Ocean City boat sails off to stardom; Replica: A Maryland fishing boat has been transformed into the ill-fated Andrea Gail for 'The Perfect Storm."


She is the perfect boat for "The Perfect Storm."

Sixteen months ago, Lady Grace was just one of the commercial fishing boats at anchor in Ocean City Harbor.

Next Friday, she'll appear on movie screens across the country as the Andrea Gail, the Gloucester, Mass., swordfish boat that sank in the North Atlantic during a horrific storm, taking six crewmen to their deaths.

"She's as close to the Andrea Gail as you can get," says Doug Merrifield, the film's marine coordinator, who helped transform the best-selling book by Sebastian Junger into what Warner Bros. hopes will be the summer's blockbuster movie.

And while actor George Clooney skippers Andrea Gail in the movie, the real captain onscreen and off is Stanley "Sonny" Layton, 41, who also calls Ocean City home port.

Ocean City fishermen are delighted at the success of both the boat and her captain.

"It's a good sailing boat, really stocky. And Sonny's a good fisherman," says Sam Martin, manager of Martin Fish Co. "He's hard, he'll work through any kind of weather. The hard ones make money. The soft ones don't because they run from the weather."

Since the filmmaker bought Lady Grace in March 1999, she has sailed more than 18,000 miles, passing twice through the Panama Canal, and is now on her way to Germany and England for the European premier of the movie. Layton has been in command the whole way.

The Hollywood connection almost wasn't.

"Lady Grace was actually the director's second pick," says Merrifield. "He wanted the larger 'Lindsey L' out of Barnegat Light, N.J."

The owner didn't want to sell.

But Mike McCook and Larry Keen, owners of Lady Grace, did. By mid-April last year, the ship was on her way to Cape May for a makeover.

They didn't have to do a lot. Andrea Gail and Lady Grace were sisters, separated at birth 22 years ago in a shipyard in Panama City, Fla.

Merrifield says they tried to figure out the best way to get the boat from Cape May to Southern California in time for shooting. "The fastest way we could get it there was on its own bottom," he says.

So McCook and Layton sailed Lady Grace to California for a month of filming before turning around and heading to Gloucester for more filming.

The two men taught Clooney how to dock the 72-foot steel-hulled boat and Mark Wahlberg how to act like a real seaman.

"We didn't just let him (Wahlberg) sit around and watch," says McCook, a licensed master. "He baited hooks and hauled fish - all the grungy things."

As the Maryland men worked on the movie, they developed a bond with the doomed Andrea Gail and her crew. Every day, Layton stared at a photo of Capt. Billy Tyne's two small daughters. It was a prop that was an eerie reminder of the tragedy on Oct. 28, 1991.

In an online interview, Layton says he remembers trying to sleep in a bunk below deck, playing over in his mind the nightmare of going down at sea:

"I ... imagined how I'd get out if she rolled over. I walked myself through it, over and over, remembering every turn would be reversed if we were upside down."

The locals in Gloucester were equally rattled by the sight of a boat long gone tied up in the harbor.

"It was like the ghost of the real one coming back," one fisherman told the Mail of London. "A lot of people got very tearful."

At some point this summer, when all the opening nights are a memory, the boat will once again be Lady Grace.

The online auction service eBay has begun advertising an auction - "See the Movie. Buy the Boat" - that begins June 28.

Someone might buy it as a tourist attraction, says McCook, who has a buy-back option.

"I told them (Warner Bros.) I don't want the boat. It's not economically feasible to buy it and bring it back from Germany," says McCook, who runs a marine survey and salvage business. "But I'll watch the auction prices."

He says commercial fishing is "a rough-and-tumble world" where each trip out searching for swordfish, tuna and shark costs $10,000-$20,000.

"There was a time a few years ago when fishing was bad and times were tight that I probably would have given it to Warner Bros.," McCook says, laughing. "But I miss her a lot. More than I thought I would."

Meanwhile, Layton is at sea, communicating by satellite phone with the folks back home.

He is anxious to return to fishing, to be at the helm of another working fishing boat, he says.

As he speaks, Lady Grace pushes through the rough seas. In another few hours, he'll pass by the last place the Andrea Gail was heard from, east of Nova Scotia.

Is the skipper nervous?

"Yeah," he says. "A little bit."

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