Bruce Kessler Interview
Bruce Kessler is a boater based in Los Angeles. He is also a retired professional race-car driver, a former Hollywood director, and he basically invented the sport of small motoryacht circumnavigation in the early ’90s aboard his famous 70-foot Delta, Zopilote. He has worked extensively with Mr. T, and is purported to be the last person to speak to James Dean before he died. Forget the guy in those Dos Equis commercials—Bruce Kessler just may be The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Power & Motoryacht: When did you get your first powerboat?
Kessler: When I was about 23 I had built a plywood-and-glass, 26-foot—it was supposed to be 26-foot—gas-powered sportfisher. It ended up being about 29 feet, by a yard called Harcraft, which was outside Los Angeles.
Power & Motoryacht: What were you doing in L.A. at the time?
Kessler: I had just retired from motorcar racing, and I was a second-unit director for [legendary film director] Howard Hawks.
Power & Motoryacht: Howard Hawks? Motorcar racing? Where do we begin?
Kessler: Yeah, I started sports-car racing at age 16 in competitions, and by the time I was 19 I won the 500cc Club of America championship. At 22 I got hurt at Le Mans in France, and got sent back to the U.S. Then I got hurt again and was offered a job as a technical adviser on a racing picture. Because of my expertise I was eventually able to change how car chases were filmed—at full speed. I made a short film called The Sound of Speed that went to Cannes. Shortly after that I was offered The Monkees, and that’s how my life changed. I was a lucky person to be in the right place at the right time. I had no college education, I graduated high school. I just got lucky.
Power & Motoryacht: And Howard Hawks?
Kessler: Howard Hawks was my film mentor, how could I be luckier? He gave me such a great education. And then that gave me opportunity to work anywhere I wanted.
Power & Motoryacht: Tell me about some of your cruising exploits.
Kessler: Well from 1990 to 1993 I completed the first circumnavigation by a U.S.-built, small motoryacht in a while, if not the first ever. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how many people were watching me, but by the time I finished I had been on the cover of Yachting twice—well the boat had anyway, Zopilote.
I didn’t intend to do it. I had gone down to Australia from California on my own bottom to fish. I fished one season, then another. Then I headed west to Bali, then Singapore. I was going to ship the boat home, but then I figured I’d gone that far, I might as well go the rest of the way.
Power & Motoryacht: Tell me about FUBAR.
Kessler: FUBAR [www.fubarodyssey.com] is what I call ‘my last good idea.’ It’s a rally from Los Angeles down to La Paz, Mexico. We’ve raised a couple hundred thousand dollars for junior sailing so far. The event’s other purpose is to get people who have boats capable of making the trip to have enough confidence to actually do it. We give them support and experienced boats to go with them.
I’d like to enable people to do things that they may not have been lucky enough to do, because I myself have been so lucky. What people don’t always understand is that boating isn’t necessarily crossing oceans. It’s not about the length of the voyage, it’s about the voyage.
Power & Motoryacht: You’re noted as the last guy to speak to James Dean alive.
Kessler: Yeah in 1956 I was headed to Salinas with a friend. We had stopped at Cornell Corners for gas, and Jimmy [Dean] showed up in his Porsche. We knew each other socially, and we talked for a little—no famous last words or anything—and decided to meet later on. But he never showed up. We didn’t think anything of it at the time, just figured he found some girl. It wasn’t until later on that we learned about the crash.
Jimmy wasn’t real outgoing, but we all liked him. He had beautiful girlfriends. We liked hanging around his girlfriends, that’s for sure! He had a motorcycle but the studio didn’t want him riding it, for obvious reasons, so we hid it in my parents’ garage. Y’know, took the heat off him for a little while.
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.