Neil Hollander and Harald Mertes searched around the sea ports of the world for nearly two years, from 1981 to 1983, for a vanishing breed of sailors and their craft. Despite the predominance of steel hull and diesel engine, traditional wooden hulled sailing craft remain. The men who sail them represent more than the physical accomplishments of fishing, trading and transporting goods and passengers in some remote and inhospitable locations.
These men, who harness the wind and the sea to make their living, are ever dwindling in number, and yet, in some far corners of the globe, vestiges of this traditional way of life remain. The project captured on film and page, as a record and reminder of a bygone era. Eight surviving craft, representative of a distinct culture or location were included; the Windward Islands schooner, the Brazilian jangada, Chilean lancha chilota, Egyptian aiyassa, Sri Lankan oruwa, Bangladeshi shampan, Chinese junk, and Indonesian pinisi..
Disappearing along with the craft are the men who sail them, sailors who work six days a week, fourteen hours a day. The authors were able to spend time with these men, working alongside them as crew-members where possible, gaining their trust and respect, not simply interviewing or photographing them. The book benefits from the viewpoints and often humorous personal experiences of the ordinary working sailors as a result.
The gap of nearly two years between the first voyages and the return with the film crew gives another, sometimes sadder dimension. On returning to the south of Chile, they found the raw, sleepy frontier atmosphere gone. The construction of the three-thousand mile highway spanning the country had implications for the isolated inhabitants. Employment on the project, although temporary, had taken men away from the sea. For some, the highway offered a way to leave for the cities, frustrating promises of prosperity reaching the remote south. Others preferred things as they were.
In Brazil, government cutbacks had seen the transfer of Jody de Silva from working with the jangadieros, to work in the slums, trying to help migrant labourers cope with urban life-“the same impossible task” he called it. The government had curtailed assistance to the fishing villages as part of an austerity program and the jangadieros were left to fend for themselves. Roberto, the fisherman they spent time sailing with previously, had sadly had a serious accident leaving him crippled. One man’s personal tragedy sometimes sums up the entire picture.
The Last Sailors is now a two and a half hour film narrated by Orson Welles, a document that cannot be remade. The world of working sail is shrinking rapidly. Every day sails are furled that will never be hoisted aloft again. The Last Sailors is a unique picture of that world, inherently photogenic. Men, sails and water are dramatic in almost any combination, and in any weather, but it surely cannot simply be nostalgia to hope this story has a future?