In June 2014, Pepe Ribes and Ryan Breymaier won the New York-Barcelona IMOCA Ocean Masters race, a 3720-mile, two-week-long transatlantic sprint for 60-foot yachts. But aboard the winning Hugo Boss boat was a third man, independent journalist Chris Museler, who reported the day-to-day lives of professional sailors and relayed video back to Gabe Johnson, Taige Jensen and Matthew Orr of The New York Times, who condensed 14 days of raw footage into Strangers at Sea, a 17-minute documentary that is being co-published with POV.
This is the third in a series to documentaries co-presented by POV and The New York Times. Read more about the collaboration.
Museler, himself a sailor, told POV more about how he was able to navigate his role as an independent documentarian while being aboard the extreme conditions of a ship in the middle of a high-intensity race.
Chris Museler: The truth is, nobody wanted to take an extra person on board, and I don’t blame them. They took me because they both kind of knew me, and they knew I’ve been across the ocean on a boat before, and that I have been in extreme sailing situations.
Even with that, it took most of the race for them to tune me out, and it took me most of the race to realize when not to be around. In this particular case, our objective was to capture the experience of two people having to sail a really crazy machine across the ocean and all that involves in terms of physical effort, intensity and interpersonal relationships, without them thinking about it. Real vérité style.
I think we accomplished that, which was wonderful, because I don’t think they are ever going do this again in double-handed racing. You will not see — at least in the near future — a journalist that can go onboard a boat and capture professional racing without the team or the sponsors or the event getting the first whack at it.
We got to do everything our way. So I think that’s one of the most unique parts of this experience.
POV: How did you end up on a boat with these two guys going across the Atlantic Ocean?
Chris Museler: I am pretty invested in the “short-handed” world — solo sailing and double-handed sailing. What I’ve really been focusing on for the last eight years is the human aspect of it. It’s hard to understand what these sailors go through without being with them or doing it yourself. So I’ve invested some time doing solo or double-handed sailing on a pretty high level, just to get that experience. And that’s been fascinating.
This particular race is the first time [the sailors, the event and the sponsors] ever let a media person on board. Two people on a sailboat — it’s this little unit or bubble — you can imagine in that intrapersonal space, when you are living and working with another person — what happens if you add another challenge to them? Letting me on was a big deal.
POV: How did you work with the editors on this documentary?
Chris Museler: We wanted to capture what really happened. I wrote them once or twice a day. I wrote a blog for the event, and then I wrote something separately for Gabe [Johnson, The New York Times video journalist] to let him know how things were shaking out. We were both developing the storyline as we went.
When I got to Barcelona, we had an OK idea of what went down in terms of the relationship between those two guys. We had decided right at the beginning that these guys were forced together — they were very different — and we want to capture that. I flew directly to New York with enough time to spend a couple of hours with [the editors], identifying some footage and helping out with that storyline. We did a quick storyboard of what went down and identified key clumps of footage chronologically, and then I let them have that. They called me back a couple times, but only really sent me a few cuts after that.
POV: What camera and audio gear did you use?
Chris Museler: This is a new boat for them, and it had two or three mounted cameras. They had a newscaster-type system, with little videotapes that you can click in and out of on different cameras, and they record directly to Pinnacle editing software.
But, we had major problems with those cameras. The audio wasn’t working and our main laptop blew up the day before we raced. We had all sorts of issues, so I took as much stuff as I could. I took an iPad Mini with me, I took a Canon 5D camera, a couple GoPros with remote controls — and they had a ship camera, a little point-and-shoot that did video.
I always had a little HD camera around my neck just in case something happened… which it did. And I also had an audio recording device that The New York Times gave me. But, the reality is it was hard enough to be able to capture stuff that was happening — because it was happening all the time — without filming constantly.
Sometimes, I didn’t know what camera I was going to have access to because I had to have everything in waterproof bags all the time. So if something would happen, and I wanted to get it on the 5D with audio, I had to make sure the audio was turned on. I couldn’t leave that little hot mic on all the time, because the battery would die. So I’d have to find it, get it out of the bag, get the covers off, turn the audio on, and make sure the audio input was right where I was focusing. You can’t do autofocus with video, so you are always focusing, and your knuckle is hitting the audio jack. So we actually lost a lot of great audio because either I forgot to turn on the audio… or I was hitting the jack and we had all these sound pops. So that was a challenge.
POV: What were some of the things you learned on the boat that you didn’t anticipate?
Chris Museler: One of the biggest learning curves for me was to figure out when something was about to happen. Because the moment someone said something good, you should have started rolling before that.
POV: I imagine that when something like the boat capsizing happens, you can’t capture that actually happening, so you have to piece it together with the aftermath.
Chris Museler: Right! There are a bunch of little reoccurring things — like I spent the whole trip trying to capture Pepe in his really eccentric meal-making process. It’s almost like a meditation. His food is really important to him even though he didn’t get to eat that much [during the race]. So when he did get to eat, he did the same exact thing every time. He was very proud of it, he always put on the same amount of oil, he always shook it the right way — and it took me the whole trip to notice when he was about to do it, and the light was good.
On the last take I finally got it. The steam is coming up, it’s almost like you are in a hut in Tibet. So that’s one example of learning to anticipate.
POV: Can you walk me through what happened when the boat capsized?
Chris Museler: The capsizing thing was really fascinating. I had that little point-and-shoot around my neck all the time. I was up on the bow of the boat sleeping on a bean bag because it wasn’t super windy at the time. I woke up because I felt the boat lurch, and I slid one way, and then slid back and I felt like it was going to go back again, so I tried to grab behind me to keep from getting launched.
Well, that happened. I got thrown, and the boat went over and over and over. I went vertical. And it started to go past vertical, and then the boat was on its side. So picture your whole room sideways, and you’re walking… all over the stuff that’s not supposed to be there.
The engine was running because we were charging the batteries. So once the boat stopped rolling, I reached down and grabbed my camera, but right when I started to film, Pepe yelled down and screamed at me to shut the engine off, because if the boat intakes water, the engine will overheat. So now I am in this screaming match with him, trying to understand what he is saying, he is trying to explain to me how to shut the freaking engine off.
As soon as they shut that off and the boat started to come back down, I went right for the bag and grabbed the HD camera. This was all within a minute. I’m just trying to illustrate how hard it was to capture something.
There are a lot of things at play with those kinds of moments, because I am not supposed to do anything, like, nothing, unless it’s life and limb. But it’s kind of weird. I am watching out for myself, but with these boats, you can just get screwed in these moments. And it’s very uncomfortable. And it’s hard to do anything besides [sail]. Everything else, like, trying to make some food, trying to get some sleep, trying to get some pictures… [laughs] they are not helping me out, and I am not helping them out.
POV: You managed to really stay out of it, while still getting a little bit of the background of Pepe and Ryan’s lives outside the boat. Did you decide in advance that you wanted some of that context?
Chris Museler: To show an audience a very true experience of what these people do everyday [on the boat] and how they live and work was a big enough ask in and of itself, even though I wanted to tell a lot of backstory. The two of them, strangely, even though they don’t get along so well, had very similar pathways to becoming professional sailors. Everything from very humble beginnings to neighbors helping to introduce them to the sport to bootstrap kind of guys working their way up to it — they weren’t spoon fed anything. I wanted to show that, but my editors at The Times knew we didn’t have a lot of room to go too deep.
So you just shoot the breeze when you are hanging out and don’t have anything specific to do at that moment. With Pepe, he said at some point, “Don’t record this, but I really want to talk about this.” He’s at a crossroads in his career, his son is 5 years old, and he doesn’t know how much longer he can do this. His body is breaking, he is stressing out. And you can see how stressed out he was throughout the race. You can see it in his face.
The alternative is, you can see how relieved he was at the very end. I think we captured that well. But I wish I could have captured those personal moments with Pepe because I caught Ryan frustrated about where he was in his career. And with Pepe, every couple watches, he would start talking about it again to himself, but in front of me. And I was like, “Man, I wish I could talk to you about this.” That was an interesting dynamic.
POV: Would the story have been as great if they hadn’t won the race?
Chris Museler: I can’t write about a sailboat race. No one cares about the race like they do about football. They just want to know what’s interesting about that race. What’s interesting about the people? What’s interesting about the technology? So for me, it’s actually pretty easy. If they got last… Man, what does that mean for their careers?
As a sports person, when we won, that felt good. For all the work that those guys went through, I think that smile on Pepe’s face at the very end when he looks at the camera, that’s the first time that guy smiled since two days before the start of the race. Anytime you finished these races, everyone smiles, because they just accomplished something. They just sailed across the ocean, just two of them.
So the result matters to them. But in this kind of racing, it’s just a very small part of the experience. It’s really small, and for a lot of people, the result doesn’t matter at all, they just want to complete it.
If you’ve ever flown over an ocean, and you look down, you probably have a number of emotions. It’s frightening. It’s high up. You’re like, if I was down there, I’d be in the middle of nowhere with no one. Imagine how exciting it’d be with that much space around you. And a lot of people think, that might be really boring. But being out in nature, in that open space, is easily the most frightening, exciting, beautiful, challenging thing you could ever imagine. Getting something like that out of a big flat piece of water… That’s cool.