For landlubbers like myself, great sea movies from Captains Courageous to Master and Commander cast a spell because they're exotic in such a rugged and elemental way. Even if you can't grasp the jargon of sails and riggings or plotting a course, the action feels understandable when you see ships outmaneuvering each other or plowing through wind-tossed seas. Morning Light, a handsome, compelling documentary produced by Roy E. Disney and Leslie DeMeuse, and written and directed by Mark Monroe, offers a high-tech version of nautical adventure as well as something else: a refreshing affability and purity.
Disney (Walt Disney's nephew) has been sailing for five decades, and DeMeuse is a sea salt, too. They assembled a team of 11 young sailors and four alternates, from all over the country and from all walks of life, to race 2,500 miles from Long Beach, Calif., to Hawaii in the legendary Transpac open sailing competition, on a boat called Morning Light.
During the initial team trials and the final selection, the sight of nervous hopefuls waiting for a tap on the shoulder suggests post-Survivor television. But here there's none of the viciousness and fake tensions that taint what the Emmys call "reality competition programs." In Morning Light, even the also-rans know they've experienced training and camaraderie they could have gotten nowhere else.
Before a screening at the Landmark Harbor East a week ago, DeMeuse explained, "We did not want anything contrived. And we didn't need it. We hoped to capture the positive aspects of a team coming together. Reality shows often focus in on what's wrong and what's worst in the characters of people; we wanted to show the best that comes out of people when they work together."
In Morning Light, good feelings repeatedly overcome injured pride. Team captain Jeremy Wilmot initially turns down a highly skilled sailor, Kit Will, in favor of a less-adept seaman who exudes team spirit, Graham Brant-Zawadzki. Will responds by sailing better in the remaining practices. Wilmot then reverses his decision, taking Brant-Zawadzki off and putting Will back on the team. And Brant-Zawadzki proves he does have phenomenal esprit de corps by accepting that reversal with grace and poise.
It all sounds too good to be true - but Steve Manson, a Baltimorean who learned to sail and to teach sailing at this city's Downtown Sailing Center, says that's the way it was. While greeting friends from the DSC as they took their seats for the movie, he eagerly explained how sailing, the DSC and Morning Light changed his life.
A native of Irvington ("and, you know, there's not a lot of sailing out there in the middle of the city"), Manson, 23, occasionally fantasized about sailing during visits to the Inner Harbor. He never nursed a passion for it. But in 2003, a high school teacher suggested he try a "really cool" summer job, part of an outreach program at the DSC. Manson says he was "semi-open" to new things, but didn't pay full attention until he realized any summer job he'd be able to get, including this one, paid minimum wage (back then, $5.15 an hour).
Manson learned to sail that summer and passed a two-week course the next summer to become a U.S. Sailing Certified Instructor. He started teaching in 2004. From the moment he stepped into the DSC, being compelled to work with a diverse group of people while undertaking tasks that were absolutely new to him brought Manson out of himself and made him more open, confident and sociable.
Once he arrived in Long Beach for team trials, the pros in charge put him at ease. "They wanted to pick not the best sailors, but the 15 people who could work together the best." Manson became one of them - guaranteed a spot as a crewman or an alternate - even though he was not an able swimmer. He had months to better his swimming in Baltimore's public pools. When Morning Light's cameras had rolled on Manson's first swimming test, during team trials, he'd nearly drowned. But when the team convened for the Transpac, there was Manson, without hesitation, volunteering to fall overboard for a rescue practice. "It was my way of proving I appreciated the opportunity and was determined to get the full benefit from it."
Although Manson became an alternate and didn't race in the Transpac on the Morning Light, his potential and personality so impressed Roy Disney that Disney invited him to sail on his boat in the next Transpac.
Disney says, "Steve draws that kind of response out of you without ever asking for it." That's why he becomes one of the key figures in the finished movie. To Disney and DeMeuse, the great thing about open sailing is, as DeMeuse puts it, "You can't cheat the ocean. It will throw out whatever it wants to throw at you." Becoming part of a sailing team tests character as well as seamanship. So far, Manson has passed with flying colors.