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Sunday, August 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

"Pirates" gets its vintage look from Aberdeen

Seattle Times staff reporter

ABERDEEN — Consider this fair warning. If you find yourself sitting next to John and Vernon Fox at the sequel to Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" next year, don't be surprised if one of them starts bragging.

"I'll say, 'I know that part. I made it,' " says Vernon, 15.

"Yeah," said John, 16. "Everyone will be jealous."

Vernon will be speaking the truth. You won't see any "Made in Washington" labels, but up on the screen you'll be looking at masts, spars, rigging, "crow's nests" and other nautical paraphernalia crafted just outside Aberdeen.

Stay in your theater seat long enough and, deep in the credits, you'll see a thank-you to Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, just as you would have at the end of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" in 2003.

Here, where seaport executive director Les Bolton boasts of the "largest mast-making lathe in North America," parts are taking shape for not just a second, but a third "Pirates" movie, meaning audiences will have two more chances to witness Johnny Depp's quirky creation of the pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow.

Getting that nautical look

Some prop-making facts from the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority:

• Five truckloads of masts and other parts for the "Pirates" sequels were driven to Florida and then barged to the Caribbean. More pieces are to be sent by Sept. 9.

• Douglas firs for the project were harvested from a ridge near Elma, Grays Harbor County, by Port Blakely Tree Farms.

• The Flying Dutchman's mainmast was cut from a 67-foot log weighing 7,866 pounds.

• Logs are trimmed to shape by a lathe with 4-inch wide blades spinning up to 3,500 revolutions a minute.

• The lathe's cutting assembly, moving along a rail on the floor, weighs nearly a ton.

• Even the wood chips get used, going to a nearby Sierra Pacific Industries "co-generation" plant producing power for the company's mill and local utilities.

The sequels are being filmed back-to-back in Los Angeles and the Bahamas, with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" to hit theaters next July and the third out in 2007.

A passion for shipbuilding is fundamental to the identity of Grays Harbor, along the Washington coast west of Olympia. The harbor, one-time home to more than 20 shipyards, is the birthplace of the state's tall-ship ambassador, Lady Washington.

But why is Hollywood, with its legions of set designers, construction crews and special-effects wizards, turning here for help, to a program staffed partly by teenagers?

"Because they've got the equipment and the expertise," said Matt O'Connor, a movie-marine coordinator who tapped the Aberdeen group for work in the first "Pirates." "It's very specific to get those pieces right, to have them look correct and have the correct hardware on them."

Last week, getting the correct look meant cutting and piecing together heavy sections of Douglas fir to form "fighting tops" — platforms landlubbers often call crow's nests — that will ring the masts of the ghostly Flying Dutchman in the next film.

Vernon Fox helped Kent Wall, seaport-site manager, measure 5-inch-thick wooden "cheeks" to support the circular platforms on the Flying Dutchman's three masts, which range up to 65 feet tall. The masts themselves lay alongside, tapered on the ends like mammoth blond toothpicks shaved smooth by the lathe.

Other workers pored over blueprints sent by Disney to make sure that what the seaport delivers is what the filmmakers ordered.

But nobody doubts that it will be. "They know we know this stuff," said Bolton. "We're like 18th Century R Us."

The lure of the pirates

A good pirate yarn has long been a Hollywood staple, and there's a reason for that. "We have a romanticized notion of pirates," said Bolton. "They were not nice people and they did some pretty horrific things. But I think we are fascinated with rule-breakers because we are regulated an incredible amount as a society."

Seeing the Lady Washington

Though she is no longer wearing her "Pirates" colors, the 112-foot brig remains a crowd-pleaser

Today: Gig Harbor, open for dockside visits 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and a 2 p.m. three-hour sailing.

Tuesday through Sept 5.: Olympia, open for dockside visits and possible afternoon sailings.

More information: or 800-200-LADY

And Bolton believes there is something even more basic at work — an instinctive link Americans feel to a maritime culture and classic vessels. "Tall ships in particular, people connect with them mentally and psychologically," he said. "We know our forefathers came across on boats. That's our heritage."

Bolton, 52, is a lifelong boating enthusiast whose family moved from California to Mountlake Terrace when he was in junior high. "My father always had a boat. I wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau, but he didn't die in time so I had to do something else."

Certified as a scuba diver when he was 12, Bolton went on to be a diver in the Army and worked for a few years as a salvage diver before buying the Sylvia, a 76-foot wooden ketch built in 1896.

"She was beautiful, built in Sweden as a sailing fishing vessel. Very comfortable in the water. Standing there at the helm, sailing along particularly at night, I'd get that feeling that 95 years earlier someone was standing right here doing what I'm doing. How beautiful is that?"

The Sylvia was both his home and workplace in the late 1980s. Living in Bellingham and then La Conner, he ran weeklong educational charter trips in the San Juan Islands.

In 1990, he was hired to run the public, nonprofit Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which conducts educational programs and operates the Lady Washington, the graceful 112-foot brig that rivals Kurt Cobain as Aberdeen's best-known export.

From Star Trek

to Johnny Depp

It was the Lady Washington, in fact, that got Grays Harbor into Disney's "Pirates" movies.

Launched in 1989 as part of the state's centennial celebration, the "Lady" is a full-scale replica of the ship Capt. Robert Gray — Grays Harbor's namesake — sailed to the Northwest coast in 1788. The boat makes annual trips up and down the West Coast, and is a particularly majestic sight with her 4,400 square feet of sail unfurled.

In 1993, she caught O'Connor's eye in the Los Angeles area when he was searching for a classic sailing ship for a scene in the movie, "Star Trek Generations."

"We were looking for an old square-rigger," O'Connor said. "There were a couple of other ships around, but nothing of that caliber. It worked out great."

A decade later, O'Connor was working on the first "Pirates" film and needed an 18th-century sailing vessel to play HMS Interceptor, the fastest ship in the British navy.

"We were having a hell of a time getting a ship we could use with the right look," O'Connor said. He remembered the Lady Washington and flew members of the production team up to Tacoma to check it out.

"The production designer saw it and said, 'Yes. That's it,' " said O'Connor.

The Lady Washington traveled more than 11,000 miles to the Caribbean and back for the project, earning nearly $800,000 in charter fees.

Of the three major vessels in the film, she was the only real, entire boat. The pirate ship Black Pearl and the British navy ship HMS Dauntless, though they looked intact on the screen, were simply pieces of hull, deck, masts and sails attached to barges for various camera shots.

In addition to providing the Lady Washington, the Aberdeen seaport constructed about $410,000 worth of "set dressing," various ship parts made for the film.

Eighteen crew members sailed with the boat from Aberdeen, and more than a dozen became extras or doubles in the film, including Esther Whitmore of Yakima, who turned 16 on the trip and was made up as a bearded pirate for the movie.

"Mostly what I did was play random, nondescript people in the background," said Whitmore. "It was tiring and a little repetitive doing retakes for all the scenes. But it was interesting seeing all the work and the energy that went into it."

Depp, she says, "was nice — just a normal person."

Whitmore was 12 when she first saw the Lady Washington's Web site and learned of the opportunity to volunteer on the crew, and she's been on the ship every summer since, now working as a boatswain's mate on the maintenance crew.

Bolton himself made a two-week trip to St. Vincent during the shooting to deal with repairs and logistics, and remembers the hectic pace. "We wound up working a couple days 22 hours straight."

Last year, Disney contacted the seaport again, asking it to supply parts that may cost about $300,000 for the two upcoming movies.

Ahoy! Teens on deck!

A key aspect of seaport projects is the involvement of middle-school and high-school students from Aberdeen and Hoquiam. They help crew the Lady Washington; they attend instructional sessions aboard; they race in vintage-style wooden longboats and, here in the shop, they build plywood boats of their own or help on special orders such as Disney's.

Over the course of a year, 75 to 80 students participate in projects, said Dave Douglass, a teacher at Aberdeen's Miller Junior High School.

Some are students who need extra attention they don't get in the classroom. "We've had kids who maybe have struggled with math, but they can come out here and read a tape measure and learn their fractions that way," Douglass said.

Most students come just during the school year, but the Fox brothers are spending their second summer in the shop, getting up each weekday before 6 a.m. They learned about seaport activities through an older brother who rowed in the longboat program.

"It's neat to be down here and build stuff, to learn how to use the tools, to learn how to do a project and not mess up," said Vernon Fox.

The seaport authority was created in 1968 to build a tall-ship representative for the state and explore the possibility of a major maritime museum depicting the history of Grays Harbor and its heyday of shipyards and sawmills.

Though the museum was never built, the Lady Washington, used as a maritime-training vessel, draws enthusiastic visitors in her many dockside appearances and three-hour sailing sessions.

Tall ships are enjoying a resurgence nationally, Bolton said, with more being built each year for educational programs. "The reality of being on a vessel is that it necessitates an interdependence," he said. "No one can do it by themselves, you have to work as a team ... We divide up into our watch groups, set sail and that's incredibly powerful."

Movie props and other maritime projects take shape in the shop, where the centerpiece is a lathe, laid on rails, that can handle logs up to 122 feet long and 40 inches in diameter. Raw logs make the transition into masts, spars and other bits and pieces of a pirate ship.

The Lady Washington, despite her impressive performance in the first of the series, didn't land a part in the "Pirates" sequels. The Interceptor, the boat she played in the first "Pirates" movie, was killed off in that episode. (Fortunately, however, the boat demolished in front of the cameras wasn't the real Lady Washington, but a one-fourth-scale model.)

Nautically speaking, key roles in upcoming "Pirates" went to two East Coast-based tall ships, the 110-foot sloop Providence, replica of an early U.S. Navy vessel commanded by John Paul Jones, and the 180-foot Bounty, built for the 1962 "Mutiny on the Bounty" starring Marlon Brando.

Still, there will be enough of a local presence in the film that when the next "Pirates" installment hits Aberdeen's South Shore Mall Cinema, Bolton said, a group from the seaport will dress up in pirate regalia and attend the first showing, as they did for the original in 2003.

And he offers this tip to get a sense of which props may have been produced in Aberdeen:

"The beauty shots, the shots of a whole boat — not us. But tight shots in fighting scenes, and anytime you see a boat get damaged, that's probably not a real boat. That could be us."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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