Alumni Profiles

Adventures on the High Seas

Shannon Smith '95, third from left, aloft on the HMS Rose, aka HMS Surprise in the movie "Master and Commander."

When Shannon Smith '95 left her job as a software consultant in 1999, she never wanted to work with computers "or have to wear nylons ever again." Little did she know how fully she would realize her dream. Three years later, an "able-bodied seaman," she could be found clambering up the masts of the world's largest active wooden sailing ship, sporting a mustache and grizzled beard.

Smith yearned to sail, and with no experience landed a job as a deckhand on HMS Rose, a three-masted, fully rigged replica of a 1757 British frigate. "The captain told me later that he didn't think I would cut it," she recalls, but before long, she was at ease even at the top of the main mast, 130 feet above the deck.

In 2002, Rose was purchased by 20th Century Fox for use in the filming of "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," a swashbuckling movie starring Russell Crowe. When the ship arrived in Baja California, it was refitted as the HMS Surprise and served as a model for two replicas: a 30-foot miniature and a full-scale version for filming in a 6.5-acre water tank previously used to film "The Titanic." The Rose's crew of 20 sailors, including five women, was hired to sail the ship during filming. Over the next five months, Smith put in many 14-hour days, sailing, teaching actors to sail, and waiting around—always in full costume and makeup, with facial hair and artificially rotten teeth.

The job of cinematic swabbie had its frustrations: sailing to nowhere, and setting and striking sails for the camera "and then re-doing it because the lighting guy used the wrong bulb." But Smith found a way to rekindle the magic of sailing. At the end of the day, as the ship motored back to shore, she would shimmy out on a yard and close her eyes to imagine that "we were sailing into some new port for the night to drop anchor."

While Smith was working on the film, she and her mates found it hard to watch other movies: "You just couldn't get out of your head how it's not real." She did enjoy the premier of "Master and Commander" in November 2003, even though she was unable identify herself on screen. When it comes out on video, she'll look for herself among the sailors aloft in the rigging.

Since filming wrapped up in fall 2002, Smith has earned her captain's license and worked as first mate on a schooner in Lake Michigan. For now, the Rose is moored in San Diego. But if the ship does take to the ocean—either as a training sailing vessel or in a sequel to "Master and Commander"—Smith would be more than happy to shimmy out onto the yard again, and set sail for ports imaginary or real.

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