Hollywood has an enduring love affair with yachts – if only to sink them or blow them to bits. BOAT looks back at the boats that have made the biggest splash on screen...
When the James Bond production team first rang Spirit Yachts asking to borrow a brand new boat for Casino Royale, boss Sean McMillan was thrilled but nervous. “I had one question for them,” he recalls: “You’re not going to blow it up are you?”
They didn’t, though filming did take the newly built Spirit 54 on a six-month journey of more than 16,000 kilometres from Suffolk and Liverpool to Florida and the Caribbean before an about-turn to Europe and back to Venice via Croatia.
It was the first time in 300 years that a yacht had sailed on the Grand Canal, and the mast had to be taken out every time they filmed in order to make that piece of history. “We had to take the rig out and put it in again ten times in all to sail beneath the bridges. We needed a barge with a crane on board to do the job,” recalls McMillan, whose boatbuilding career goes back to childhood – he made his first wooden dinghy at the age of 12.
Bond is back aboard another Spirit in his latest adventure, No Time to Die, where he’s dedicated his retirement to a life of sailing and fishing in the Caribbean... until his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter arrives. This time there was a different problem to overcome with the privately owned Spirit 46, which would spend two months in Jamaica with Daniel Craig and the crew. “When we got the call, the boat had already been hauled and laid up for the winter in Long Island, New York,” says McMillan. “She was completely boxed in, so we had to get the yard to move the others before we could truck her from Newport to Fort Lauderdale and sail over to Jamaica.”
Bond and boats go together like, well, Bond and Martinis. But they are not the sole preserve of 007. Yachts and the movies have enjoyed a close relationship since the silent age of Hollywood, symbolising glamour and style, wealth and mobility. In a word: class.
Almost a century ago, before the talkies had even begun, Buster Keaton set the tone by buying the 5,000-tonne 113-metre USAT Buford for his 1924 comedy The Navigator. The ship was remodelled inside and out and fitted with film lights before being sailed from San Francisco, where she was about to be sold for scrap, to Catalina Island for ten weeks of filming. The film was an instant hit. Upon its release, The Navigator became Keaton’s biggest commercial success, setting the tone for a century-long love affair between cinema and boats. The timeless appeal of a boat being tossed on a stormy sea made for instant drama on the big screen, heightened by the arrival of sound.
Sound had arrived by the 1930s when director Victor Fleming won praise for his marine photography in his 1937 Rudyard Kipling adaptation Captains Courageous, filming aboard Oretha F. Spinney, one of the last working Grand Banks schooners.
His coming-of-age story about a spoilt rich kid who falls overboard from an ocean-going liner and is rescued by a hard-bitten Portuguese fisherman (in an Oscar-winning performance from Spencer Tracey) captured the romance – and terror – of the sea, with dramatic footage of racing schooners in full sail on stormy seas, and plenty more of fishermen in oilskins and sou’westers gutting cod and halibut. Cinema’s burgeoning relationship with boats was consummated when stars of the silver screen began to buy their own as status symbols, mobile party venues and even floating homes.
In 1945, Humphrey Bogart, the biggest idol of the era, bought himself a 16.7-metre racing yacht, Santana – and was outdone the following year when Errol Flynn bought his own 36-metre schooner, Zaca, lending it to Orson Welles for the filming of The Lady From Shanghai before spending his final years living aboard off the coast of Mallorca.
In 1948, 31-metre schooner The Ryelands, built in 1886 by Nicholson & Marsh at Glasson Dock in Lancaster, was bought by RKO Pictures and played the part of Hispaniola in Treasure Island (1950). Six years later she was sold to Elstree Studios and used as the whaling ship Pequod in Moby Dick (1959) before becoming a floating museum in Morecambe, Lancashire, where she was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.
In the 1950s, film fans were treated to a classic boat in a classic film. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot starred Hollywood superstars Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon – and perhaps the most iconic yacht ever to feature in the movies. The eye-catchingly beautiful Portola is a 25-metre fantail built at the Harbor Boat yard near Long Beach, California. Designed by Daniel Callis, she’s built entirely of wood – her exterior is varnished teak – and fitted with a Winton diesel engine.
Used as a minesweeper during the Second World War, when her wooden hull enabled her to sail undetected by enemy submarines, she was bought after the war by Errol Flynn. Portola came into her own in Billy Wilder’s classic comedy, in which Curtis and Lemmon, disguised as women on the run from the Chicago mob, compete for the affections of Monroe.
The film has many iconic scenes, like this encounter between Sugar (Monroe, at her dizzy-blonde best) and Joe (Curtis, posing as a yacht-owning oil magnate called Junior) aboard the New Caledonia.
“Which is the port and which is the starboard?”
“Well, that depends on whether you're coming or going. I mean, normally the aft is on the other side of the stern. And that's the bridge - so you can get from one side of the boat to the other. How about a glass of champagne”
In the brave new world of postwar America, boats that had been used to secure victory were reborn as stylish status symbols for the aristocracy of Hollywood. As so often in his movies, John Wayne led the charge, buying himself a classic 23-metre wooden motor yacht, Norwester, designed by naval architect Frank Munro and built in Winthrop, Massachusetts, in 1932.
Under The Duke’s ownership during the 1950s, the visitor’s book was a Who’s Who of movie royalty. Wayne then upgraded to a former US Navy minesweeper, renovating the three-decker, 41-metre Wild Goose with extravagant wood detailing and murals, a dancefloor, bridal suite, full bar and even a fireplace.
Regular guests included Hollywood’s golden couple, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, inspiring Burton to buy Liz the 50-metre Edwardian motor yacht Kalizma, one of the first steam-powered yachts with electric lighting, designed by G.L. Watson and built by Ramage & Ferguson in 1906.
Yachts weren’t just for pleasure; they were for networking (even if the word had yet to be invented), deal-making, and even accommodating movie stars during a production. What better way to keep them out of trouble after the final shot of the day (or at least be there when it happens)?
The stars of the 1960s did all that and more on Oscar-winning movie mogul Sam Spiegel’s 50-metre ocean-going motor yacht Malahne, usually moored off the Cote d’Azur. Built for Woolworth’s chairman William Stephenson in 1937 to race in the America’s Cup and used in the evacuation of Dunkirk, the craft also became a floating production office-cum-hotel when filming Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan.
By now it was the age of the blockbuster. Productions were becoming increasingly lavish, with budgets to match. So when it came to shooting the star-studded 1962 epic Mutiny On The Bounty, no expense was spared.
The film-makers commissioned a complete reconstruction of a 1787 Royal Navy sailing ship – the first vessel ever built from scratch as a historical replica – using drawings from British Admiralty archives. Construction at the Smith & Rhuland yard in Nova Scotia involved 200 workers using traditional methods and took eight months.
Upon completion she sailed via the Panama Canal to Tahiti for filming. Incredibly, at the end of the shoot the producers were planning to burn the boat until Marlon Brando, one of the stars, stepped in to save her from destruction.
Subsequently used as a tourist attraction in St Petersburg, Florida, and occasionally on film, she met a bathetic end in a long-forgotten adult movie before being lost forever off the coast of North Carolina in Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Across the Atlantic, an Isle of Wight lifeboat, Susan Ashley, was converted by Tim Bungay for the 1979 spy thriller Riddle Of The Sands, to become the fictional Dulcibella, a yawl used by two English sailors to thwart an attempted German invasion by Kaiser Wilhelm at the turn of the 20th century.
Dulcibella was herself based on author Erskine Childers’s real boat, Vixen, a converted lifeboat from Margate, though the Irish-English author would find a different kind of fame – or notoriety – with a different boat when he used his 15-metre ketch Asgard to smuggle arms to Ireland for the Easter Rising – and was captured and executed by firing squad. Asgard remains in Kilmainham Gaol Museum in Dublin.
The 1970s, which began with the moon landing, were lean times for boats in movies as spaceships took their place, especially after the global success of Star Wars. It was a prelude to the technological changes that would begin in the 1980s, when we began to use computers and displays of wealth were no longer a guilty pleasure.
If we want to look for a yardstick by which to judge a decade, then we can look no further than the boats in Bond films. The 85-metre Kingdom 5KR played a starring role in Never Say Never Again (1983) under the new name Disco Volante, aka Flying Saucer – the superyacht of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Designed by Luigi Sturchio, she was very much the supervillain’s boat of choice, having been built by Benetti for Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi in 1980 (as Nabila) – and bought by Donald Trump. The future president made characteristic changes, adding a swimming pool and sauna, a cinema and disco, a lift and even a private hospital – before changing the H on the helipad to a T for Trump and renaming her Trump Princess.
If she was a vessel synonymous with power and wealth, then the 22-metre racing yacht Stormvogel was all about elegance and beauty, as was her co-star Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm (1989). Built in South Africa in 1961, three architects collaborated on that magnificent design: Van de Stadt designed the hull, John Illingworth the sail plan and deck layout, and Laurent Giles the interior fittings.
Moving into the 1990s, The Truman Show featured another beauty. The eight-metre Pemaquid Friendship Sloop was the first boat built by Tom Morris in 1972 and appears in the climactic final scene when Jim Carrey finally realises his life is a movie and its director, Ed Harris, tries to capsize the boat to stop him escaping from the world created around him.
Moving into a new millennium, Hollywood’s love affair with boats gathered pace. The Perfect Storm (2000) starred George Clooney in the true story of the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail’s final voyage, when she was lost in a freak storm. Director Wolfgang Petersen used the actual setting – Gloucester, Massachusetts – and Andrea Gail’s sister ship, the 22-metre Lady Grace.
Built in 1978, she was auctioned off on eBay after being taken to Hamburg for the German movie premiere and transported back across the Atlantic to return to service, but was badly damaged in a 2011 fire during a refit.
Bigger movie budgets meant bigger boats – and more expensive ones. For his 1997 slavery epic Amistad, Steven Spielberg needed an authentic-looking early-nineteenth-century Baltimore Clipper to stand in for the real slave ship, La Amistad. The 27-metre replica topsail schooner Pride Of Baltimore II had been used as an ambassador vessel by the city of Baltimore – the shipbuilding capital of America in the 1790s.
Designed by original architect Thomas Gillmer and built by Peter Boudreau, her keel was carved from thousand-year-old Central American hardwood from Belize. The first Pride, which sank off Puerto Rico in 1986, had been built by hand with hammers and saws, faithfully recreating the methods of a century and a half earlier, while her movie-star replacement was sped up by the use of power tools.
Retro replicas have their place but as film budgets soared over the last 20 years, so have the size - and value - of the boats on screen. Jason Bourne briefly enjoyed himself in flashback aboard the 46-metre White Knight, built by Chediek in 1985, in The Bourne Identity (2002) before being shot, falling overboard and drifting away on the ocean to an uncertain fate… or at least the sequel.
Sunseekers have become synonymous with Bond films and beyond - like the 40-metre Mondomarine-bult motor yacht Thumper, in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016). Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley) hide away on the superyacht in the South of France, sipping (or, in Patsy’s case, swilling) their signature Bolly champagne on the sun deck.
Is art imitating life or vice versa when no on-screen display of wealth is worth watching unless it’s on board a boat – the more eye-catching the better? Like the 41-metre Ocean Emerald, built by Rodriquez Yachts, in the 2015 remake of Point Break. You might not remember the film, but you’re sure to recall that controversial design by Lord Norman Foster, breaking most of the established rules. You’d expect nothing less from the creative brain behind the Gherkin in London (and the Yacht Club de Monaco), and its sweeping curves and floor-to-ceiling windows don’t disappoint. Not to mention a skateboard ramp in the bow, where spectacular stunts were filmed off the Italian coast near Brindisi.
Perhaps even more eye-catching is the futuristic Galeocerdo in The Island (2005). With its one-of-a-kind design by Wally, the angular shell is sheathed in black glass and triple gas turbines reach a top speed of 60 knots. One of the fastest in the world, the 36-metre luxury motor yacht (built by Rodriquez in Italy) plays a key role in Michael Bay’s sci-fi extravaganza. Oh, and if you’re thinking it looks a bit like a shark, that’s no accident - Galeocerdo cuvier is the Latin name of the tiger shark.
Sometimes, for obvious reasons, the yacht you want for your epic movie just isn’t available. Like those ones from Amistad and Perfect Storm and Mutiny on The Bounty and... well, Titanic. It was a problem Martin Scorsese faced when he wanted to recreate the disgraced trader Jason Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s real-life superyacht Nadine in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
The real Nadine sank after the drug-crazed Belfort ordered his captain to sail into a storm off the coast of Italy. So she was replaced by the 41-metre Lady M, built by US yard Intermarine in 2002. Scorsese shot his footage in North Cove Marina, New York, including that notorious scene where DiCaprio sends federal investigators packing by hurling live lobsters at them and showering them with hundred-dollar bills – “fun coupons”– as they leave.
By now the yachts onscreen said as much about the confidence the movie makers had in their picture as the story itself, challenging the actors for star status. Like the 51-metre aluminium-hulled Helios 2 in the geopolitical thriller Syriana (2005), starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. And the 71-metre Haida 1929, one of the oldest superyachts on the water - built by Krupp Germaniawerft for millionaire Max C. Fleischmann – making her much-delayed movie debut in Mamma Mia! (2008) with Meryl Streep belting out the ABBA hit Money, Money Money.
For some movie makers, though, size is always going to be everything. And one of those movie makers is always going to be Michael Bay, a man who rarely lets a stage set remain unexploded in the final reel. His Netflix production 6 Underground (2015) used the 95-metre five-deck Kismet owned by Shadid Khan, the billionaire owner of Fulham Football Club and the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Built by Lürssen in 2014 and designed by Reymond Langton and Espen Øino, it’s used for a lavish party scene. And – yes, you guessed – there’s a spectacular explosion before the credits roll. Not on board, though: even Bay can’t blow up a £150 million yacht that costs a million a week to charter – but right next to it. At least that’s the way it looks.
So what’s next? Despite a global recession and a pandemic, Hollywood hasn’t fallen out of love with boats. And as long as they feature in films, owners will seize the opportunity to advertise their wares. After all, a spot in a big-budget movie won’t just ensure a busy charter season but keep prices high.
But in the increasingly competitive environment of this virtual super-marina, it’s important to stand out from the crowd. If an eye-catching design isn’t enough, then how about a mind-blowing gimmick? Like the icebreaker in Christopher Nolan’s 2020 blockbuster Tenet. He gives a starring role to the 75-metre explorer Planet Nine, a vessel with lifts connecting its five decks, a large helicopter hangar and its own rocket launcher.
So where do we go from here? Boats aren’t getting any smaller – the record set by 180-metre monster Azzam is bound to be broken sooner or later. But don’t expect to see it in the movies: when you’ve got a billion pounds to build a boat, you don’t need – or want – to see it in the movies.
Meanwhile, some movie makers are determined to go deeper - literally - into the world of boats and submersibles. In 2012, James Cameron embarked on a real-life voyage to the bottom of the sea, piloting the Deepsea Challenger to the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench – eleven kilometres below the surface. And in 2018, the Five Deeps Expedition, led by Victor Vescovo, went further – if not deeper – to film the first manned expedition to the deepest point in all five oceans for the Discovery Channel. After that, boats seem a bit tame.
Planes, trains and automobiles. Boats and submarines. Rockets and spaceships… Hollywood’s done them all. Perhaps the movies of the future will move away from boats altogether - or perhaps they’ll just go back to smaller, sleeker, classic designs, seeking style over size as film budgets shrink in our post-pandemic universe? Just don’t bet on it.