi'i) Griffith in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn bar and learned of the existence of the Bolex film footage. It had been transferred to digital but Nancy also had original film reels.

Their initial vessel was the one Nancy had seen sailing into the harbor, Awahnee, a cutter, which can sail windward with relative ease. I report this, knowing little of sailing, because Nancy tells us, and it helps explains how fast they completed their voyages though using no radio or radar or modern electronic navigational equipment. The Awahnee crashed on a coral reef in the (seemingly) deserted Pacific island of Vahanga and they spent two months, they and young Reid, salvaging the engine and the hardware with the help of two Tahitian prisoners who turned out to be there, for a ferrocement Awahnee duplicate of the wood original that they built in New Zealand. Years later they were the first to sail a small boat around the Antarctic, leaving from and returning to New Zealand. They did it in 111 days, 88 spent sailing, the rest visiting with scientists of different nationalities along they way: this exploit made the Guinness Book of Records.

As she narrates the story the filmmakers illustrate with archival footage, we frequently see Nancy, a very handsome, classy, vigorous lady in her late seventies. (Sadly, she passed away, at 79, before the final version of the film was in the can.) She remembers everything in detail. Reid's movements -- sometimes he was on board, sometimes in school -- are a bit vague at times, as art, till the end, the roles of the two children born later (and Bob had two from an earlier marriage, not gone into). Nancy never really mentions the crew members glimpsed in the films, of whom over the years there were at least the ten who came for the sea burial of her ashes.

Living such a life, loving it, and living it well, requires several things: nautical skills, courage, a love of the outdoors and of battling the elemental forces of nature; also love of each other -- and good dispositions. We see a lot of smiles in the films and on Nancy's face as she recounts her family's adventures, which include shipwrecks and falls into shark-infested waters.

Nancy goes into detail about the Antarctica trip. They had to watch out for icebergs. "We would sleep and eat and read and stand watch. Those activities took up all of our time." During the trip, Nancy suspected, and a Russian doctor confirmed, that she was pregnant. Shortly after the circumnavigation was over they went to the USA where her last child, Fiona, was born.

Tragedy came in the Marquesas Islands. Later Nancy and Bob took a break and started farming in Hawaii, till Teno and Fiona would be big enough to swim.

Bob's death of a heart attack in 1979, at 63, isn't the end of the story. As Fiona recounts it, Nancy, who was 45, had no real skills other than the sailing ones she had in such abundance, so she had to leave the kids in other hands for long periods sailing for money, taking over large cargo ships; she also started a sailing school. At 66, it says somewhere, she started a coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii. The film ends, appropriately, with a farewell to Nancy. Sailors who knew them have said Bob and Nancy Griffith were two of the finest sailors. Unfortunately as she points out, while the English give great sailors knighthoods and the French give them ribbons of honor, America as a nation ignores them. This film rights that wrong a little.

Bob, with Nancy as co-author, published a book on sailing in 1979 that's still available on Amazon. It's called Blue Water: A Guide to Self-Reliant Sailboat Cruising.

Following Seas, 94 mins., debuts at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival April 9, 2016. TRAILER. Nancy shares chapters of her sailing life at a family reunion (YouTube).


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