Disney film: the evolution of a crew

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They were stuck with each other for 11 days on a 52-foot boat that lacked all creature comforts. They couldn’t call 911 when something went wrong. They couldn’t order pizza when they craved real food instead of freeze-dried mush. And they couldn’t leave the set at day’s end, because the nearest land was more than 1,000 miles away.

A boat, an ocean and a team of young adults are the cast of characters chosen for Disney’s feature-length movie “Morning Light,” which tells the story of 15 sailors who had never sailed in an ocean race before but were to compete in the famous Transpac, which covers 2,500 miles of open water between Los Angeles and Honolulu. After being handpicked, these individuals had to undergo rigorous training so they could be formed into a coherent team capable of whipping a high-tech racing yacht across the Pacific, battling storms, calms and some top racing sailors along the way.

“We wanted to document the whole experience for everyone to see and feel as if they had the adventure themselves,” says executive producer Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, filmmaker and lifelong sailboat racer. Disney, who sailed 16 Transpacs himself and, at one time, owned the elapsed time record with his renowned Pyewacket sloop, relived his past vicariously through this film, as he and co-producer Leslie DeMeuse (who is also a Transpac racer and Disney’s wife) wanted to share their experiences and the transforming powers of a long ocean passage. The idea to send young and inexperienced, but well-prepared, sailors into an ocean race was pioneered by the Dutch ABN Amro team that fielded two crews for the Volvo Ocean Race in 2005-06, one of which consisted of sailors under age 30 who’d never raced in the Volvo before. (They surprised with their solid performance, but suffered a fatal accident when one crewmember fell overboard on a trans-Atlantic passage at night.)

Chris Branning, 21, Sarasota, Fla. Graham Brant-Zawadzki, 22, Newport Beach, Calif. Chris Clark, 21, Greenwich, Conn. Charlie Enright, 22, Bristol, R.I. Jesse Fielding, 20, North Kingstown, R.I. Robbie Kane, 22, Fairfield, Conn. Steve Manson, 22, Baltimore Chris Schubert, 22, Rye, N.Y.  Kate Theisen, 20, Socorro, N.M. Mark Towill, 18, Kahalu’u, Hawaii Genny Tulloch, 22, Houston Piet van Os, 23, La Jolla, Calif Chris Welch, 19, Gross Pointe Park, Mich. Kit Will, 22, Milton, Mass Jeremy Wilmot, 21, Sydney, Australia

Starting in 2006, Disney and DeMeuse solicited the participation from young sailors. They contacted junior and community sailing programs across the country and received 550 applications. Sailing program director Robbie Haines, Disney, DeMeuse and film director Mark Monroe (“Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who”) whittled them down to 30 candidates, who were invited to try out. “We called every one of them to get a feeling for the positions [on the boat] that would suit them, but also to learn more about their personalities,” Haines says. “We did not only pick the best sailors.”

After the trials, which were held in Long Beach, Calif., on identical Catalina 37 keelboats, 15 sailors, including two women, made the cut and proceeded to the next stage, a comprehensive and grueling six-month training camp where they acquired ocean racing skills.

The “kids,” as the young sailors were called in the film, trained on the good ship Morning Light, a first-generation Transpac 52, which once raced under the name Pegasus when it was owned by software mogul Philippe Kahn. Tutored by world-class sailors like Volvo winner and 2006 world sailor of the year, Mike Sanderson, and those who have been sailing with Disney for years, like Haines, an Olympic gold medalist, navigator Stan Honey and foredeck expert Jerry Kirby, the young crew got crash courses in boat handling, ocean-racing tactics, safety at sea, diesel-engine maintenance and boat provisioning. Honey was especially revered for his knowledge and laid-back style as he became a mentor to several of the sailors.

All of them were trained for every position on the boat, only at the end did the preparation became specific to their individual jobs. The film shows how much attention went into each detail during preparation.

“In an emergency they should experience everything for the second time,” Haines says.

Hence the sailors did authentic man-overboard drills and deployed a life raft, which they had to board before being evacuated by a Coast Guard helicopter. During the sail-repair lesson, they were taken into a sail loft where the space of a TP52 cabin was taped off on the floor, so they could learn how to fix a shredded spinnaker in tight confines. The film also reveals how the team handled important internal decisions such as selecting the skipper and determining the four alternates, who had to leave the boat before the race, which allowed only a sailing crew of 11.

Movie buffs will relish the technical aspects of capturing the story of the race and the conduct of the individual crewmembers, all out in the middle of an ocean, which necessitated ingenuity and complex solutions.

Rick Deppe, a sailor who turned cameraman during the Volvo Ocean Race, was chosen to film on board during the race. He had to run sound for the crew, operate handheld cameras and make sure the remote-controlled cams were doing their job. It was a 24/7 task that allowed hardly any sleep at all. “Morning Light” was saddled with an estimated 500 pounds of extra weight for camera gear, plus Deppe.

The chase boat that followed “Morning Light” across the Pacific was Steve Fossett’s former racing catamaran, PlayStation, which was stripped of its rig and equipped with a 30-foot high platform and twin inboard diesels. It went from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back on one tank filling, Disney told the crowd during a prescreening in Annapolis, Md.

Filmmakers compiled 600-700 hours of film by the end of the race. Going through the footage and piecing together the story “was a massive process,” according to editor and co-producer Paul Crowder. By land or sea, Crowder says the production was intense. “It’s the hardest film I’ve had to do on every level,” he says. “The whole process was very similar to the journey these kids were doing. It was an unknown journey for us as well.”

The movie was produced with Disney’s flair for technical perfection, which on occasion can be overbearing. How intense is the sparkle of stars in the Pacific sky and do whales really broach on cue? The camera work is some of the best this genre has to offer, because it combines close-ups from the boat with chase-boat and helicopter shots. Even though there were many sailors involved on the production side, “Morning Light” avoids the trap of getting bogged down in minutiae of sailboat racing. The film’s score (including one song written and performed by some of the sailors at the end) match the fast-paced editing and represent a welcome break from the Jimmy Buffett cliché.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this movie is how these young sailors carry the film not by acting, but by being themselves, strictly focused on their tasks and on winning, but also sharing their fears, joys and wit with the audience through the ups and downs of their journey.

“Morning Light” rolls adventure, action, drama, suspense and human interest into one package, which should resonate with sailors and landlubbers alike. It is hard to resist the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in the tight confines of a boat out in the middle of nowhere, in a real-life drama where the actors were not acting, but sailing — oblivious to the cameras in their quest to win. But the movie’s metaphoric meaning goes way beyond port and starboard, because it tells a story about life that includes taking the first step and making the most of opportunity, handling adversity and making tough decisions that help the team.

“It’s about the journey,” as Disney puts it, and the transformation that a great challenge can bring. Reflecting on their experiences, the crewmembers say that by learning how to race a high-tech machine across an ocean they found out about themselves and were infused with transferable skills and knowledge that should prove invaluable for the rest of their lives. Framed by spectacular footage, these lessons are the real message of this film, making “Morning Light” much more than a flick about sailing.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.