TrawlerFest used to have a movie night for attendees. On one occasion, our chosen flick was Captain Ron, and I was master of ceremonies. Goofy, farcical, stupid—I can’t quibble with these characterizations of the 1992 film starring Kurt Russell and Martin Short, except to say that they miss the point. As I said in my introduction that night, “I know Captain Ron. Captain Ron is real, and the movie is true.”
Yes, in its own goofy, farcical, stupid way, Captain Ron accurately reflects a slice of cruising history in ways that the seriously bogus 2013 film All Is Lost with Robert Redford never could. (Really, who would ever speak “SOS” into their VHF radio mic?)
The age of fiberglass brought cruising to the masses beginning in the 1960s, and that included a certain small percentage of—let us say—exceptional individuals. Call them adventurers, gentlemen of the highway, except with boats. Think of Florida, as it always has been, a haven for all manner of scalawags, boozers, bongers and bull slingers, either conceived locally or as fugitives from a colder place.
What happened when some of these fellows managed to get themselves run out of Florida in the 1970s and ’80s? Where did they go?
To the Caribbean, of course.
SOUTHBOUND AND DOWN
My first viewing of Captain Ron was in 1999 with a bunch of cruisers at Puerto Blanco Marina in the Dominican Republic. That’s also where I met one of my first Rons. He was an amiable enough fellow for a graduate of the U.S. penal system. He’s still alive, and I have actually listened as a trusting newbie declared that he would follow the good captain anywhere.
I wouldn’t. He’s sunk three boats that I know about, and one is still a hazard to navigation at Sapodilla Bay in the Turks and Caicos.
What better affirmation of the film’s most enduring takeaway points:
Martin Harvey: We don’t know how to drive a boat.
Captain Ron: The best way to find out…is to get her out on the ocean. If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.
Knowing I would be introducing Captain Ron to a cruising audience, I decided to test my assumptions about the film’s origins. I contacted the author of the screenplay, John Dwyer of Austin, Texas, who revealed that the movie was indeed based on events that happened to his own family during a 1969 boat delivery.
Dwyer told me his father was a Mad Men-style advertising executive: a status-conscious, conspicuous spender who wanted to outdo his boat-owning colleagues. So, he bought a used Chris-Craft Commander at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and convinced his family that it would be an adventure for all of them to bring the boat back to Texas. His broker convinced him that he didn’t have the experience to do it without a paid captain, so he hired Captain Ron. (Yes, his name was Ron, and he claimed to be a captain.)
A PEG LEG, TOO
Like movie Ron, the real Ron had one functioning eye and, amazingly, a wooden peg leg. Dwyer told me this detail would have been too ridiculous, even for a movie that was trying to be ridiculous. Real Ron was drunk so much of the time that they called him “Ron Rico” in honor of the cheap brand of rum he favored. (And, yes, movie Ron’s surname is Rico as well.)
During the trip to Texas, all the boat’s electronics failed, the electrical system experienced multiple failures, and Ron managed to get lost on the Intracoastal Waterway. During a stormy passage in the Gulf of Mexico, the Dwyer family feared for their lives in heavy seas. Ron tried to seduce Dwyer’s mother. At one point, Dwyer’s father threatened to throw Ron overboard.
Chevy Chase was originally considered for the title role, and the first script was written as an edgy adult comedy. But the Disney studio wanted it to be a family movie instead. As a result, Dwyer turned the big powerboat into a Formosa 51 (referred to as a 60 in the film), and changed the motivation from ad-man-seeking-status to family-inherits-sailboat-and-seeks-adventure-in-the-Caribbean.
(Another fun fact: According to Dwyer, Short was originally cast as Captain Ron and Russell as the dad, but the two got drunk one night and decided to switch roles. The universe has been grateful ever since.)
Like the Ron character, the Harvey family is also real. In the ’70s and ’80s, the islands were full of innocents looking to fulfill escape fantasies. Hey, some are still out there, but I worry that we may be running out of Rons. The world is cracking down.
“Where have all the pirates gone?” nautical troubadour Eileen Quinn once asked in her song of the same name. Her answer: “They’re pumping gas in Marathon.”
Think about it: the Rons of the world were already an endangered species even before the Florida Keys had self-serve gas stations.