Deep Water (Directors: Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell): I’m not sure how I managed to miss this one until now. Ten years ago, the teacher responsible for any HTML knowledge I might possess shared a quirky and incredible story with our class. Donald Crowhurst was an inexperienced sailor from England who in 1968 entered, at the last minute, a race to sail around the world alone. Despite his lack of preparation and inexperience, his regular reports seemed to have him leading the race. And then suddenly his reports stopped. Some time later, his boat was found drifting in the North Atlantic, completely off course and on the other side of the world from his last reported position. Crowhurst wasn’t on board, but investigators discovered that he’d been keeping two sets of logbooks and trying to deceive the race organizers into thinking he was winning. As his true and reported courses diverged, Crowhurst seemed to lose his sanity and his last entries are heartbreaking in their confusion. At the time I heard the story, the only book written on the subject, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, was long out of print, but I was able to find a copy a few years later through eBay. Happily, the book is now back in print along with another book called A Voyage for Madmen that covers the rest of the race participants in more depth. To make a long story short, the aspiring documentary filmmaker in me always thought this would be an amazing film, and I even toyed with the idea of trying to buy the rights. It seems someone has beaten me to the punch. And that’s a very good thing.
This is an incredible story and I absolutely cannot wait to see this film. It opened theatrically in Britain last December and is now in limited release in the US but there is no planned theatrical release in Canada at this point. Pity.
UPDATE (December 31, 2007): Alliance Atlantis will be releasing the film on DVD in Canada on January 8th. Here’s my review of the DVD:
After my disappointment at the film’s lack of a theatrical release in Canada, my elation at the DVD release could only have been expected. This unbelievable story needs to be known by more people, and I’m glad to report that Osmond and Rothwell’s film does a great job of telling it. Not only that, but for those with no background at all about the Crowhurst story, it builds the suspense carefully and doesn’t reveal the mystery right away. If you’ve read this far in my review, you’ll know that I’ve already spoiled that mystery by telling you all about it above, but you will want to see this film to try to understand what drove this decent and mild-mannered man over the edge to madness and suicide.
There is ample background material on the Sunday Times Golden Globe Round the World Race, a competition to become the first person to sail around the world alone and without stopping. This was something like the first reality television show, albeit broadcast in the pages of a newspaper, and it attracted an enormous amount of attention. In the end, nine men entered the race, and most had had much more sailing experience than Donald Crowhurst, who was a late entry and considered something of a dark horse. Of course, the media played up that angle and when it emerged that Crowhurst was setting sail in an innovative self-designed trimaran, the journalists portrayed him as something of a genius. In reality, he was the struggling proprietor of a business that sold navigational instruments for boats, and his real ambition was to pull himself out of some dire financial difficulties. In his desperation to get funding to build his boat, he signed a restrictive contract that would punish his early withdrawal from the race by making him liable for the costs. As the deadline to set sail approached, the boat was nowhere near ready to sail, but he found himself pressured into launching anyway. A short test journey didn’t augur well, though. At the ceremonial launch, the champagne bottle didn’t break when crashed against the hull (a bad omen) and the journey took two weeks instead of the expected three days, thus eating further into his scarce preparation time. In addition to mechanical problems with the boat, Crowhurst was also woefully inexperienced as a sailor, something he was keen to hide from his sponsor and the press.
The race offered two prizes. The Golden Globe trophy for the first boat to arrive back in England, and a £5,000 cash prize for the fastest time. These were separate things because the race rules allowed the sailors to leave anytime between the beginning of June and the end of October. Needless to say, Crowhurst was the last to launch, on October 31, 1968, and due to the boat’s unfinished condition, he quickly ran into trouble. After only a few weeks, he knew that the boat wouldn’t withstand the wild seas in the Southern Ocean. But because of the precarious financial situation he was in, he realized that dropping out would ruin him, even though continuing might kill him. It is with this dilemma in mind that he formulated what he thought was a way out. He began sending back reports in which he claimed to have covered much greater distances than he had in actuality. The problem became worse when his actual and reported positions grew further and further apart. In the end, he kept two separate logbooks and created a fictional voyage in which he was gaining on his competitors. His plan was simply to sail around the south Atlantic and wait for the rest of the field to actually circumnavigate and sail north from Cape Horn. By the time the other boats had caught up to his actual position, he hoped to join them again and slip in around fourth or fifth place, where no questions would be asked. He might not win the fame or fortune he was after, but he could save face.
Unfortunately for him, the race had claimed many of the other boats, and after Robin Knox-Johnston had claimed the first home prize on April 22, 1969, and his nearest competitor, Frenchman Bernard Moitessier had abandoned the finish line and decided to keep sailing, it looked like Donald Crowhurst might be in line to win the fastest time award. When the boat of Nigel Tetley, the only boat ahead of him, sank on May 21st, Crowhurst knew that if he finished the race at all, he would be welcomed as a hero and subjected to media scrutiny. In his mentally unbalanced state, he left the boat sailing very slowly north, writing increasingly unhinged reports in his logbooks. The last entry is from July 1st and is for all intents and purposes a suicide note. The boat was found drifting with no one on board on July 10th, and Crowhurst’s deception was quickly discovered and jumped on by the press. Knox-Johnston had received both prizes as the only sailor to complete the race, and he donated the cash to Crowhurst’s family.
The filmmakers were fortunate for several reasons. Because the race was such a media circus, lots of archival film and audio recordings exist, including film and audio Crowhurst made himself during the voyage. As well, most of the race participants (or their family members) contributed interviews, including Crowhurst’s widow Clare and several of his children. Perhaps the most moving of all the interviews was with his best friend Ron Winspear, who even now is quick to jump to his friend’s defence. After praising his courage for even attempting something so dangerous, he tearfully recalls, “In my mind, I gave him a hero’s burial.” Though the inexperienced Crowhurst seemed at the beginning to be very different from the rest of the sailors, by the end, we see that he possessed the same ambition, the same courage, and perhaps most heartbreakingly, the same determination not to give up.
I was reminded several times of another recent documentary about brave and single-minded men, a film about the Apollo astronauts called In The Shadow of the Moon (review). One of the journalists interviewed actually does compare the sailors to the astronauts, considering that they were newsworthy at the same period in time. Our relentless hunger for heroes, however, does lead to some casualties, and that in itself makes the film a must-see.
I have only one tiny criticism of the film, and that is that the titles/subtitles are in a font that is far too small and difficult to read. Since quite a bit of information is conveyed this way, it detracted just a bit from the experience.
The DVD includes some wonderful special features, including extra footage telling the stories of some of the other race competitors, as well as fuller interviews with Crowhurst’s family and the journalists who covered the race itself. As well, there is an interactive feature allowing the viewer to explore the cabin of Crowhurst’s boat, the Teignmouth Electron.