Following Seas

The family who disavowed the constraints of society in favour of life on the high seas

Following Seas Bob and Nancy Griffith made twenty ocean voyages over two decades, fulfilling a dream of freedom and adventure in their 53-foot sailboat. Nothing seemed impossible for this couple and their growing family as they travelled to some of the most remote places on earth, chronicling life at sea with their 16mm Bolex camera. As narrated by Nancy in this extraordinary film, their unconventional life’s voyage brought unexpected challenges and sacrifices.

“The waves worked the wreck back and forth”, says Nancy. “It screamed when it was breaking apart”. From the beach of a seemingly uninhabited Atoll island, the Griffiths looked on as their beloved boat, and their home for years, was destroyed on the reef in front of them. “It was totally devastating to see it disintegrate before our very eyes. When it actually failed to look like a real boat, there was a finality to that moment. Here we were, on a desert island”.

Bob and Nancy had embarked on one of their many sailing adventures, when they ran into trouble in French Polynesia. Ever cool-headed, the pair simply set to work. A shelter was built, boat parts were salvaged, and Nancy’s young son, Reid, even completed his school work. “He would sit on the vertebrae of a whale and it would make the perfect seat for him to do his homework”. They spent almost a year on that island, retrieving their belongings from the bottom of the ocean and repairing their waterlogged engine. “It’s like poetry”, says Nancy of her time there. “Life is reduced to its essentials but there’s enough of everything”. After being arrested on the island on suspicion of espionage, they were released and eventually made it to New Zealand, where they immediately began building a new boat.

The couple thrived on the freedom of life at sea. “We never had the threat of having to jump to the requirements of a landlord or a boss”. They circumnavigated the world three times, sailed uncharted waters, and repeated Captain Cook's incredible adventures in Antarctica and Hawaii, breaking records and earning their keep as filmmakers as they went. Nancy remembers the “fantastic following seas” that led them home to New Zealand after their sailing triumph around the horn, and “the sensation of being right on top of a swell, right on top of the world!”

However, freedom came at a price. Nancy and Bob spent months at a time away from their young children, causing tension between Nancy and her mother, who was concerned about the safety of life at sea. But it was on land that the real tragedy struck. When the family anchored in the bay of an uninhabited valley, Reid and another crew member went hunting for fresh meat. But Reid never returned; three days after they began searching, the family found him at the bottom of a fifty foot drop. “You never get over it. Strange thing to say but he’s a far greater loss to me than Bob”, says a tearful Nancy. Years after, Bob too would die on a voyage, one he had undertaken without his family. Nancy saw that her husband was buried at sea, where he is “rocked in the cradle of the deep”.

An awe-inspiring first-hand account of an extraordinary family. Nancy’s moving stories are brought to life by the beautiful original footage she and Bob captured over a lifetime on the ocean.

The Producers

Araby Williams has worked on independent films, television shows for National Geographic and The History Channel, and created award-winning video content for The Wall Street Journal. A video journalist, editor, and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she is also interested in experimental filmmaking using Super 8 film and stop-motion animation.

Tyler J. Kelley is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and, among other places. He also teaches printmaking at The New School, and sails a 1978 J/24 named Me Too III.

Making The Film

In the winter of 2010 I met the Griffiths’ son Robert at a bar in Brooklyn. He said that he had ten DVDs’ worth of footage, transferred from 16-millimeter film, that his mother had shot while voyaging. I went to his house to watch it and was immediately struck by the beauty and intimacy of the footage. That night I called Araby Williams and said, “We need to make a movie.” The two of us began interviewing members of the Griffith family in New York, Maine, and at Nancy’s home in Hawaii. We spent the next six years gathering the stories behind the footage and distilling it all into Following Seas.

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