Movie Review – ‘All is Lost’ (especially credibility)

A friend of mine (a landlubber but a nice intelligent person nonetheless) told me to watch this movie. I was put off enormously by the trailer which contained a lot of unconscionable nautical errors. Even so, a number of sailing friends praised it so I girded my loins and went along with it. Herewith my full review (a cut down version is on the IMDB site):


All is lost

Offshore sailors have been waiting for years for a movie that shows the elemental forces that we routinely cope with out in the briny deep. We have been looking for a cinema experience that accurately portrays what it is like out there on a sailing yacht, the beauty and the joy and the danger, and especially the skills and the gear we routinely employ to survive in the hostile environment of the open ocean. We’re still waiting because this movie isn’t it.

It is an interesting concept – and it is beautifully shot and acted and as the critics’ reviews and box office point out, it has been a huge success. What spoiled it for me as an offshore sailor however, was the constant and never ending stream of nautical bloopers that continued unabated from the opening scene.

Our hero wakes to a subdued sort of crunching noise and discovers water suddenly swirling into the forward berth where he’s been asleep. He discovers his boat, the Virginia Jean, has been holed in a collision with a container. Despite the calm seas – clearly from the sea state not even ten knots of wind – somehow the boat (with him asleep below and a really dodgy looking wind vane autohelm and – maybe – the main sail down) has been stonking along fast enough to do serious damage in a glancing collision well aft of the beam.

Not credible but I let it go to get the story going. What annoyed me more was that in any collision that will hole a 1980s GRP (ie fibreglass) yacht like the Cal 39 he is on (they were very solid boats), there will be a helluva lot bigger bang than we heard at the start – anyone on board, even in a bunk is going to be thrown out and onto the cabin sole. Not suddenly see a gentle swirl of water as his first sign something is wrong. He discovers water pouring in onto the nav station (there’s a modern GPS Chart plotter mounted as well as the radio), he goes on deck, spots the container and tries to pry it loose with an aluminium extendable boat hook. Not surprisingly it doesn’t work. I would have simply pushed against the offending bit of the container from below – used the boat hook, a piece of lumber or a floorboard and levered it out of the opening from inside the yacht. Or put on a harness, attached to the boat and climbed onto the top of the container and pushed with my legs against the yacht hull. That certainly would have been something to try before doing something as unbelievably dangerous as getting out the drogue (conveniently labelled sea anchor for non – yachties) and walking out to the other end of the container – no harness, no life jacket and no line securing him to the boat. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the container suddenly shift, the yacht come free, the sails fill (the jib was up throughout this) and the Virginia Jean sail merrily away on her own leaving our hero perched forlornly atop the container and eligible for a richly deserved Darwin Award.

It then gets worse. As he climbs back aboard from the container, at the top of the frame, the boom is clearly visible – with the mainsail down and lashed to it with sail ties. Suddenly however in the next scene, the main is up and our hero has to wrestle it down and back onto the boom where it was in the previous shot. This is not a sailing issue – it is a film continuity error and clearly fell into the ‘no one will notice’ category. We’ll let that go. Throughout the next scenes when he sails back to the container to retrieve the drogue he has tacked the boat onto Port, conveniently putting the hole near the water level again and allowing more sea into the yacht, I nearly shouted at him ‘tack the boat onto Starboard! Get some heel on and get the hole out of the water!!. More Darwin Award material.

With the drogue improbably retrieved (another opportunity for the Virginia Jean to sail away and thus shorten this dubious tale) the boat on Port tack and water still pouring in, he then finally gets around to trying the electrical bilge pump, which not surprisingly doesn’t work. The bilge pump should have been the first thing he did after climbing out of his bunk and on most yachts it would have come on automatically with a float switch in the bilge. However, by dint of keeping the hole at or below the water line on Port tack he’s now got three feet of water in the boat. By this time, the batteries, immersed in sea water would have been pouring out chlorine gas to add to his woes. Thankfully not dealt with in the script as I have no desire to see Robert Redford choking to death from chlorine gas.

No electric bilge pumps. Okay, let’s use the standard manual pump (or pumps) that all boats (including the Cal 39) are fitted with, or even better from a cinematographer’s standpoint apply, that old bit of nautical wisdom – ‘the best bilge pump is a frightened man with a bucket’. The filmakers missed a great (and plausible) scene of Redford bailing frantically.

He doesn’t use either – just sloshes around in the half flooded cabin, with water slopping in through the holed hull. Nor does he take the opportunity to stop water ingress by stuffing the hole with the sodden cushions that keep floating around. There are later scenes with his liferaft tethered to the boat, ¾ submerged, where he should have been frantically cutting the tether as the yacht headed to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. There is no way it could have floated at all with the cabin five feet deep in water.

I  could go on and on in great detail about where the movie gets it wrong, but that sort of thing starts to get tedious. Kudos to our hero for having a sextant on board and presumably the sight reduction tables and skills needed to take sun sights and carry out the calculations, but you don’t get a ‘fix’ from a single shot (you need a series of ‘lines of positions’ taken at 1 hour intervals, usually three from 1000 hours up to the ‘noon sight’ and you absolutely need course and speed data between the shots. You especially need an accurate timepiece (his Rolex Yachtmaster would have done) but you usually need someone to write down the times and elevations from the shots. I suppose if you had to you could do it on your own but you would not be getting great fixes. But no matter, it looked cool. The filmmakers lost another opportunity to let the viewer look through a sextant – one of life’s most transcendant experiences.

However, since he has a sextant – which has been obsolete since the first SatNavs came in 30 years ago – surely he’s got a handheld GPS unit in a waterproof case? There is a modern GPS chartplotter next to his flooded radio but no one offshore relies on a single instrument.

Also, since he’s offshore without a long range SSB radio (the radio on the boat is an ICOM VHF only good for line of sight – maybe 30 miles) surely he has a satellite phone? Apparently not.

There’s plenty more. Why, oh why does he risk his life wrestling the storm jib up the foredeck and hoisting it during the storm? I guess because it said ‘storm jib’ on the bag and because it was in the script? You don’t want any sails up at all if you are simply going to batten down the hatches and ‘lie a-hull’ in a storm – which is what he is doing when the boat gets rolled. Instead of the storm jib he should have had his drogue out from the bow to keep the yacht pointed into the wind and sea – no rolling from being hit with a beam sea.

How does he manage to cut away the broken mast with one swipe of a knife? Broken rigs – even wire shrouds rather than rod rigging – require bolt cutters and a lot of work to jettison – the easiest thing to do is often to knock the pins out of the base of the shrouds at the chainplates, but even then you have a tangle of broken metal and halyards and reef lines and sheets to also deal with. One little swipe of a knife? Puhhhlease.

Where did he learn his radio skills when he briefly gets his short range VHF working? ‘This is Virginia Jean… SOS SOS’, he shouts desperately into the mike. The International Distress call is ‘Mayday!!’ and I really spat the dummy at that one. Clearly no one involved in the movie has the faintest clue.

Why is he wearing rings? No sailor wears rings – get one caught on the wrong bit of the boat and you lose the finger and finally, where did he get that liferaft? A tiny little bag that he manages to heave on deck more or less one handed suddenly turns into what looks like a twelve man raft.

There is a write up on the movie at this link – a site associated with Sailing Magazine. In the piece, the Director, J.C Chandor is quoted stating that he hopes sailors will like the movie and he claims to be a sailor as well. He’s apparently been a dinghy sailor from his youth and a sailing instructor and he claims to have done “one big bluewater sail before”.

From the write- up:

Chandor said he knows that sailors will be watching the film closely to make sure it feels authentic.

“You have to remember you’re making a movie and it takes place over eight days,” he said. “You obviously have to break a ton of filmmaking rules not to mention sailing rules. You have to care about it being accurate and as a result I feel like the audience will go with you, so long as you don’t insult their intelligence.

Sorry Mr. Chandor. You missed that mark buy a country mile. SOS indeed. When I went through the list of cast and crew on IMDB, I noticed sailmakers, divers, marine techs, electronic riggers and all manner of specialists, including, believe it or not. shark chum specialists. What I didn’t see was ‘Sailing Master’.

Chandor goes on:

Chandor said sailors will notice that Redford’s character does a few things incorrectly, but attributes that to the character as well the limitations of movie making.

“There are a couple little things that aren’t correct, like his EPIRB is not functioning. So he’s an idiot. There are one or two things where I ask your forgiveness as a specialized audience, but compared to ‘Wind’ or other sailing movies I think sailors will be pleasantly surprised.

A couple of little things? A month ago I crossed the China Sea from Hong Kong to Subic Bay on a 65 footer. A mere 600 Nautical Miles. We had four EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacons) on the boat including one in each of the liferaft ‘grab bags’ (as well as Satphones and GPS units). We did a physical check on each unit before setting off. We had two six man liferafts – it takes 2 strong men to get a six man raft to the rail from where they live on the aft deck.

I haven’t seen ‘Wind’ but from the trailer at this link, it looks a helluva lot more like the real thing than ‘All is Lost’. Of course, ‘Wind’ is 20 odd years old and is about America’s Cup Racing in 12 Meters, not offshore sailing. I was never privileged to do an America’s Cup (wasn’t good enough) although I have lots of sailing buddies who did and I have been avidly watching the contest for the ‘Auld Mug’ for more than 30 years.

‘All is Lost’ is about being offshore and I agree there have been some execrable movies in that genre, such as the abhorrent ‘Dead Calm’ (trailer at this link). It’s not a sailing movie though, it’s a slasher flick on boats.

I have certainly been offshore though, I think I have close to 25,000 offshore miles over the last thirty years on cruisers and racing yachts ranging from little 34 footers to massive hi-tech 80 foot racing yachts. I’ve been caught in a typhoon on a passage to Singapore on a Beneteau 51 (we had 65 knots over the deck – Beaufort Force 12) in phenomenal seas much like the ones in that link. Over the course of my yachting career I have broken big boat masts on five occasions (none of them my fault I hasten to add). On four occasions we salvaged the mast and brought it home (three close to shore in Hong Kong in fairly flat seas and one in the middle of Bass Strait – that one didn’t fall down fortunately but was kinked and useless – we got it back to the Aussie mainland – 34 hours motoring – and the owner trashed it).

On one occasion in the Andaman Sea near Phi Phi Island in Thailand we had to cut one loose and jettison it – there was a six foot sea running and the rig was chomping at the boat in the waves.

‘What do we do?’ said the owner to the sailing master, as the 65 foot rig crunched at the stern of his US $1.5 million racing yacht. Two guys had already been in the water for half an hour knifing the brand new US $100 K mainsail off the rig – we had a fender at the top of the mast to keep it afloat and two more stuffed under it where it rested at the stern of the boat. No matter – downed rigs in an angry sea get hungry and start eating the boat and this was certainly doing that.

“Is it insured?’ said the sailing master to the owner.

‘Yes’ he replied.

‘I’d chuck it in the piss’, said the sailing master and the owner nodded and we did. It took the 14 man crew about an hour to cut everything loose, knock out the relevant pins and hacksaw the necessary lines and rigging before it slid off into 60 metres of water. But I digress.

Mr. Chandor’s movie is beautiful and elegant and Mr. Redford looks amazing in it, especially for a guy his age. The Sailing mag write up says that Mr. Redford learned to sail for the movie in three weeks and he certainly looks like has some of the right skills, even if the script kept putting them to the wrong use. Although you don’t really learn to sail in three weeks I hope he got a taste for it – It’s consumed me for most of my life.

The themes the movie deals with are big ones – survival, regret, the struggle with the elements. All beautifully set out and dealt with in a simple largely visual style.

After all the rave reviews I had hoped to love it, but mainly because I am a pedant, steeped in an appreciation of accuracy and plausibility, the grating groaners kept getting in the way.

Many of the criticisms I have set out could have been dealt with by including a knowledgeable salty dog on board the writing and production team. I would have recommended my good friend Chas from Tas, a professional delivery skipper known from Southhampton to Sydney and points between, with about 350,000 miles at sea. Or I would have been happy to do it, probably for a lot less money (Chas charges US $5.00 per mile – standard fee for a delivery skipper – and they must have put a lot of miles in to making this movie).

I was, I admit, glad to see the bloke get rescued, despite the final folly of setting his own raft on fire. Another lovely scene, but thankfully the end of the thing, and not before time. Overall I am afraid, as a sailor I have to give this a mere two stars out of five.

Still waiting for the definitive offshore sailing move. Happy to help write and advise, especially if I get to go sailing.


About Ian Dubin AKA Lord Dubin of Kellett Island

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3 Responses to Movie Review – ‘All is Lost’ (especially credibility)

  1. John Baker says:

    Mali and I briefly toyed with seeing this film but decided against it because it was about a guy in a boat without a tiger! It’s not surprising that the filmmakers get so much wrong. I’ve sat through an endless number of utterly bogus hacker-programmer scenes wondering WTF? I’m surprised when they get the details right. Perhaps you will see that realistic depiction of sailing around the same time they get programmers rights: never.


  2. Rob says:

    Deep Water is the definitive offshore sailing movie, albeit a documentary. Highly recommended.

  3. Oldexpat says:

    I will look for Deep Water – fascinating story, terrible tragedy for the family.

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