It took a mere 90 seconds to change Chuck Gieg's life forever.
In 1960, Gieg was a 17-year-old student-sailor aboard the Albatross, a square-rigged brigantine that served as a campus-at-sea while sailing the Caribbean and South Pacific. The ship's voyage offered Gieg and his 12 young shipmates a remarkable opportunity for adventure and self-discovery, but it ended in tragedy.
As the Albatross neared the end of its trip, in waters close to the infamous Bermuda Triangle, the ship was hit without warning by a sudden, ferocious storm--what seamen then referred to somewhat mysteriously as a "white squall." Within two minutes, the ship had capsized and sunk, taking with it four students and two of the four-person adult staff. The survivors spent two days in lifeboats before being rescued by a passing ship.
Gieg's experiences aboard the Albatross are chronicled in "White Squall," which opens Friday. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film stars Jeff Bridges as the ship's skipper, Capt. Christopher Sheldon, and Scott Wolf of TV's "Party of Five" as the young Gieg. Gieg himself worked closely with screenwriter Todd Robinson to ensure that the script reflected real-life events as accurately as possible.
"The voyage itself--and not just the accident--was a pivotal experience for me," says Gieg, today a software developer living in Nantucket, Mass. "I haven't spent a day of my life where I haven't drawn on what we went through and what we learned. We did a lot of growing up very quickly, because we were in a survival situation."
That growing up aboard ship makes "White Squall" a compelling coming-of-age story, but it is the storm of the title that gives the film its moments of highest drama. Cast and crew spent four months sailing the Caribbean on a ship rigged to replicate the Albatross, and filmed ashore on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. When the film was complete save for the squall sequence, production moved across the Atlantic to Malta, where the fierce storm was re-created in a 3-million-gallon water tank.
"The squall was always the big scene around the corner," Scott says. "I didn't really think about it too much until I had to. I knew we could do some work with models, because the art of miniatures has progressed so much. But water's always difficult, especially when you're in the totally artificial situation of a tank."
Scott's talent for creating powerful imagery has been showcased in such previous efforts as "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Thelma & Louise." To create an appropriately terrifying storm sequence for "White Squall," he felt he had to push beyond the conventional methods for filming rough seas. His camera, one-quarter scale replicas of the ship and partially submerged full-size sets of the ship's interiors were all built on gimbal mechanisms, so that the camera and whatever was being filmed could pitch and roll out of sync--effectively creating shots of watery chaos.
Scott enhanced the tempest with the aid of some unusual heavy machinery. "You can use wave machines in a tank," he explains. "But they make waves of about three feet, which looked pathetic, given that we'd been filming out in 30-foot seas. And the conventional wind machines --which are really just big fans--don't do very much. I decided to go out and get ahold of a pair of second-hand jet engines--which put out 600-mile-an-hour winds. That whipped the water into a frenzy and basically accomplished the task of knocking the actors off their feet."
In fact, while talk of models and water tanks may make the filmed squall sound like cinematic trickery, what audiences will see on screen are actors in some real peril.
"Let's put it this way, there wasn't always a lot of acting involved," says Bridges, who took on the role of the ship's skipper partly in tribute to his father Lloyd's work on the "Sea Hunt" TV series.
"In a lot of that storm sequence we were just tapping survival instincts," he says. "I've had some real-life close calls when I've been surfing, and I know that feeling of fighting for your life in the water. During the storm scene there were some long takes where we were being hit with wind and waves and being knocked underwater. You don't worry so much about acting then--you just want to survive the take."
The real Albatross sank in 90 seconds after being hit by the white squall, a phenomenon today recognized as a kind of mini-hurricane called a "micro-burst." The filmed version of the squall stretches for nearly 16 grueling minutes. "The speed with which it happened was amazing," Scott says. "But I wanted to take the time for people to understand what it was like to be trapped and out of control."