"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.