sjhstrangetales

FILM REVIEW: DEEP WATER, THE DONALD CROWHURST STORY

Posted on: September 18, 2013

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I was inspired to watch this again from following the start of the 2013 Clipper Race on Twitter. I find Donald Crowhurst an endlessly fascinating character. These days I like to think he would be admired for having the courage to Give It A Go, for following his dream, but 40 years ago it was a different story. He was a wild card, the amateur amongst professionals, and in the end he paid a terrible price for his ambition.

Donald was a child of the British Empire. He was born in India in 1932. His father worked for the railways out there. From interviews with Donald’s widow in the film, it must have been a secluded, isolated childhood, which did little to prepare him for The Real World. When India gained independance in 1947, the Crowhursts returned to England. Donald’s mother had eulogised the home country as some kind of Promised Land. The reality was somewhat different. Britain was in the grip of post-war austerity, and the family’s savings soon evaporated. Donald’s father had a heart-attack under the strain a short while later, and died.

According to Wikipedia Donald had a chequered career in the British armed forces. He left the RAF under mysterious circumstances, and then the army after a disciplinary procedure. He eventually took to running his own business, and became active with the Liberal party. He also developed a keen interest in sailing.

When Sir Francis Chichester successfully circumnavigated the world, single-handledly, the Sunday Times decided to it would throw open another challenge in 1967 – to sail the world single-handledly, non-stop (whereas Chichester had called in at Australia for vital repairs on the way). It was a formidable challenge, not for the faint-hearted. Sailing heavyweights like Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth were up for it. Unlike previous challenges, this one was open to anyone who wanted to give it a try. Donald was very much the wild card. The unknown quantity.

The final deadline for the participants to leave was 31 October 1967. By them most of them had been underway for some considerable time. Donald cut it fine by not leaving until the last minute, and even then had to turn back immediately when he had problems with his sail. A final interview with him shows a man with deep, intense eyes, and a nervy, distracted manner.

In the film Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is quoted as saying “anyone who goes to sea and says they don’t feel fear is a liar”. Donald was facing the turbulent waters of the Atlantic Ocean all on his own. When he first left everybody, including his wife and 4 small children at the quayside, he must have been hit with a wall of loneliness. Of course, some relish the isolation of solo sailing. A fellow participant, the Frenchman Moitessier, loved it so much that, as he was nearing the end of the voyage, he decided to turn round and do it all over again! He preferred being master of his own domain out on the high seas, than having to be fussed and hassled by people on the land.

These days circumnavigators are in constant contact with their own version of Mission Control back home. They have skype, telephones, computers etc. Although they must still experience daunting isolation, it can’t be anything on the scale to which these guys did. Halfway down the Atlantic, Donald must have realised that his trimaran, which was already leaking (he had to bail it out by hand), would never be able to cope with the horrors of the southern oceans. He was left with a total Hobson’s Choice, to go forward could mean certain death, and yet to admit failure and go back would mean bankruptcy and ruin. Donald decided to take a 3rd solution. He would fake his journey. He would sit in the Atlantic and pretend he had sailed the course.

The final part of the film is very moving, as the extreme isolation and the strain he was under took their toll on his mental health. In the Summer of 1969, Donald wrote his “philosophy” in his logbook, in which he recorded things like “cosmic beings are playing games with us”, “there’s no good nor evil, only truth”, and that he believed God and the Devil were playing games with people’s lives. It is thought that he took his own life on 1 July 1969, by jumping overboard into the weed-choked Sargasso Sea.

That he survived for months on end, completely alone, out on the ocean is by no mean feat. As a friend of his says at the beginning of the film: “we are all human beings, and we all have dreams”.

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