A tragically wrong tack

CorrespondentOctober 12, 2007 

  • HHHH

    Documentary

    Cast: Narrated by Tilda Swinton.

    Directors: Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell.

    Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

    Theaters: Chapel Hill: Chelsea Theater. Cary: Galaxy.

    Web site: www.deepwatermovie.co.uk.

    Rating: PG.

Herman Melville once wrote, "At sea a fellow comes out. Salt water is like wine, in that respect."

These lofty words perhaps explain what has driven some men since the beginning of time to take to the ocean, making desperate voyages against impossible odds. Self-discovery aside, more realistic motivations have included greed, wild ambition and simply escape. The adventurous spirit present in sea tales has long been fodder for the imaginations of us all.

So what do we make of Donald Crowhurst? What possessed a soft-spoken middle-age British family man, with little or no sailing experience, to undertake a journey that was fraught with danger and, at worst, could prove deadly? Was it a boyhood fantasy coming to fruition or an ill-fated result of pride gone awry? These questions and more are examined in the enthralling new documentary on Crowhurst, "Deep Water," by film makers Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell.

Britain in 1968 saw a public enamored of larger-than-life adventurers. Sir Francis Chichester had become a national hero by being the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo. His accomplishment had filled the coffers of many a backer and fattened the bank accounts of many a newspaper that had followed his progress and filled the press with purple prose.

Sensing a good thing, the Sunday Times announced a daring promotion. Dubbed the Golden Globe Race, the contest offered 5,000 pounds to any sailor who could match Chichester's feat and do it nonstop.

Eight seasoned risk-takers signed up. The press and public were beside themselves with anticipation. They went positively apoplectic when out of nowhere Donald Crowhurst quietly tossed his cap into the ring. Working-class Crowhurst, pale and slightly pudgy, was far from the picture of a mighty hero. This common man was golden, and the media howled with excitement.

Enter millionaire businessman and armchair sailing enthusiast Stanley Best. Quick to bankroll Crowhurst's quest, he signed Crowhurst to a contract stating that Crowhurst would have to pay for the boat to be built should he withdraw from the race. Thus a dodgy pipe dream became real financial ruin for Crowhurst. Former Fleet Street reporter Rodney Halworth was hired as press agent to hype Crowhurst's exploits. The media machine was in motion.

Problems arose from the beginning. The construction was slow and the end result was at best mediocre. All the other contestants had long ago set sail as the launch deadline approached with Crowhurst seemingly dead in the water. Details were skipped and corners were cut. The small boat was christened in late October.

Thus on Oct. 30, after crying in his wife's arms for most of the night, Crowhurst sat on the beach with his best friend and decided to give up. Best and Halworth were having none of this quitting and, with veiled threats, forced Crowhurst to continue. With thoughts of his own struggling father, an outwardly cheerful Crowhurst was off.

Immediately leaks sprung and bolts popped. Crowhurst's transmissions home remained upbeat, but his journals told a different story, showing a man crumbling under the indifference of the mighty ocean. Barely two months out he hatched a desperate plan: He decided to simply lie about his progress. Radioing that he had sailed 243 miles in 24 hours, a record, he was languishing in the North Atlantic going nowhere near the dangerous Southern ocean. Maintaining radio silence for 11 weeks, his plan was to rejoin the race after his fellow competitors rounded Cape Horn, coming in third or fourth, saving some face and hoping that his logs would not be scrutinized too closely. Twists of fate, creeping dementia and the power of nature intervened.

Narrated with a measured voice by actress Tilda Swinton, "Deep Water" reconstructs Crowhurst's story using his journals and interviewing those involved, including Crowhurst's wife Clare and son Simon.

If nothing else, "Deep Water" shows that no one ever truly conquers the sea, and that sometimes there is only a hair's breadth between a fool and a hero.

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