Monday, October 14, 2002

`The Ship' takes viewers to adventure in reality

A Carnival cruise it wasn't. There was no hanky-panky for these TV shipmates.

Forty volunteers sailed from Australia on The Ship, a replica of Capt. James Cook's Endeavour, to experience six weeks on an 18th-century sea voyage.

The History Channel calls this co-production with the BBC a "history adventure reality series."

Four Americans were among the crew of the Endeavour. All worked and lived as 18th-century sailors, but they did not wear period costume and did not compete.
History Channel photos

The Endeavour is a 109-foot historical replica.

The Ship (9-11 p.m. today through Wednesday, History Channel) is a little Frontier House, a little Survivor and a lot of hard work.

"The physical labor was difficult," says Cole Smith, 47, an Oklahoma prosecutor who had no sailing experience.

"For just a crewman like myself, I had no idea how fast we were going. I had no idea where we were on the planet, other than in a big body of water," he says.

The Endeavour sailed about 3,500 miles from the northeast coast of Australia to Jakarta, Indonesia. Capt. Cook, the first European to reach Australia, traveled that route in 1770 as part of his three-year voyage.

Crew member Cyril O'Neil, 30, of Los Angeles, wasn't very impressed with the 109-foot ship. He probably saw more glamorous structures on Hollywood movie sets.

"When I set foot on the ship, I actually thought: This thing is a tub, and we'll never make it," says Mr. O'Neil, who co-ordinated all the vehicles for the film American Pie II.

Four Americans were among the cast and crew. Also aboard was a goat (for milk), chickens (for eggs), 15 professional sailors, cooks and navigators, and 18 miles of rope.

All worked and lived as 18th-century sailors, but they didn't wear period costumes. Crew members slept in hammocks 14 inches apart under the ship's deck. They learned to climb the 130-foot mast to unfurl the sails. They worked as a team to pull up the anchor.

Unlike Cook's vessel, or PBS' Frontier House cabins, The Ship had some modern conveniences - a satellite phone to summon emergency medical help for a sick British crew member, and a flush toilet in the lower deck for use while sailing in the Great Barrier Reef. On the open seas, the sailors used the "seat of ease," essentially a wooden toilet seat mounted over the bow.

Women also were on board, another difference from Cook's 100-man crew. The only American woman on The Ship, Melissa Smisko, 28, a Washington, D.C., financial consultant, used the "seat of ease" when the toilet broke. Overall, the voyage wasn't as bad as she feared.

"I mentally prepared myself for the worst," she says. "I really mentally prepared myself to be filthy all the time . . . possibly hungry all the time. So I was pleasantly surprised.

"Yes, I was dirty. Yes, I was hungry. Yes, I was tired. (But) it wasn't as bad as I was prepared for," she says.

The History Channel also provides a glimpse back in time through readings from Capt. Cook's journals, dramatized by re-enactors.

"It is very much the story of two adventures, the 18th-century adventure and the 21st-century adventure," says Chris Terrill, the film's producer, director and cameraman. "We weren't trying to be 18th-century people . . . We were very manifestly 21st-century adventurers going in the footsteps of these historical characters."

As is Survivor, The Ship is a cinematic pleasure, full of beautiful aerial shots and colorful sunsets. But in contrast to CBS' popular reality game show, everyone on The Ship pulled on the same rope at the same time.

"What will set this show aside from a lot of other reality television shows is that . . . we all set out as a group to see if we could do what 18th-century sailors did," Mr. O'Neil says. "And that gave us a purpose other than trying to outsmart . . . your enemies to win a million bucks.

"It's not people trying to knock each other down. It is, in fact, just the opposite. It's people trying to figure out how we can work together, to get where we need to go," Mr. O'Neil says.

The trip back in time without TV, e-mail and the Internet was a life-altering experience for Ms. Smisko.

"I didn't miss any of it, and I was very happy, even with only three T-shirts and three pairs of shorts," she says. "I've really become much less of a consumer, and I've really tried to simplify my life."

Doesn't sound like she will book a Carnival luxury cruise any time soon.


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