You’ve probably never heard of the Griffith family, despite the fact that they’re among the most accomplished American sailors in history. The family undertook 20 ocean voyages over two decades, including three separate circumnavigations. They’ve been marooned on desert islands, navigated through miles and miles of treacherous icebergs and nearly drowned more times than they can count. They live their lives according to the call of adventure, untethered by the trappings of modern society.
“Following Seas,” a documentary shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival made by Tyler J. Kelley and Araby Williams, is the story of the Griffiths, as told by the matriarch, Nancy. Her narrations are set to the footage she took while at sea over the years on 16-millimeter film. The result is fascinating — a film filled with stories of adventure, love, heartbreak and visceral panic.
They are truly a family of explorers, in the oldest possible sense of the word. Nancy’s husband, Bob, had been a successful veterinarian until one day he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, and so he took his daughter (an act that Social Services had described as “kidnapping”) and went off to sea. He met Nancy in Honolulu Harbor in 1960, and the two of them got married and raised their family at sea.
Nancy tells her stories in a deadpan voice, which feels somewhat juxtaposed with her subjects: that time she was stranded on a desert island and lived self-sufficiently for three months, or that time she found out she was pregnant while on a Russian naval base in Antarctica. Her matter-of-factness is part of what makes her family’s story so compelling — she’s interesting because of what she did, not how she spoke. They traveled without GPS, any way to communicate with the world or money (most of the time). It was just the family, a 53-foot boat they built themselves, a chronometer and some maps.
According to a post-screening Q & A with the filmmakers, it took about six years to finish the film. Most of that time was spent not gathering the footage — Nancy supplied that herself — but gaining the trust of the Griffiths needed to put the whole story together. They experienced some horrible losses in their travels, losses that could be expected given the danger that constantly loomed over their lives, but awful nonetheless. The filmmakers’ empathy for their subjects is clear in the way they edited the film, with a deft sense of humor and a precise eye for the detail that makes the Griffith family’s lives transcend from a collection of anecdotes to a complete story.
There’s a keen sense of nostalgia to “Following Seas.” Whether that be because of the omnipresent 16mm footage or the fondness with which those interviewed talk about the old days, I don’t know, but it lets the film hit the audience gently. Not with a sudden rush of forced sympathy, but with a quiet yet focused empathy. Kelley and Williams aren’t here to force awe or judgment on the Griffiths — they’re just along for the ride. It’s a lovely, warm film, one that deserves to go beyond the festival circuit to wide release. We could all do with a little more adventure in our lives.