When Hollywood needs pirate advice, they turn to islander Jamie White
When Hollywood goes pirating, Galvestonian Jamie White often is part of the crew.
As an internationally recognized expert on seafaring and all things pirate, White has made a specialty of being on set for a number of movies featuring marauders of the deep. Although not cast as a star himself, he’s shared the deck with such box office notables as Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins and Liam Neeson.
White’s role includes ensuring such cinematic treats are not just spine tingling and fancy tickling, but also authentic in the ways of the sea.
“Pirates and privateers were the consummate sailors,” said White, a lifelong sailor and director of the island-based Texas Seaport Museum and its 1877 iron-hulled barque Elissa. “Pirates could not afford to make mistakes. Their livelihood — and their lives — depended on their seamanship — they had to be not only excellent, but better than the experienced seamen upon which they were preying.”
White’s work goes beyond making sure everyone on a movie set knows the difference between “avast” and “ahoy.” There could be no satisfactory excuse offered for a pirate — even a fictional movie pirate — to be observed tying a landlubber knot or unfurling an improper sail. And although computer-generated special effects take care of many cinematic challenges today, there still isn’t a substitute for a basic understanding of the dynamics of sailing and hands-on expertise.
Even the space-age engineering incorporated into today’s sound stages to give the appearance of a ship’s sailing on the open seas won’t make up for poor seamanship, White said.
Handling rigging, ropes and sails with ease takes practice; lack of skill in these areas will be apparent to and noticed by audiences.
“In Hollywood, it’s all about what looks good within less than 10 feet away,” White said.
It’s often more exhausting to work on a movie than to crew on an actual ship, he said.
“There are many long, hard days,” he said. “You may also have to work your way through a disagreement with a director about which sails to set for the particular wind condition he is trying to replicate.”
With a love for the sea that began during his boyhood spent on the California coast, White is well acquainted not only with the technical aspects of sailing but also highly informed regarding the fact and fiction of what is sometimes referred to as “piratology.” He also quickly makes the distinction between pirates, who worked for themselves, and privateers, who worked on behalf of a national interest.
Among his favorite authors are Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, and privateers who interest him include Felix von Luckner, a legendary captain recognized for never having a casualty — on either his or his enemy’s side — as he plied the seas on behalf of Germany during World War I.
Luckner would pull alongside an enemy ship, take that crew captive aboard his own ship — the Sea Eagle or Seeadler — then sink the other ship, White said. The captive crew was then treated to great hospitality aboard the Sea Eagle, until being put ashore at the nearest neutral port, the understanding being that Luckner would be given three days before the incident was reported. The Sea Eagle is credited with sinking 14 ships in this manner.
In addition to his movie career, White has been a lecturer at the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, and only recently returned from New York where he helped “tie up” the 300-foot-long Wavertree, the largest iron ship in the world, in preparation for the vessel going into dry dock.
Despite such expertise regarding ships, however, what is the question White is most often asked by the general public?
“What is Johnny Depp like?” White said with a wry smile.
The answer: “Actually, he’s very amiable — he remembers personal things about the behind-the-scenes crew members and is interested in them as people. He will ask about children and other things going on in their lives. He’s definitely not a prima donna.”