Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . Full and By . And the Oscar goes to ‘Top Gun’... for six minutes of sailing

And the Oscar goes to ‘Top Gun’... for six minutes of sailing

2023 March 1

There is a scene in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 movie that made Tom Cruise a top gun at the box office, that is a thrilling depiction of humans speeding through the glories of the universe. Actually, there are many scenes like that in this marvelously photographed film. Most of them show aircraft streaking through the gorgeous blue yonder, but the one I’m referring to features a sailboat.

Tom Cruise goes sailing with his girlfriend Penny and he is, literally, out of his element. Viewers are meant to see the irony of the guy who is a fearless fighter jock in the sky cowering in the cockpit of a sailboat moving on the water at less than 2% of Mach 1 with a woman at the helm reveling in the breezy conditions.

The setting gives Cruise the opportunity to speak the best line in the film: “I don’t sail boats, Penny, I land on them.”

The scene is fine as part of the story, but where it turns into great stuff is in the photography. Someone behind the cameras must have been a sailor, because he or she got everything right. It was shot on San Francisco Bay and the Bay was fully in character with wind in the upper teens producing a steep chop. The sails are trimmed just right, the boat is lively and fast and throwing spray. The woman driving the boat with a big carbon fiber wheel is in control and in the moment with a look of pure joy.

Then she sets the spinnaker. It’s another opportunity for Cruise to act nervous, but it’s also terrific sailing footage with the boat accelerating when the big blue kite fills, sort of in the nature of a fighter aircraft being slingshotted off a carrier deck.

The boat plays its part perfectly. It’s a J/125 named Rufless borrowed from the owner for the movie. The 41-footer carries a monster asymmetrical spinnaker set on its long sprit and typically gives a thrilling ride in conditions like those in the film.

I rate the six minutes of sailing footage in “Top Gun” as best sailing scene ever in a Hollywood movie. I realize the bar is low, but this film cleared it with airspace to spare.

Cruise’s performance got me wondering how many movie stars are sailors. He makes no claim to be, nor, surprisingly, does Jennifer Connelly, the actress who looks so skilled as the sailboat skipper in the movie. Telling an interviewer the scene made her “paranoid,” she added, “It was incredibly windy, with big waves. The boat was at an impossible angle, moving so fast.” Maybe there was a sailing instructor hiding below on the J/125 giving hand signals to the helmsperson.

I don’t have any inside info on the off-screen pastimes of movie stars, but I do know that the actor Morgan Freeman is an experienced sailor who has frequently been spotted on his Shannon 43 in the BVI and the Leeward Islands.

It’s well known, of course, that Jimmy Buffett is a sailor, and if you stretch the definition of movie star a bit he might qualify—he’s had a few cameo film roles. His latest boat, an innovative, high-performance 50-foot cruising boat painted turquoise, had the honor of being featured on the cover of SAILING.

After that, we have to search film and sailing history for a legitimate movie star sailor, and there we find Humphrey Bogart, who was probably the most dedicated and skilled sailing yachtsman of any celebrity.

Bogart owned the 55-foot Santana, an Olin Stephens-designed schooner that was built for an oil magnate and was one of the great yachts of its era. After Bogart bought Santana in 1939, sailing the beautiful mahogany-planked boat with its enormous spread of sail became his passion. His son Stephen Bogart wrote, “While most people know that Bogie and Lauren Bacall had a great love affair, probably fewer know about my father’s other great love—sailing. Specifically, it was with his 55-foot sailing yacht Santana. The sea was my father’s sanctuary.”

Bogart spent a lot of time on the water, cruising along the California coast and even racing. He sailed Santana in the 1948 Ensenada race (with Lauren Bacall in the crew) and won a trophy. His frequent daysailing outings on Santana often had an all-star guest list featuring the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, David Niven and Richard Burton.

Santana, rigged as both a schooner and a yawl, has had nine owners since Bogart, and after an extensive rebuild in 2016 is still gracing southern California waters with its classical beauty.

The man I nominate as the best pure sailor among famed movie actors once sailed with Bogart on Santana. Surely, he was the most experienced hand onboard. That was Sterling Hayden.

Hayden went to sea as a teenager in the Great Depression and stayed eight years as a deckhand on full-rigged ships and mate on Grand Banks schooners. He was the navigator on the schooner Gertrude L. Thebaud in its epic race against the famous Bluenose for the 1938 Fisherman’s Cup.

When only 22 years old, he sailed as captain on a 89-foot brigantine on a delivery to the South Pacific. Newspaper stories about the voyage and photos of the handsome sailor got the attention of movie producers. Soon he was making movies and making trouble as a typical Hollywood bad boy. 

Abruptly, apparently fed up with his self-indulgent life, he quit the movies and bummed around long enough to become divorced and broke. Then his story gets really interesting.

He had long owned an old 95-foot pilot schooner named Wanderer, and in 1959 he sailed away in the brawny 100-ton vessel, bound for Tahiti with his four children and a motley crew acquired through newspaper ads. The voyage resulted in a book titled Wanderer. It’s an autobiography that is an adventure to read as it whirls through the adventures and misadventures of a troubled life overflowing with action and incident—and lots of sailing.

Of contemporary movie stars, there is one I am certain is not a sailor. That’s Robert Redford, who if he knew anything about sailing could not in good conscience have allowed himself to act in the movie “All is Lost.” The film tells the desultory story of a lone sailor (Redford is the only actor and the few words he speaks are to himself) who sails his 39-foot sailboat under a perpetual cloud that rains a steady drip of misfortune and finally combines with the sailor’s ineptitude to make a fitting closing scene: Redford’s character escapes his sinking yacht in a life raft and promptly manages to set the raft on fire

To fellow sufferers who sat through the 106 minutes of that dead fish of a sailing movie, I recommend those six sailing minutes in “Top Gun” as the perfect tonic.