A positive crew rocks the boat -- but doesn't tip it over
Every other year since 1906, an intrepid
armada of yachts races 2,225 miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii in the
TransPac, a fiercely competitive trial of will, wits and salt
tolerance. But the 1997 race marked three historic firsts: A crew
composed almost entirely of HIV positive sailors participated,
sailing a 56-foot racing sloop christened Survivor. In
another milestone, the boat's chef, Ted Taylor, baked what was
certainly the first soufflé in TransPac's history. And third, the
entire journey -- from panicked hurricane warnings to petty on-board
bickering to grief-haunted emotional outpourings -- was captured on
film. The result is Rock the Boat, an inspiring tale about
what it means to be an HIV positive survivor.
Due for a March release nationwide, the movie opens with the
hectic days leading up to the big race. As a stressed-out Robert
Hudson, a sailing enthusiast and former stockbroker, diagnosed in
1991, assembled his crew, director Bobby Houston, Hudson's lover and
the only HIV negative crew member, filmed the proceedings. Fifty men
tried out, but there was room for only 12.
Among the chosen were the hard-driving captain John Plander, the
chatty, Christian kitchen-whiz Taylor, the sarcastic, hair-obsessed
Richard Bartol and Mike Schmidt, who Hudson worried was too sick to
make the trip. In short, the Survivor's crew is as diverse as
that of Gilligan's Island's S.S. Minnow. "I wanted to
capture a common thread, that everybody is trying to 'stay in the
race,'" Hudson says. He organized the project through Get
Challenged, a nonprofit he founded to raise self-esteem by
presenting vibrant images of people with HIV.
Once the race began, Houston had plenty of drama to record. For a
week and a half, the crew sailed westward for a grueling 24 hours a
day, with no land in sight most of the time. There were terrifying
squalls, along with the threat of Hurricane Dolores crossing their
path, before landfall in Oahu.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, harmony, triumph and challenging
mortality are not the only messages that come across in Rock the
Boat. Plander and Hudson fought so much on board that the two
aren't talking to this day. "He wanted to win this race, and I
wanted to get everybody across the finish line alive," Hudson says.
"Big agenda difference." Survivor finished 19th out of 42
Hudson and Houston then shouldered the burden of putting out the
film. Together they spent seven months editing more than 100 hours
of footage, financing the film with their own money and setting up
distribution. They ignored the advice from a patron who believed
they'd lose additional funding if they portrayed the crew members
looking too healthy. "The 'keep them sick' mentality is kind of like
the movie Misery," Houston says. "She kept breaking his
So far Rock the Boat has been received favorably -- a hit
on the festival circuit and picked up by HBO for a summer broadcast.
Fans -- including directors Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone -- see
it as a joyous celebration of life, especially given the number of
crew members who had been close to death just a year or two before
the race. And the crew has made the print circuit as well: The
journey is the centerpiece of ads for Roxane Laboratories'
Before the trip, the crew painted on the sides of the
Survivor the names of "guardian angels" -- lovers, friends
and famous PWAs who died of AIDS -- so that when each member turns
to the camera and says, "I'm alive," we know exactly what they are
racing for. Hudson vows that Survivor will compete again this
summer, and at least seven crew members have committed. While new
guardian angels will accompany them, not one of the names is from
the 12 who made the original '97 journey.