In September 1991 i was mate aboard a big old ex Whitbread maxi and we were just finishing a fast cruising circumnavigation by sailing up the Thames and on the last day of the voyage passing through tower bridge. I think i was most delighted that we had held up all traffic over the bridge not once but twice that day as we ‘sailed’ back through again less than an hour later and then put into St Catherines dock for a couple of days before taking the boat back to Southampton. The real best moment though when one of my all-time sailing hero’s , Robin Knox-Johnston (and not ‘sir) yet came aboard the welcome us home. By chance i had my copy of his book aboard and asked him if he would do me the honour of signing it, in fact he did much better by signing it with a neat dedication that linked our 2 voyages. Obviously his was by far the most significant as his circumnavigation was the first non-stop one and won him the Golden Globe award and major recognition in the sailing world.
Sadly my copy of the book was then stolen and almost certainly by somebody from the law firm that we hosted for 2 nights of party’s aboard the boat. RKJ had even joked with me that he had finally found the person that had bought the book ! . His voyage was really highly unlikely in that he completed the race , such as it was, in a heavy and slow all teak ketch that was in no way suitable for Southern Ocean conditions. Having just been down there twice in 2 years and unkowingly about to go a third, i knew well that the best boat down there is something big and fast that can be driven hard downwind and where boatspeed really does equal control.
Sailors and non-sailors alike often mistake the southern ocean with the ‘south seas’, while the latter is palm trees and carol atoll’s the former is an endless bleak waste of deep cold ocean, high winds, large waves and far enough south : icebergs. Although a Whitbread race wasn’t always won or lost down there it is the most significant part of the whole deal. I have often found the best way to explain the southern ocean is to take a cheap plastic world globe and flip it upside down. The sea that is then revealed as completely circling the world down there is the southern ocean and it rapidly becomes clear why it blows so hard for so long and how it is that waves become the huge breaking greybeards of sailing legend. Really what it demands of the sailor is a totally bold pedal-to-metal approach, a capable boat and a hard driving crew. Today though i’m not here to reminisce but to talk about one of the strangest stories in the history of sailing and one that is very current with the recent film “The Mercy”
Sailing films generally totally suck !…..in my experience. I can’t think of a single film about sailing that i haven’t completely disliked : except this one and this one definitely isn’t an easy watch for a sailor. The basic story is well known in sailing and now i guess at least basically known outside the sport. The film is based on the true story of failing businessman Donald Crowhurst and his attempt to sail and win the first non-stop race around the world after the 2 stage circumnavigation by Francis Chichester in 1967. The actual race should probably have been won by Frenchman Bernard Moitessier execpt that he went all ‘ocean hippy’ and dropped out, in fact continuing on past both great capes and fetched up in French Polynesia aboard his boat ‘Joshua’
In the race rules anyone that put an entry in could participate and entrants could start anytime they chose in a 4 month time frame, essentially as soon as they felt ready. Moitessier certainly had the fastest and most seaworthy boat but wasn’t the first starter, Of the 9 actual entrants only 5 did start the race and 2 of those , Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway both retired early on. The last starter, almost at the last hour, was Donald Crowhurst who’s boat was only in construction stage when RKJ started his race. When he started the race Crowhurst had only sailed his boat, a radical Trimaran, from where it was built in Norfolk to Teignmouth and it wasn’t even then ready to sail. Crowhurst had apparently said that he would complete the fit-out at sea while racing but the boat even in channel conditions was disappointingly slow especially in upwind sailing. It is clear from his actual logs that he had no confidence in the boat but also that he felt trapped in his own endeavour. The worst part of this is that unbeknownst to his wife he had essentially mortgaged his house and failing business to his financial backer and certainly faced financial ruin if he dropped out.
The strange story is that he then tried to engineer a total deception in which he would ‘hang around’ in an empty part of the south Atlantic while reporting false positions, claiming a new sailing speed record, reverse-engineering the astro-navigation and then ultimately tagging onto the back of the race behind Knox-Johnston and Nigel Tetley. Nigel Tetley did almost complete the race in his trimaran but capsized and had to abandon ship when he believed that Crowhurst was catching him.
Crowhurst’s boat ‘Teignmouth Electron’ was eventually found drifting on the 9th of July some 8 days after his last log entry. The presumption , based on the written evidence he left on board is that he suffered a complete mental breakdown andcommitted suicide soon after his last log entry. His body was never found and the boat today is just a wreck slowly decaying on a beach in the Cayman islands.
So the film then : my first and probably only ever film review.
This isn’t the standard Hollywood offering of hero-myth or feel-good, in fact it’s a very uncomfortable film to watch because the true story that it is based on is all about fear, failure, deception and ultimately despair. All of that comes across in the film and in my opinion the main characters, Colin Firth as Crowhurst and Rachel Weisz as his wife carry their parts well. I see the film as having 3 main threads : Donald Crowhurst himself and his dream of winning the race and thus gaining the fame and recognition that he craves, the sailing film and then his breakdown into eventual despair and possible psychosis. The sailing side is the easiest to deal with here, aside from a few jarring notes it is done competently. There is a good sense with the filming and particularly the sound of the queasy spatial disorientation that Crowhurst experiences early on in the race while he is trying to stow and work on the boat through bouts of seasickness. I am now very sensitive to sound generally and particularly aboard boats, Teignmouth Electron is a noisy boat right from the start, not just slopping and banging its way along but making weird noises in its rig which are amplified in the sound-box of a hull.
The crux of the story is really Crowhurst’s deteriorating mental state and the elaborate deception he creates. He was clearly a very intelligent man who had qualified as an RAF officer and pilot (although asked to leave the service). He was also disappointed by the boat and clearly doubted it’s seaworthiness, in fact i would go further and say that he was genuinely terrified of taking the boat down into the Southern Ocean. The film shows Crowhurst trying to continue the deception he created while the boat is deteriorating around him and ultimately he can’t sustain the deception. His sense of fear and failure, deception and betrayal, ultimately his self judgement , all take him to the point where he feels he has no choices left. We know from his logs that in the last weeks of his life he wrote a long and rambling account of the things he was thinking about and that was found aboard along with his ‘real’ and deceptive sailing logs. I suspect that his last hours were truly awful as most likely he stepped overboard and watched his boat drift away. I can’t decide whether he would have had the courage to, for example, weight his clothes with heavy gear so that he would have gone down quickly as a member of one boat in the BT race did or whether at the end it was a slow end in terror and despair.
If anything the film doesn’t show enough of Donald Crowhurst’s strange life story, that for instance he was brought up in India, but that his parents had wanted a girl and so dressed him as one until he was seven. Then that he had qualified as a pilot in the RAF and had been asked to leave and later similarly discharged as an officer from the Royal Engineers. To my mind the film fails in that it doesn’t show the successes and failures of the other competitors, for example that of 9 sailors to enter the race only one unlikely one finished. In that respect the documentary film ‘Deep Waters’ is much better as it includes footage of both Moitessier and Knox-Johnston. The film almost needs a pre or post narrative from Knox-Johnston who won the race or even the more well known Chay Blyth who didn’t. For anyone who wants to really understand the strange story of Donald Crowhurst the only way to go is to read the book of the same name , to watch the documentary and to follow that up with an account by a psychologist of the descent into madness and psychosis based on the story.
The strange story of Donald Crowhurst book : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Strange-Voyage-Crowhurst-Sailors-Classics/dp/0071414290
The seduction of madness (book) : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Seduction-Madness-Revolutionary-Psychosis-Compassionate/dp/0060921188
The mind of the sailor (book) : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mind-Sailor-Peter-Noble/dp/0071376135/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518685154&sr=1-1&keywords=mind+of+the+sailor
Deep water (documentary DVD) : https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deep-Water-DVD-Louise-Osmond/dp/B000NA6UQU/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1518685404&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=deep+water+crowhurst+dvd
I wrote the post and then left it alone while i re-read and watched again the available material. I thought i would find in myself a more compassionate view of Donald Crowhurst but i can’t and that makes me sad. There isn’t really anything like this story in the world of sea literature although there are other accounts of madness and despair. The nearest parallel i can think of is the story of Chris McCandless and the story ‘Into the Wild’ as written by Jon Krakauer. McCandless also dreamed the dream and ended up in a place that he couldn’t escape from, his place being just as hostile as the ocean and i believe his mind was beginning to unravel as well.
I’m probably going through a very reflective time in my own life and that is partially due to working on Dr Petersen’s past-authoring programme in which i reflect on past events that have shaped my life. My life in the outdoors and particularly at sea has definitely done that . It used to be said in the outdoors education world that outdoor activity builds character, i happen to think that that is deeply wrong and doesn’t build but expose what is there, if what is there is adequate for the dream or nearly so then often all is well and good. In that case challenges taken voluntarily most likely have a positive effect on the person, but what if as in Crowhurst’s case, the living of the dream becomes nightmare and all the fear, weaknesses and deceptions are just exposed to you the dreamer. What happens is that the reality comes crashing in however hard and brutal that will be and as Crowhurst puts it there may only be……The Mercy.