Exactly 30 years ago, Duran Duran, dressed in fluorescent suits, perched themselves at the bow of a fabulously elegant ketch named Eilean to make the music video for “Rio.” That video remains iconic, but its 70-foot star spent much of the past three decades in a sad state of disrepair — even sinking briefly, and then becoming fodder for termites. It took the chief executive of the fine watch company Panerai to restore the Eilean to its ’80s-pop glory. And late last month, the boat was finally reunited with the Duran Duran members Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and Roger Taylor during the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, a gentlemanly racing event that brings together classic yachts from around the world.
The resurfacing of Eilean is only the latest chapter in the boat’s curious history. It was built in 1936 for the Fulton brothers, Scottish steel merchants, and owned briefly by Hartley Shawcross, the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes tribunal. Shawcross sold the yacht in the 1960s to an enterprising sailor who took it to Antigua’s English Harbor, at the southern end of the island, where Horatio Nelson lived in the 1780s. There it served as a charter for, among other customers, a glitzy band of pop pinups from Birmingham, England. Of all the members of Duran Duran, Le Bon, age 53, is the most seasoned mariner by leagues. In the following interview, he talks about being reunited with Eilean and the origin of his interest in sailing.
How did the band fare in the regatta? What’s your opinion of the sailing skills of the other members of Duran Duran?
Well, Nick is really good at sitting at the back of the boat as long as it doesn’t tip over too much. That is the extent of his sailing skill, in its totality. Roger is quite a competent sailor, he’s very good with small boats. He had a laser that he was taking out on the water at English Harbor, which he was quite good at sailing. But I was actually the only band member on board the Eilean in the regatta and while we weren’t particularly competitive this time, I think as the boat does more and more racing she will become more competitive. … She was built to cruise, she’s not a racing boat.
How long had it been since you saw Eilean?
I first set eyes upon Eilean in 1982 when we went down to Antigua to film the video for “Rio.” She was sitting in the middle of English Harbor. We came out onto the beach where we were staying and I looked at this boat sitting right there in front of us and she was so beautiful, I thought, “That can’t possibly be the boat that we’re going to film the video on. It must be an uglier one than that.” It was just so incredibly beautiful and huge and amazing and lovely.
Did your interest in sailing originate long before the video for “Rio”?
When I was about 11 years old, a local vicar — who I think had a bit of a thing about my mum — said to me: “Every year I take six kids — three boys and three girls — down to the Norfolk Broads, where we take a big boat and sail around for a week. And I’ve got a space for another boy. Would you like to join us?” Frankly, my thoughts at that time had not anything to do with the Norfolk Broads or about the boat. My thought was, “Three girls?! Yes please! Mum, I got to go, you got to let me go!” And so I did and he actually took a dinghy along with him. In the 1960s, the Mirror newspaper group decided to make sailing accessible to all classes of people, as previously it had been a rich man’s sport. So they designed a very easy-to-build boat to be built out of wood. You could just buy the kit, the plans, and it was possible for anybody with basic woodworking skills to put it together. People built them in their garages and sheds, and there were thousands upon thousands of these boats all over the U.K. So this vicar had one of them and towed it down behind his Morris Traveler, then towed it on the back of a boat that we hired. It was a little sailing boat and he took me out for a sail on it one day. When we got back he said, “Look, you seem pretty good at this. You can take it out any time you like.” For me, this was an amazing thing. It was freedom, it was transport. Transport that I didn’t have to pedal! So from age 11, I thought sailing to be just fantastic, the most amazing thing, the most amazing opportunity. That’s when I started sailing.
And your interest became more serious over the years?
Then when I was 14, I joined a local sailing club, a local sailing team and did a bit of that. But once I got more into music, I focused on playing the guitar, got really into David Bowie and T. Rex and then punk rock, and the sailing took a back seat and really went by the wayside, to be honest with you. Then of course I joined a band, and I really didn’t get back on a boat until we filmed the video for “Rio.” But getting back on a boat, on Eilean, ignited something in me which carried on right to the present day. I do a lot of sailing now and the spark really was going on Eilean for the “Rio” video.
Tell us about the past few days you’ve spent in Antigua? That’s where the video was shot, of course. Is it a special place for you?
Going down there in ’82 was the first time I’d ever been in the Caribbean, and I think your first experience always remains in your head as something very special. So I have a great affection for Antigua. … Its recent history is quite tough; they’ve suffered economically because of the financial problems the Western world has been going through. But the people are getting on with things, getting on with life, and it’s still beautiful. It’s got an incredible natural resource in its stunning coastline as well as a rich history. It was Nelson’s island for protecting the British trade route, which I guess was mainly the sugar trade in the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries when France was at war with England — which is why the routes needed to be protected. So there are these beautiful old buildings down there which are just spectacular. We didn’t film just one video down there, we filmed two — the video for “Rio” and another one for a song called “(Waiting for the) Nightboat,” in a dry dock in Nelson’s Dockyard. We went there during this last trip, and it’s exactly the same as I remember it. It hasn’t changed in 30 years.
Courtesy The New York Times