Captain Ron Revisited

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Sailors who have not watched the movie Captain Ron have missed out on a slice of cruising history. Goofy, farcical, stupid—I can’t quibble with anyone using these adjectives to describe the 1992 film starring Kurt Russell and Martin Short. But as I said recently when I introduced the movie at an evening cruising event:

“I know Capt. Ron. Capt. Ron is real, and the movie is true.” Yes, in its own goofy way, Captain Ron reflects cruising reality in a way that the seriously bogus film Lost with Robert Redford could never do. (Really, who would ever speak “S.O.S” into their radio mic?)

The age of fiberglass brought sailing to the masses beginning in the 1960s, and that included a certain small percentage of—let us say—exceptional individuals. Call them adventurers, gentlemen of the highway, except on boats. Think of Florida, as it always has been, a haven for all manner of scalawags, boozers, bongers and bullslingers, either conceived locally or fugitive from their native North.

What happened when some of these fellows managed to get themselves run out of Florida in the 1970s and ’80s? Where did they go?

To the Caribbean, of course.

My first viewing of Captain Ron was back in 1999 with a bunch of cruisers at Puerto Blanco Marina in Luperon, Dominican Republic. That’s also where I met one of my first Rons. He was an amiable enough fellow for a graduate of the U.S. penal system. He’s still alive, and I recently heard a trusting newbie declare that he would sail anywhere with the good captain.

I wouldn’t. He’s sunk three boats that I know about, and one is still a hazard to navigation at Sapodilla Bay in the Turks & Caicos.

What better affirmation of the film’s most enduring take-away points:

Martin Harvey: We don’t know how to drive a boat.

Capt. Ron: The best way to find out … is to get her out on the ocean. If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.

Kurt Russell as Capt. Ron (left), with Martin Short (middle) and Meadow Sisto (right)

Kurt Russell as Capt. Ron (left), with Martin Short (middle) and Meadow Sisto (right)

I also met the well-known cruising guide author Bruce Van Sant in Luperon. In his memoirs, Van Sant recalls a Ron character named Charlie, who crews on a charter sailboat by the name of Durable, operated by Barney and Irene.

One morning, as the bigger day-charter boat Kon Tiki slipped her lines to embark on a three-hour tour, Irene and Barney wondered why the gaggle of tourists on Tiki’s deck had focused on their vessel. Unbeknownst to the husband-wife team, who are down below, Charlie had managed to pass out naked on the foredeck the night before and had failed to hear the cocks crow.

“Irene popped into the wheelhouse from below. She immediately saw the crowd on the Kon Tiki. Following their pointing arms and their laughing eyes she rushed to the windows and beheld Charlie in his innocent splendor. Charlie had skin as white as the belly of a beached fish from the top of his bald head to the soles of his bare feet, but for notable exceptions such as his sunburned boozy face, the upper part of his turkey neck, each of his callused and blotchy hands, and finally, his proudly…” (Editor’s note: Let’s just say Charlie was excited.)

The couple tries to wake their comatose crewman. They try to drag him out of sight, but he’s too heavy. Finally, Barney scurries to fetch a tarp, intending to turn Charlie into a tent.

“Aboard the Kon Tiki a burly woman in electric green leotards shouted at Irene loud and clear above the general hullabaloo, 'Why’n’cha pick him up by the handle?’”

Just before the recent showing of Captain Ron mentioned earlier, I decided to test my assumptions about the film’s origins. I contacted the author of the screenplay, John Dwyer of Austin, Texas, who revealed that the movie was indeed based on events that happened to his own family during a 1969 boat delivery.

Dwyer told me his father was a Mad Men-style ad exec in Houston, a status-conscious, conspicuous spender who wanted to outdo his boat-owning colleagues.

So Dad bought a used Chris Craft Commander at the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show and convinced his family that it would be an adventure for all of them to bring the boat back to Texas. His broker convinced him that he didn’t have the experience to do it without a paid captain, so he hired Capt. Ron. (Yes, his name was Ron, and he claimed to be a captain.)

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Like the movie Ron, the real Capt. Ron had one eye and, amazingly, a wooden peg leg. Dwyer told me this detail would have been too ridiculous to include, even in a movie that was trying to be ridiculous. The real Capt. Ron was drunk so much of the time that they called him “Ron Rico” in honor of the cheap brand of rum he favored. (And, yes, the movie Ron’s last name is Rico as well.)

During the trip to Texas all the boat’s electronics failed, the electrical system experienced multiple failures, and Capt. Ron managed to get lost on the Intracoastal Waterway. During a stormy passage in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dwyer family feared for their lives as they were tossed about by heavy seas. At one point, Dwyer’s father threatened to throw Capt. Ron overboard.

Chevy Chase was originally considered for the title role, and the first script was written as an edgy adult comedy. But the Disney studio wanted it to be a family movie instead. As a result, Dwyer turned the big powerboat into a Formosa 51 (referred to as a 60 in the film), and the motivation changes from ad-man-seeking-status to family-inherits-sailboat-and-seeks-adventure-in-the-Caribbean.

Like the Ron character, the Harvey family is also real. In the ‘70s and ‘80s the islands were full of innocents looking to fulfill their escape fantasies. Hey, there are some still out there, but I worry that we may be running out of Rons. The world is cracking down.

“Where have all the pirates gone?” nautical troubadour Eileen Quinn once asked in her song of the same name. Her answer: “They’re pumping gas in Marathon.”

Think about it: the Rons of the world were already an endangered species even before the Keys had self-serve gas stations.
So if you haven’t seen the movie, you should. It’s funny because it’s true. If you happened to watch Captain Ron a long time ago, you’ll probably catch some humor you missed the first time, and now it will appeal to your sense of sailing nostalgia as well.

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