"We're either stupid or brave; it depends on the moment," jokes a crew member of the Survivor, a racing sloop sailed by a crew of 11 H.I.V.-positive men in the grueling 1997 Trans-Pacific Yacht Race, known as TransPac.
Watching "Rock the Boat," Bobby Houston's moving documentary of this tumultuous 2,200-mile race from Southern California to Hawaii, you can only marvel at the courage and stamina of the sailors making a voyage that is about the farthest thing imaginable from a luxury cruise.
Before setting sail, more than one crew member had had little or no experience on the water. During the 10-day voyage, the Survivor was threatened by a hurricane, suffered severe damage and nearly capsized several times. Of the 39 boats that competed, only 32 finished. The Survivor placed a respectable 19th.
The real victory of the Survivor, of course, was in simply going the distance. Although there were numerous minor injuries and was plenty of seasickness on a voyage one crew member describes as like being continuously tossed around on a roller coaster in the dark, no one died or became seriously ill.
At the beginning of the film, the crew members introduce themselves one by one, each naming the year he learned of his H.I.V.-positive status. Many have lost one or more lovers to AIDS, not to mention countless friends, and their stark tales of loss are simply heartbreaking. Before the race, the names of many of those lovers and friends were inscribed on the ship's hull, both as a memorial and a prayer summoning the spirits of the dead as guardian "angels." One sailor after another recalls interpreting the news of his own H.I.V.status as a death sentence that is later commuted by the arrival of life-prolonging AIDS drug cocktails. Among other things, the Survivor is shown to be a floating pharmacy of expensive medications.
Because the TransPac is one of the world's fastest and most hazardous boating competitions, few members of the crew really knew what they were in for when they joined. The maneuvering of a small sailing ship buffeted by 20- to 30-knot winds and huge waves for much of the journey required rigorous 24-hour-a-day teamwork just to keep the vessel afloat.
"Rock the Boat," which opens today at the Village East, balances brief incisive portraits of the 11 sailors with an account of the voyage and its preparation. Its mastermind, Robert Hudson, is a hard-driving 36-year-old Los Angeles businessman and sailor who organized the team and raised much of the money to purchase the ship. Filmed with just a single camera on board, the movie forcefully conveys the sense of living in extremely cramped quarters, racing across the Pacific while being tossed around like a cork.
Although there are mentions of growing strife among the crew members as the voyage progressed, the movie doesn't have time to develop any personal stories. It does suggest that tension between Mr. Hudson and the ship's captain, John Plander, a doctor and experienced seaman who began to lose patience with the more inexperienced crew members, nearly reached the breaking point.
But there's nothing like making it safely through the thick of battle to bring a disparate and quarrelsome group together in the end. "Rock the Boat" leaves you cheering for each and every one.
ROCK THE BOAT
Directed by Bobby Houston; director of photography, Mr. Houston; edited by Michael Lorenzo; music by Kevin Hayes; produced by Robert Hudson; released by Tell The Truth Pictures. At Village East, Second Avenue at 12th Street, East Village. Running time: 84 minutes. This film is not rated.
FEATURING: The Survivor crew: Robert Hudson, John Plander, Mike Schmidt, Ted Taylor, Dennis Boecker, Bill Kijovsky, Steve Kovacek, Mike Burelle, Richard Bartol, Keith Ericson and Bobby Houston.