For Sail Freighter Friday last week, we visited the cautionary tale of the John F. Leavitt, a wooden sailing ship built between 1976-79 and launched in October of 1979 in Thomlinson, Maine. Conceived of by amateurs as a way to revive sail freight in the wake of the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, the vessel would go on to become a cautionary tale, and set back the idea of sail freight for decades.
Several years after he began filming the project, filmmaker Jon Craig Cloutier released "Coaster: A true story of the John F. Leavitt." In 1982, the year "Coaster" won best feature documentary at the American Film Festival, the New York Times interviewed Cloutier:
The waves were over 20 feet high and the winds stronger than 60 miles an hour on that eighth day at sea. ''The sun was setting in the west and we were sinking in the east,'' Jon Craig Cloutier said.
Mr. Cloutier, a film maker, was one of nine persons aboard a 97-foot schooner, the John F. Leavitt, on its maiden and final voyage. The ship was 187 miles off the coast of Long Island on Dec. 29, 1979, and night was approaching when the nine aboard and 3,600 feet of film were saved by two helicopters from the 106th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group.
A Russian trawler had received the ship's call for help and sent an S O S to the New York National Guard in Westhampton. ''Two large jolly green giants appeared in the sky,'' Mr. Cloutier said. ''The last thing to go into one helicopter was my film.'' Fifty thousand dollars worth of photographic equipment was left on the ship.
Watch the full film below.
The film covers the ship's construction, launch, maiden voyage, and disastrous end. Narrated from the point of view of Ned Ackerman, the school teacher who dreamed up the idea of the John F. Leavitt, the film runs just over 90 minutes long.
Although the official release date is 1983, the film was shown as early as 1981. This November 23, 1981 review from the Washington Post reads:
"Coaster," which opened Friday at the Inner Circle, is the story of the John F. Leavitt, the trading schooner that was launched in a crescendo of windship romanticism two years ago and sank on her maiden voyage.
She was the dream of a former college teacher named Ned Ackerman, a young man with a sea captain's beard and an unflagging desire to construct a 98-foot, 100-ton sailing vessel for glory and profit.
From the beginning he was dogged by cameramen, and this 90-minute film is the result of their chronicle. It appealingly records the Leavitt's construction, from the laying of her keel to the fitting of the "shutter plank" that sealed her hull. The Maine craftsmen, and their tools and techniques, are fascinating to watch and listen to. It took Ackerman four years to get the Leavitt built, but she came out right.
He then cast off for Quincy, Mass., to pick up his first payload -- a cargo of chemicals and lumber bound for Haiti. Just before Christmas, heavy laden, the Leavitt set out into the North Atlantic. The temperature in Quincy was 8 degrees, and her crew was looking forward to the tropics.
Less than a week later, beset by a winter gale 150 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the Leavitt had received superficial damage to her rig, found her main bilge pump inoperable, and was reporting a 30-degree list to port. With more bad weather on the way, Ackerman put in a distress call to the Coast Guard. Helicopters arrived to evacuate him and his eight-person crew. The Leavitt apparently sank sometime thereafter.
The end of the John F. Leavitt was sad and inconclusive, and that is a condition that affects this documentary as well. Movie footage of the rescue itself was either lost, or not shot, so the tale simply stops. This is understandable, but difficult to forgive.
Even more difficult to forgive are the relentless sea chanteys, full moons and echoing narrative that give "Coaster" an overeager heroism. Had things come out all right, that would be merely annoying; as things are, it is bizarre. "Coaster" would make more sense on television, perhaps on a weekend morning. It is not what you expect to find in a movie theater.
As for Ackerman, brutal questions remain unanswered. After four years of willful publicity, in which he sought to bring back a lost era of seagoing, he abandoned ship in his first gale. Given the ambiguous ending of "Coaster," we are free to assume that Ackerman abandoned his dream ship while she was still afloat, rather than risk the lives of his crew in saving her.
That is the new tradition of the sea, not the old. Ackerman probably did the right thing. But he proved the wrong point. And since he is a first-class publicity hound, he proved it big.
What do you think? Do you agree with the Washington Post's review?
If you'd like to learn more about sail freight and the Oil Crisis, visit the Hudson River Maritime Museum in-person or online to see our new exhibit "A New Age of Sail: The History and Future of Sail Freight on the Hudson River."
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
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