January means various things to a sailor. If you live in the southern regions it probably means that you don’t sail as often as you might in, say, milder months like December or March. If you are a snowbound northerner then you are almost certainly counting the weeks until the cover comes off the boat and life can get back to what you wish was normal.
The only consolation about cold winters is that there is an undeniable pleasure in battening down the hatches (in this case windows and doors), stoking up the fire and either reading a book or reclining in front of the idiot box with a good supply of DVDs.
While there is a deep well of excellent seafaring literature to carry you through the winter months, the same, alas, cannot be said for sailing films. All too often, when a small sailboat appears on a screen, its sails are trimmed not to catch the wind but to give the cameraman an unobstructed view of the actors’ resolute expressions. Often, said actors have all too obviously never been near a sailboat until they arrived on set, and they either lurch around the deck like seafaring zombies or sit frozen in the cockpit trying to keep their caviar down while mouthing nautical platitudes.
It is hard to enjoy a film when you are wincing at trite lines (“Time to tack onto a new gybe, so belay that sheet!”) or peering horrified between your fingers at sailcloth flogging disconsolately while the characters sit obliviously, fixing the horizon with a determined glare.
There is the odd exception, and I think I have suffered through enough bad movies to feel justified in recommending some good ones. One of my all-time favorites is Riddle of The Sands, a terrific spy movie set in the shifting shallows of the Dutch coast in the years leading up to World War I. Produced and acted by sailors, it is long on suspense and short on cringe-inducing moments.
If you like dark movies, try Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water or Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream. I’ve always had a soft spot for the now-classic Dead Calm, and not just because of Nicole Kidman. It’s a pretty good thriller and believe me, you’ll treat your flare gun with a bit more respect after you’ve seen it.
If you are good at suspending disbelief—a skill that all movie-watchers should develop—you shouldn’t miss the classic Wind, in which the local heroes win the America’s Cup with the aid of the Whomper—which, you have to admit, is a better name for a sail than Code O.
There are a few classics out there if you aren’t scared to go back in time. African Queen isn’t about sailing but is one of the best films ever to feature a small boat. Old-school pirate films are always fun, especially if you have some youngsters to watch them with. A High Wind in Jamaica is one that’s especially worth watching, along with The Crimson Pirate and Captain Blood.
So, pour a drink and hunker down. Let’s face it, you’ll never have time to watch TV during sailing season.