Shoots and Sails

Alumni7 min. Read

A humanitarian filmmaker lenses Maine’s coast

Spike Smigelski with two friends
By Jasper Lowe
August 10, 2021

When Spike Smigelski ’13 closes his eyes, sometimes he can still feel the pitch and yaw inherent to a ship at sea. The rocking is rooted in last summer, when he sailed three hundred miles along Maine’s coast with two of his best friends. Spike, a filmmaker, documented their adventure, and the resulting film, Maine Sail, explores sustainable aquaculture practices from York to Isle Au Haut.

Maine Sail premiered on OutsideTV and screened earlier this month at the Montauk Film Festival. The film follows adventurer Willis Brown as he breaks bread (or shucks oysters) with farmers, fisherwomen, and founders of Maine’s sustainable food movement. Captain Ben Hayden helms the boat while Spike films everything. Touring the state’s most inventive, and often best-tasting, organic farms and businesses, the guys learn about everything from curbing the invasive green crab species to the sea-to-table processes of award-winning chefs.

Willis Brown, Ben Hayden, Spike Smigelski ’13
Willis Brown (left), Ben Hayden, and Spike Smigelski ’13 sailed 300 miles along the Maine coast filming footage for Maine Sail.

Important to the integrity of the expedition was promoting sustainability by practicing it along the way. The crew fished for dinner, landing sea bass and mackerel while also diving for sea urchins. Leading by example was no departure for Spike, who has built a career in humanitarian filmmaking. When producing content for Waves For Water, an NGO bringing clean drinking water to communities devastated by natural disasters, Spike will frequently run the programs he is tasked with recording.

Even Spike’s cinematography is bent on realism and spontaneity. In Maine Sail, every frame is naturally lit, truthfully capturing the brutal and beautiful strokes of Maine’s rugged coastline. In one foreboding shot, a Downeast sunrise is choked by the gathering of storm clouds.

Dinner aboard Tamarijn
Dinner aboard Tamarijn often consisted of fish caught by the crew, who sought to practice sustainability as much as they could throughout their journey.

“The fact that there’s a film at all is a miracle,” says Spike. Shooting and editing video while under sail proved challenging. Heavy seas pounded Tamarijn, a 1976 Tartan 30, and her crew relentlessly. Cameras crashed overboard and hard drives failed under salty duress. During one storm, Spike dislocated his shoulder and, 20 miles out to sea, reduced his own dislocation before continuing to sail and shoot.

But the difficult conditions presented by maritime production also inspired ingenuity. Batteries were charged via portable solar panels. Spike learned to land his drone in the palm of Willis’s hand. And no amount of foul weather could spoil the joy—or stoke—of making art with your mates. The lobster rolls didn’t hurt either. Spike’s ritual was to inhale two at the nearest shack every time Tamarijn cruised into port.

“Filmmaking quickly became the vehicle with which I explored the world.”

Spike Smigelski ’13

Three months earlier, Spike was living in Los Angeles, grinding out a living as a freelance filmmaker, when the pandemic shut down his industry. Gripped by the economic uncertainty facing many last year, Spike was fearful about his filmmaking future. Willis called. He was planning a sailing trip to Maine, did Spike want to come aboard to capture the adventure? Shortly after hanging up, Spike packed his car with camera gear and drove east, excited by the prospect of returning to Maine, the state where his journey as a filmmaker began.

“Who I was when I started at Colby is completely different from who I was when I graduated,” says Spike. A hockey and lacrosse player at Colby, Spike trained and studied government while quietly enrolling in every art class he could fit into his schedule. It was a photography course that finally put a camera in Spike’s hand and helped him break free of being “Mr. Hockey,” he said.

“I realized that not only did I want to be creative, but it was okay to be creative.”

After graduation, Spike moved to L.A., where he leveraged his Colby network to land interviews with three reality-TV companies. The first two looked at his CV—no production experience—and asked, “What are you doing here?” The third, known to produce physically grueling television, looked at Spike’s athletic frame and asked, “When can you start?”

“That was my film school. Twelve-hour days shooting in a gritty style that would define everything I made moving forward.” Soon, Spike was producing programming for the Sportsmans Channel and A&E. Waves For Water sent him to document water solution programs in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, and Liberia.

“Filmmaking quickly became the vehicle with which I explored the world,” says Spike from his new office in Salzburg, Austria. Last fall Spike took a job as a senior producer at Redbull, the energy drink company renowned for creating groundbreaking adventure films. His most recent project was shot in Madrid, Spain, by a crew of 150 people. “This film,” he says of Maine Sail and its challenges, “made me more confident going into the bigger ones.”

Watching Maine Sail is a hopeful, sometimes contemplative, experience. Throughout, viewers are buoyed by innovative efforts of sustainability pioneers and practitioners to thwart wastefulness and, ultimately, climate change.

But it’s the film’s imagery that truly communicates the stakes of continued personal and global immoderation. Our coastal ecosystems are only as grand as they are delicate.

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