Film follows sailor’s journey over the deep edge |

Film follows sailor’s journey over the deep edge

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Sailor Donald Crowhurst is featured in the adventure documentary "Deep Water," showing this week at the Wheeler Opera House. (Courtesy IFC Films)

Months before setting sail in an effort to become the first person to make a solo nonstop sea voyage around the globe, Donald Crowhurst was asked by a journalist what his quest required. Crowhurst, a 35-year-old at the time and married with four kids, gave a response that seemed perfectly in line with his reserved, unextraordinary demeanor. A stable personality, he said. An awareness of just what situation ” the challenges, psychological and physical ” the person has put themselves in.

“Deep Water,” an exceptionally well-made documentary by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell about Britain’s 1968 solo race around the world, goes on to reveal just how perilous was Crowhurst’s circumstance. Even with his feet on terra firma, he was only moderately stable. A clever fellow who worked on his own, he invented navigational systems.

But his grasp of business and salesmanship lagged behind his technical ingenuity, and his family scraped to get by. Flashing back, the film shows that the Crowhurst family history includes a chapter of financial calamity, which clearly left its mark on the young Donald.

The money is not incidental to the story. Crowhurst practically begged for funding for his adventure, from an acquaintance, Stanley Best, a rigid businessman who clearly wanted a return on his investment. If Crowhurst won the race, or even finished, Best would accept the reflected glory; if Crowhurst’s journey came to a poor end, Best insisted that the money be returned. Such pressures did not make for a stable sailor.

Crowhurst failed even worse in living up to the other professed necessity for his voyage. He was not merely unprepared, but verging on delusional. Described as more of a “weekend sailor” than an accomplished yachtsman, Crowhurst’s journey nearly falls apart before it begins. In the unusual race format, the nine participants launched months apart, the only requirement being that they had to leave England by Oct. 31 before the southern seas got really rough. Crowhurst, building an innovative but untested trimaran, a three-hulled boat, barely makes it under the wire. On the morning of the 31st, he sets out, only to turn around because of problems with the sail. But by 5 that night, he is back on the water, taking his quixotic shot at glory.

Making things worse, Crowhurst has made a deal with the devil. Actually, it’s the British press wearing the horns. Crowhurst has signed on with a press agent who will feed his continuing saga to Fleet Street. The press agent does his job so well that the eyes of England, for better or worse, are on his client.

“Deep Water” does not focus solely on Crowhurst’s doomed and strange voyage. The visually dynamic film, keenly insightful into the darker recesses of human nature, tracks the whole race, conveying the challenge of spending 10 months alone on treacherous waters.

In the final tally, Crowhurst may not have been the only racer whose psyche was too fragile for the challenge. Bernard Moitessier, a French philosopher, is pitted as a contrast to Crowhurst. Early on he calls the race a game, speaking poetically about the sea and his boat. With his muscular physique and confident way, Moitessier seems destined to complete the journey intact.

Moitessier has no trouble on the water. But just as he is about to win the race, he mysteriously changes course. Instead of landing back in England, he heads south and spends another eight months in his boat. Seems the idea of human contact ” even with his family ” has pushed him over an edge too.

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