One message of All Is Lost, J. C. Chandor’s excellent film about an aging sailor fighting for survival at sea, is that the hero suffers even though he does everything right.
At least that’s how it has seemed to critics, who frequently note how the protagonist - referred to as “Our Man” and portrayed with Oscar-worthy grace by Robert Redford "clearly has the skill” to ply the open seas alone.
My fellow sailing experts and I saw things differently, however. To us, it was apparent that Our Man would have fared better if he’d avoided some rudimentary errors. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
We’ll share our observations in a moment, but first, a word about our credentials: I grew up competing and coaching on the Long Island Sound, and I learned much of what I know from Simon Karstoft Jensen, who competed on the Danish Olympic 49er sailing team (he currently heads up interactive sailing company Halcyon), and Timothea “Timmy” Larr, a 2013 National Sailing Hall of Fame inductee. The three of us saw the film, which is now out nationally, last week.
Had Our Man followed these six simple rules, all might not have been lost.
1. Never intentionally T-bone a large, heavy object.
The action begins with Our Man waking up to water gushing in through a hole in the hull formed by a collision with a stray shipping container. There are two problems with this. First, you can feel every subtle shift on a sailboat, so there is no way Our Man wouldn’t have felt the initial impact and immediately woken up. Second, the hole appears to be above the water line, meaning the water wouldn’t have gushed in like that.
Leaving those issues aside, Our Man’s solution to the problem is itself problematic. To release the stuck container, he drops his sea anchor from its edge to lower it into the water. This would be unlikely to work, but it’s also unlikely the container would have gotten stuck in the first place. Then, once Our Man is free, he returns in an effort to retrieve the anchor and crashes bow first into the container. This is not advisable, as a head-on impact could cause an additional, even larger hole in the hull. The proper technique would have been to approach the leeward side of the container, luffing the sails to slow down, and attempt to tie up to the container in order to retrieve the sea anchor.
2. Don’t leave the gaping hole in your hull unattended.
Before returning to the container to retrieve the sea anchor, Our Man jibes over, putting the hole on the leeward side to return to the container for the sea anchor. This is dangerous. The proper procedure would be to position the hole on the weather side so that it stays above water. He also should immediately stuff the hole with a mattress, sail, floorboards, or whatever he can find just to fill up that hole. Then he should start bailing the water out with buckets. Pumping by hand leaves him exhausted. If you are in this situation, once you have the boat under control, you triage—check for other leaks. Did the container hit below the water line? Is there water coming in somewhere else?
3. Never switch to the storm jib in the middle of a storm.
The time for that is earlier, when the clouds are still rolling in. If you are caught in a storm without a storm jib, it is best to deploy the sea anchor, and then stay below deck.
4. Never remove the boards from the companionway hatch in a heavy storm.
If you have to get on deck, go over them. If a huge wave comes over the boat, you risk flooding the cockpit. Our Man removes them several times during the storm, and the results speak for themselves.
5. Never make an S.O.S. call when you’re not in immediate danger.
Because Our Man makes his distress call after the collision, but before the storm, he should make a pan-pan call, not an S.O.S. call. This call is used to signify that there is an issue on board, but not an immediate threat to life or the vessel for the time being.
6. Never, ever drift aimlessly when you can sail toward help.
After Our Man makes the S.O.S. call, he does not appear to head in any particular direction. He doesn’t begin tacking toward the separation zone until he is adrift in the life raft, by which point he is dependent on the current to carry him. As soon as he is able to get the boat under control post-collision, he should point his boat toward an area with other boats that can help him. Our Man instead spends a considerable amount of time sailing aimlessly—were the sails even up? We couldn’t tell. He mops the cockpit. He leisurely cooks and eats. He sleeps. He should be actively sailing toward help.
All that said, we do give Our Man points for safety! Timmy, having authored several books on boating safety, is quick to point out that Our Man does follow some important safety protocols. He wears a hat. He deploys his life raft correctly (though we wonder about the timing of it), and when the life raft flips, he correctly flips it back using the proper features of the device.
More bonus points for Redford’s authentic portrayal of the effects of this kind of disaster on the human psyche. As Simon points out, our man’s behavior shifts from calm and collected to desperate and erratic quite believably over the course of the film, though Simon wishes our man would have yelled at the gods the way they do in old books about single-handed off-shore sailing disasters.
The physical effects are spot on, too. Our man’s skin burns and peels from prolonged sun exposure, and he makes sure to soothe and cover the irritated skin on his neck with a wet bandana to prevent further damage. If anyone in the audience is wondering why Our Man doesn’t yell louder at the passing freighters, it’s because he’s intensely dehydrated.
With so many things done right and so many things wrong, it’s impossible to know if the film accurately portrays the role of human error in a predicament of this kind. If any of us were in this situation—and all three of us have certainly been in dire sailing situations—would we make the same mistakes?
Well, maybe. “I don’t know how experienced Our Man was, but certainly there’s the element of fatigue that effects your ability to focus and make good decisions,” Timmy says. We all agree that, under the conditions of the story, Our Man’s mistakes are mostly believable—especially his largest error, which is his lack of preparation. This is the problem that causes the majority of issues on the water.
Our parting advice to would-be solo sailors? You should know how to use a sextant if you embark on a journey of this kind. The storm jib should go up as soon as you see the storm, not during. And if you are in imminent danger and know there is an area with boats nearby, head there as soon as possible. It could save your boat. It could save your life.