"Rock the boat. Don't tip the boat over. Rock the boat..."
Rock the Boat is not only a seventies disco classic, it's also the theme song and title of a new documentary film by producer Robert Hudson. The story follows eleven HIV-positive men, including Hudson, who managed to complete the prestigious Trans Pacific Yacht Race from California to Hawaii in 1997. Skimming 2,000 treacherous miles across the ocean in an untrustworthy sailboat, for some of the shipmates this was their first time on a racing yacht. On camera, the largely inexperienced crew battle a hurricane, seasickness, and, sometimes, each other. This remarkable film takes the audience along a classic misadventure, as a motley group of quickly learning gay men get in over their heads, yet manage to survive and emerge as heroes. With their boat decorated with the names of people who have died of AIDS, the film is a black comedy as much as it is a human drama—an unforgettable portrait of ordinary guys evincing a will to win as well as a will to live.
Rock the Boat came about when Hudson, thirty-seven, and his lover, Bobby Houston, forty-two, frolicked in the Seattle cold as snowboarders. "It was like when I was first diagnosed HIV-positive in 1991; I didn't know anybody else like me and it was a lonely feeling." Hudson and Houston met three years ago when both were living in Ojai, about ninety miles north of Los Angeles, at Houston's coffee shop. "Bobby heard me discussing sailing, introduced himself, we clicked right away, and started to do sports things together. But we found that we were living active normal lives and knew that this race could prove that to others."
Hudson put the idea for the race out on the Internet and found support from a wide variety of backers, including political consultant David Mixner. Hudson had previously formed a nonporfit organization, Get Challenged, to promote the lives of people who are HIV-positive, as well as to develop positive role models for them. One of their aims with this film is to change the way AIDS is perceived.
Rock the Boat (originally called The Human Race) was first shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last spring and has since been screened at over thirty other film-fests around the country, and in Germany. It opens in Los Angeles and New York next month and has already been sold to HBO. "One of the nicer things about our film is that when people watch it, they walk away thinking it's their boat. Everyone is running from a storm of one nature or another; we're all just trying to stay in the race."
Hudson insists that a major purpose of making the documentary is to educate the public better on what Get Challenged does. "The more those who are surviving HIV can see our film, the more [they'll] understand that there are people like themselves out there." The film took Best Picture at the Hawaii International Film Festival, as well as the coveted Audience Award, and a special consideration award for Compassion and Vision in Filmmaking, at the Florida International Film Festival. And he adds, proudly: "Cross your fingers; it's up for an Oscar."
It was Hudson's idea to organize the trip, but it was Houston who decided to film the adventure. Houston, who was the sole HIV-negative crewman, was the cameraman responsible for the spectacular photography in the film. Hudson is quite fond of teasing his boyfriend, even in front of strangers. "On a sailboat, everybody has to pull their own weight. Bobby didn't like that at all. After day three, he said, 'I'm shooting two shifts, trying to get this footage, and you want me to sail at the same time? Go to hell!'" Hudson continues his kidding of his 5'9" rugged, decidedly masculine, friend. "If you can sail to Hawaii with your lover on a small boat with a bunch of queens, and then you can edit a movie together, which took almost seven months, you can survive anything!"
Hudson devoted the past two years to working on their film. All along they've received plenty of support for their endeavor, from gay HIV-folk as well as from straights. He professes himself surprised by the number of heterosexual females who adore the film. "We think it's because they like watching men show their feelings. People have a good time with this film and that excites me."
The documentary shows some of the tougher times they had with getting the boat seaworthy and with the problems of exhaustion, fear, and tension brought out into the open while sailing. "Well, what can you expect with that much testosterone on board?!" laughs Hudson. "Egos can get out of hand; tempers can flare. Especially when you have eleven men together in one small area." And...sex on board? "We were too busy. Oh, there was some cute little romancing going on...sometimes that's better than sex," he explains. Apparently some romances did start up after the race, but none has survived. "Everybody had their own personality and some personal agenda, but we were all working towards a common goal, trying to get across the finish line."
The energetic producer received some fifty responses from the notices he placed on the Internet, in newspapers, and in sailing journals. "The difficulty was picking a crew that could get along. And the hardest part was having to cut people before we left port. You have AIDS and you cut from an AIDS boat?!" He sighs, remembering the anxiety and his embarrassment. They had even considered two women as crew, who began the training, but eventually couldn't make the final cut.
Hudson is still in touch with all of the crewmembers except for Captain John. The onscreen fight they had has yet to mend: "We just sort of never fixed our relatoinship. I'm sorry about that—he's a great characer; his is the kind of character you make movies about. He's gay A-List; that's where he fit in. But if you're not on the A-List, you're not on his radar, which is sad to me. It's part of the gay community that's sort of difficult."
Of the eleven crew, who had full-blown AIDS. "Mike Schmidt, better known as 'Iron Mike,' did more work than anyone else on the entire boat. He was the most valuable player there. And to think I was going to cut him when we were in training! I just knew he wasn't going to go [on the race]." As the launch date grew near, the leader found himself in a moral dilemma. "I'd ask myself, 'What are you doing?! Mike is what you are talking about with this race. I don't care if he's smoking. I don't even care if he's got a dirty mouth.' I couldn't deny him that position on the boat. And then a light bulb went on in my head one afternoon. I said, 'God, this is so hard. I'm choosing a guy even though I don't like him.' Which was very strange to me. Because who am I to make such decisions?"
Looking back at this seafaring trek, revelations abound for the 6'1" executive. "One of the things that really rang home is that these are guys that are surviving, no matter what. So, who was I to say that you have to go to the gym and not stay out late every night? I learned a lot from watching these men."
And what are those learned lessons? "I learned that you can do anything you want. If you believe what you're doing is really good, it's so much easier. And (the race) was so easy because everything was right about it. Everything was right. It was a gut instinct about doing it. And my life, since that race, has been so smooth. So many things have fallen into place. I'm sort of finally figuring out this recipe about life. It's like don't try and break down big huge doors, look for the open ones. Look for the flow. Look at the direction the rest of the river is going. Quit trying to paddle upstream."
As we end, Rob admits he is looking for another boat. Yes, he's doing the race again in 1999! So see the movie and cheer them on when they race again July 3rd of this year.