STANDING IN FOR BLACKBEARD

Could a wave be thought of as ominous? Tom certainly thought so as he watched the southeast waves build. Under his feet the pirate ship Revenge rolled heavily, perhaps ominously, anchored sideways to the wind as she was, with a coral reef a mere hundred yards to leeward.

Set dressers and marine crew, medics and make-up, prop master and grips: all were herded below while camera got in the day’s last shot. In the sweaty confines of the Revenge’s “gun deck”, trapped in an industrial funk of spray lacquer, diesel and hot rust, more than one veteran moviemaker struggled to keep their green from going technicolor.

“Picture’s up!” the second assistant director shouted on the upper deck, desperate to get everyone in place before the sun plummeted below the western horizon.

“Action!” Extras fumbled with mops and swords in the background while one of the principal actors swung in a net above the deck, showered by a rain bar. Wet and slippery, the sword dropped from his hand before its cue.

“Cut, cut!” A brief angry silence ensued. The sun completed its daily journey, and dramatically changed the quality of light.

“That’s a wrap everybody, we’re wrapped.” The stampede to the loading door began. Gregory, the Revenge’s brawny British engineer gave Tom a wink.

“Give me a hand at the door, mate,” he said in a way that he hoped would engage his grumpy shipmate. Tom was in a sour mood from the arbitrary repetitiveness of his instructions through the day. Move this over here—no, no bring it back. Why is this still here?

The Revenge had been a supply vessel before being reborn as a movie set. Her exterior was clad in black wood and she was fit with doors on either side of her for loading and unloading the vast amounts of equipment and personnel that it takes to make a major motion picture. The doors had been conceptualized to work like a drawbridge in the style of a spaceship landing gangway one saw--where else?–in the movies. Gregory pushed the button to reverse the winch motor that lowered the door until it hung out, horizontal, a few feet above the sea.

“Which RIB* is coming in first?”  Tom asked, as the ship took another slap on her windward side from a bigger wave. Gregory held on as the Revenge rolled the open door down to the water. He finally answered: “Oka on Tide Runner is taking the cast off today, mate.” Tom was relatively new to the crew but he was learning the movie business, especially the hierarchy:  Cast and director left first; then camera and sound, handing half million dollar cameras across a shifty salt water gap; and after that it was all other departments as they finished their work and packed up.

“Easy does it now.” Gregory said to departing crew as they jumped off. The boat to boat transfers were extra difficult in the beam sea as the Revenge’s door rolled high above the transport boats one minute and sank level with the ocean’s surface the next. At every roll the support boat was in danger of being crushed or popped by the door’s wild arcs, but the job was getting done. At last all the one-legged, grizzled, sword wielding rummies who were hired to be the background pirates had dropped into the rubber            boats without puncturing them and were on their way to shore.

 

*rigid inflatable boat—a hard bottomed boat with rubber pontoons

“Thank God that’s done!” Gregory said as the Revenge’s four man crew gathered together, “Now we get this old lady inside the reef and go home. England is playing All Blacks tonight.” Gregory was a rugby enthusiast, having played in his teens and twenties.

“I need two volunteers.” Angus, the marine department boss, announced as he bounced aboard through the side door unexpectedly. The surprised crew perked up their ears.

“First shot in the morning is just like this. Production wants the ship left out here, in this very position. Two people are needed to stand watch tonight.”

“You’re shittin’ us right?” Marty, the captain asked; portly and comfortable, he was never a big fan of extra duty. Everyone exchanged glances.

“I am not.” Angus returned a steely eyed stare. One of his roles in management was to enforce the wishes of higher ups whether he liked them or not.

Tom looked out at the reef; normally a greenish brown ribbon in blue sea, it was shot with white as it started to break. “This doesn’t seem like a good idea; we’re barely to windward of this reef.” he said.

“No?” Angus replied, “Well Tom, I’ll bring it up at the next production meeting, but, I’ve heard they don’t really care what you think. Marty, why don’t you and Vince stay? You’ve got plenty of anchors out and the forecast is for the wind to ease after midnight. Any trouble and just call me.”

Tom burned, and Marty knew he was beaten. Marty, the captain–for what worth that title carried, was in reality just the chief boat driver; he took his orders from Angus, who got them from Production, whose maritime decision making was driven by questions of lighting and overtime.

“Okay.” Marty sighed.

The Revenge was hanging on several anchors: two were big one-ton ship anchors; one from the bow and one from the stern to hold the ship across the wind for shooting. And then there were a couple of 50 kg yacht anchors that were set out to fine tune the ship’s aspect for lighting and slow surges: tweakers. On paper it was plenty of holding power for a 100’ steel ship. Even so, the brutal roll and slap of wind and waves on the ship’s high exposed sides pushed and pulled, working the anchor lines. They stretched and contracted, rubbed and chafed, and no matter what the crew put under the rope it worked loose or burned through, requiring constant attention. Marty and Vince were in for a long night. Vince was a lady killer and he knew how to pile on the charm to almost anyone. Unfailingly cheerful, he poked Marty in the ribs:

“Cheer up Marty; I’ll make us a big pot of chowder.”

*

Tom got the call sometime after two a.m. He had been sleeping lightly, expectantly.

“Tommy, we need you guys; the bow line has gone and the stern is straining hard.”

“Did you call Angus?”

“I’m not getting through,” Vince said hurriedly. “Cell service has been spotty.”

“Okay, right, we’ll be on our way.” Tom said into the phone, and after he ended the call he grumbled out a series of curses. He called Oka while he pulled on his shorts and shoes. The Hawaiian picked up on the second ring.

“The Revenge is busting loose.”

“Big surprise.” Oka yawned into the phone.

“We’ll need you to get us aboard. Can you meet us at the taxi stand by the hotel?” No-one had cars. The Revenge crew had had a van but Transpo took it back after the previous week’s budget review. Tom thumped on Gregory’s door on his way out.

“Sod off!”

“Hey man, the Revenge is busting loose; Vince just called.”

“What? Bloody hell, I thought Angus was on call. Oh all right, I’ll be out in a second. I just got in; All Blacks won and I stayed for some consolation.”

Tom broke a smile at that. Gregory was a man for the night life and it was a relief to find him at home: he often got in closer to dawn.

The trio left, found a cab, and fretted while the driver made a gas run. Even inland the wind was blowing much harder, and during the half hour drive to the ship Oka and Tom worried about the consequence of not arriving before the last line parted. The Revenge had many quirks and was sometimes tricky to operate with a full crew of four in a calm sea. Escaping the reef in heavy weather would be nearly impossible for two. Gregory meanwhile took a short nap.

Arriving at the film location, the taxi’s lights illuminated waves breaking on the shore, and white horses charging out of the deeper darkness of the sea. Blown spray speckled the windshield as the cabbie pulled up:

“$62.50.” It was more than Tom had in small bills; he grimaced and handed over a C-note. The cabbie’s eyes lit up in the reflected glow of his dash.

“Let me look for change,” he said unconvincingly, knowing the pressing nature of the men’s business. Tom couldn’t wait any longer; seconds felt like hours.

“Keep it.”

“How ‘bout a receipt? I’ve got my pad here—somewhere, just a second.”

The men hustled to Oka’s boat. Oka was a broad shouldered Pacific Islander who had known waves and the sea from his earliest memories. An accomplished surfer, he applied an innate feel for the ocean to the running of RIBs in even the hairiest weather. He fired up Tide Runner, the 30’ RIB he normally drove, cast off, and soon they were out among the breaking waves of the reef. Oka scanned the torn water for a dark gap that would indicate a deeper channel to run out of. He found it and pushed the throttles forward, slamming on wave tops as he shot into the gap. Outside the reef the waves stood much taller.

Triple overheads.” Oka said and eased the throttles to edge over towards the Revenge’s bobbing lights.

“It will be a gnarly jump in this ground swell.” Gregory yelled into the wind. Tom’s snort soaked into the darkness unnoticed. To hear this Brit trying on a word like gnarly sounded just a little goofy, but somehow Gregory owned it. Regardless of how he had said it, he was right: the waves built formidably, coming onto the underwater shelf of the island from the two mile deep water further out.

And so it was that the word gnarly softened Tom’s attitude, allowing him to relax enough to get ready for his jump. He wiped the stinging salt spray from his eyes and shook his head.

“I’ll go first,” he said, realizing that it was no good dratting his way through the night; he had to make the best of a bad job. Making the jump would call for a close calculation of timing: Oka would have to pick a moment at the Revenge’s side when a smaller wave would allow him to nose up to the ship’s open drawbridge door. He would then have to get Tide Runner’s bow close enough at the precise moment that a wave lifted it level with the moving platform. Tom and Gregory would have to know he was going in, let go of their secure handhold at the steering console, and run twelve feet forward in time to jump as the two boats were in closest proximity.

The Revenge was now hanging straight into the wind, both pitching in the steep waves and rolling as she swung. Tom was suitably concerned about making the leap aboard but worried more for Gregory, who insisted on jumping with a twenty pound backpack filled with his gear.

“I’m going in.” Oka saw his moment. It vanished again just as quickly. “No, no. Not yet.” He idled the engines and repositioned. The ship swung again.

“Okay, now!” He shouted over the wind.

Tom let go of the grab bar and dashed forward. The RIB was rising, rising…Tom was at the bow, they were close… almost there… the bow started to fall.

A truncated “No.” followed Tom as he jumped. It came out a little strangled as Oka knew Tom was late. Tom also knew it, felt it, in his final footstep on Tide Runner, but had no choice and vaulted as high as he could, barely making it onto the open door. Vince was there and grabbed him so he wouldn’t tip out in the Revenge’s next roll. Gregory came next. Oka drove in again and Gregory used calves that had been built for the rugby scrum to launch himself and his backpack. He carried a lot of momentum coming aboard but once again Vince was there to steady and secure the man.

“Gotcha baby,” Vince grinned and then reported more soberly: “We’re down to one anchor.”

“Which one?” Tom asked, already knowing the answer.

“The 50kg.” A tweaker: one of the little anchors used for micro positioning the ship during shooting.

“Good God,” Gregory said, “we have a heavy commercial ship hanging on a ¾” line, just barely to weather of a reef, in a small gale. I love my job. I love my job. I’m going to the engine room.”

With radios in hand, Gregory went down into his roaring world and Tom went up on deck to share Marty’s lonely vigil.

“Hey Marty, we’re ready to go when you are.” Up close, Tom noticed Marty’s exhaustion; the night hadn’t been kind to him.

“Go? I want to get reconnected to the one-ton anchor.” Marty said. Tom was dumbfounded. With the reef breaking heavily just astern, he couldn’t believe what he had just heard. He was new to film work but not to ships and at no time had he considered staying in this exposed, treacherous anchorage.

“Marty, there’s no way to reconnect. The parted line is going to be a ragged mess where it broke, and Oka’s all alone in Tide Runner–he can’t fish it up and hand it off to us.”

“One of you guys could get in the boat with him.”

Tom’s sour humor threatened to return but he held it in check. “Marty listen, screw that! We just took a helluva chance leaping aboard this tub to get it out of here. We’re not jumping off again. We gotta go!”

“I just want to get some sleep. I’m so tired. I want to get tied up,” Marty whimpered.

Tom pictured fumbling for hours in a vain attempt to retrieve an anchor line for the Revenge. The ship had crept closer to the reef as she lost anchors during the night. Time was evaporating. Suddenly he saw the argument that would sway Marty:

“Marty, once we’re out of this spot, you can put the ship on a comfortable heading and I’ll take the watch. You can get all the sleep you want. You’re not going to get a wink while we are out here sawing through mooring lines.”

A bigger than average wave crashed against the bow and Marty was silent for a moment, absorbing this subtle challenge to his authority before exploding:

“Oh whatever. I’m too beat to argue with you anymore. You want to go so bad, fuck it, we’ll go!”

The throttles and helm for the Revenge were combined in a pathetically insubstantial joy stick control box, connected by a long electrical tether to the beating heart of the ship. Marty held the box in his hand, revved the engines, and then spoke into his radio:

“Oka, are you out there?”

“On your starboard bow standing by, Bra,” rattled back through the static.

“We’re going to leave. Can you get the anchor line clear when we go?”

“No problem.” Oka came back.

“Vince,” Marty said again into his radio, “can you get ready to cast off at the bow?”

“Ready here now Marty.”

“I’m putting the engines ahead; when you get slack let me know.”

“Roger.”

Marty throttled up, complaining to Tom the entire time:

“What if we run over one of the broken anchor lines? What can we do then? You got a plan for that?”

“Slack now Marty.” Vince radioed through, and saved Tom from meaningless response.

The reef thundered behind the ship: wind and waves continued to grow, building agony, and it seemed to Tom that if they didn’t escape now the ship would go up on the coral.

“Let go the anchor line.” Marty ordered. Vince let go and Oka surged in to grab the line singlehandedly.

*

At a beach house not too far down the coast, one of the co-stars awoke early. Perhaps it was the rising wind or maybe it had been a trifle too much red wine– sometimes the wine made his heart race. Or it just could have been a dream of the memory of the girl he had met last night—it had been a shame to let her go. Whatever had awakened him, after a few minutes he decided that he wouldn’t go back to sleep. He arose, pulled at his beard, and wrapped a scarf around his neck before sliding his patio door shut. He squeezed a glass of orange juice and, quite ironically as it would turn out, decided to practice his lines to be ready for shooting in the morning.

“Avast and belay, ye slobbery dogs,” he belted into the night. Not quite right. He tried again with a deeper intonation on “dogs.” Who wrote this stuff? It promised to be a very full day and the production had fallen three pages behind so far this week.

 

*

In reverse, amid heavy seas, Oka peeled away in a masterful piece of boat handling, trying to keep the anchor line out of the Revenge’s propellers and his own. Marty gunned both throttles full ahead while big waves hammered into spray against the Revenge’s bows.

“We’re never going to make it. We’re not moving!” he shouted. It was hard to know if the ship was moving or not; she had no instruments and the shore didn’t provide any useful lit landmarks. Tom feared that Marty’s nerve would fail and he would try something else. What else?

“Keep her at full Marty, we’re making it.” Tom said. He believed in the ship’s ability to power out of this mess, but his only real evidence of motion was that she had created slack in the anchor line before it had been cast off. And sure enough, it was at last revealed that she was moving; seemingly at one quarter knot, then half, and then one, and then two knots. The roar of the reef faded behind the ship’s high poop deck and in half an hour there were two miles of water slipping beneath her keel. Marty allowed the bow to fall off the wind a couple of points and the Revenge took on a more comfortable yaw.

“I’m going to bed.” Marty announced and dropped the control box into Tom’s hands. Fatigue mingled with the relief of being at sea. Tom sat on the poop deck steps and slowed the engines to half speed. Vince brought him a hearty bowl of soup and then turned in along with Gregory.

Left alone with the ship for the hours until dawn, Tom looked out into the raw, dark night from the meager shelter of his rain coat. He cursed the decision making that had put them all in jeopardy, and let the Revenge continue distancing herself from shore. He had his reasons: It didn’t make sense to try to monkey around on a lee shore with less navigation equipment than Columbus had; the boys needed sleep and maneuvering would wake them; and lastly, pettily, he treasured an image of the Production team arriving to work, confronted by the manifest failure of an empty horizon where the Revenge had been. He hoped that would be a pretty lesson, but knew it probably wouldn’t be. And as miles fell astern, his fatigue increased while his mood perversely improved: Although many people on the show donned the pirate persona, bedecked in the skull and crossbones and sporting scraggly beards, he was presently the only one absconding with a ship over the southern horizon.