By Gail McCarthy
Rockport native David Wittkower grew up surrounded by ocean, witnessing both its beauty and its potential dangers.
The 1979 Rockport High graduate left his small, seaside hometown to study at the American Film Institute in California where he learned his craft.
On Sunday afternoon at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, he will screen his latest and most intense film, "Guardians of the Gates: The Surfboats," a depiction of the elite U.S. Coast Guard Search & Rescue crews that conduct more than 600 rescues a year.
The program is the latest in cinema presentations hosted by Rockport Music.
For this film, Wittkower was working out of the nation's second busiest Coast Guard station, located adjacent to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Wittkower, who has won more than 27 film festival awards, gives viewers a front seat as the Coast Guard crews head into treacherous waters to save lives.
Gregg Sorensen, a Rockport Music spokesman, says the film riveting.
"This film give you a much greater understanding of and appreciation for the men and women of the United States Coast Guard," he said. "They risk their lives every day to save lives and keep our country safe. What they do is amazing."
The audience is also invited to stay for a post-screening question and answer session with Wittkower and James Caulkett, Gloucester's harbormaster and Coast Guard retiree.
Wittkower explained that, because the Coast Guard is a branch of the military and part of the Department of Homeland Security, he had to have a television outlet to produce the film and receive access. He succeeded, and the film is expected to air on a PBS station in Maryland.
A couple of years ago, he produced the film "The Eagle: America's Tall Ship," and prior to that he did films on rodeo subjects.
Wittkower, who founded Lighthouse Productions, has created 11 films.
Over the course of a year, he went on missions from Station Golden Gate for his latest work.
"I think of all the films I've done, this is the one I'm most proud of because I was in the thick of it, going on the rescues," he said. "It took time to have people warm up to you, and the more I showed up and hung out with them, the better it got. I want people to appreciate the hard work the Coast Guard does. There's so much devotion they have to get out there in all sorts of weather to save a life."
The son of Andrew and Mary Wittkower of Rockport, the filmmaker said he's eager to return to his hometown to present this film about the 47-foot surf boats, gray patrol boats that are able to plow through waves up to about 30 feet. Wittkower himself experienced waves up to 25 feet.
"The unfortunate thing about Station Golden Gate is, because it is right next to bridge, they deal with people who jump off the bridge," he said. "The average is one every two weeks. I went on two recoveries for jumpers and never found the body."
Another particular about the surf boats is that they can roll completely around and the film includes footage showing this, though he did not film that himself.
"They drive it on the outside of the boat and they are tethered in. If you roll, you hold your breath," he said.
Wittkower also went to the Coast Guard station just north of Golden Gate at Bodega Bay where there is a great white shark issue. About 280 great whites have been tagged in those waters.
"I also rode in a Coast Guard helicopter and got a point of view from them looking down," he said.
As he filmed, he said he worked to get shots that would leave the audience wondering "how did he get that shot?"
What he found most surprising was the experience of being on such large waves, the kind of conditions in which the surfmen constantly train to be prepared at all times.
"At times, you are in a valley and you go down so low on the wave that you don't see the horizon and you are looking up at the boat and then you go up, and it happens all over again," he recalled.
The training for this work is extremely demanding and it can take from one to six years, according to the Coast Guard's website.
"Of the 188 boat stations currently in the Coast Guard, 20 stations are located in areas with surf conditions that require surfmen," according to the website. "Only 1 out of every 25 BM1 or BM2s (boatswain's mates first and second class) will achieve qualification as surfman and become part of this elite community."
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445 or email@example.com.
If you go
What: "Guardians of the Gates: The Surfboats," a film by David Wittkower.
When: Sunday, April 15, at 4 p.m.
Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center at 37 Main St. in Rockport.
How much: $9 at the door or Shalin Liu box office.