Deep Water

Deep Water


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

John Profumo lied about a call girl in the House of Commons and his career was ruined. Donald Crowhurst lied about his progress in a yacht race and his reputation was ruined. The difference between the two is that Profumo lived long enough to regain public respect and Crowhurst disappeared in the Sargasso Sea.

After a frail-looking Francis Chichester completed the first single-handed circumnavigation of the globe in the late Sixties, he was lionized and knighted. The Sunday Times took advantage of national euphoria to announce its own Golden Globe race, single handed, round the world, no stopping - Chichester had dropped off at Oz for repairs during his historic voyage - with a £5000 prize for the fastest.

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Eight experienced yachtsmen entered, with a "mystery man," whom no one knew. This was Crowhurst, a 35-year-old weekend sailor, with a young family of three boys and a girl, an attractive wife and a dog. He "started from scratch," designed and built a trimaran, found a sponsor who had made money in caravans and signed up with an unscrupulous press agent. Although publicly optimistic, in private doubts plagued him.

Crowhurst was a dreamer "who gambled everything on the race." He must have known, even as he left Teignmouth at the last possible moment, that his chances were scuppered. "This was derring-do on a shoestring," one of the journalists who covered the story remembers. The press loved it and loved him, a thoroughly English amateur from the pages of the Boy's Own Annual. The boat wasn't ready. Crowhurst knew it, but went anyway. "He sailed over the horizon into oblivion."

Before he was across the channel and into the Atlantic, water was coming in and he had to bail by hand to stay afloat. "This bloody boat is falling to pieces," he raged into the tape recorder. "Everything's leaking." If he carried on, he would be wrecked by the 15ft waves in the Southern Ocean. If he gave up now, he would face humiliation and financial ruin. In his sponsor's contract, it stated that if he did not complete the journey he would be responsible for the cost of the boat.

He decided to hang around off the coast of South America and pretend that he was still in the race. He wrote two logs, the real and the phoney. He stayed out of radio contact and waited for the remaining competitors to pass on the homeward stretch. When they did, there were only two left. He followed at a respectful distance. And then disaster struck, not to him, but to one of the others. He turned away and drifted into the Sargasso Sea. He wrote in his log: "It is finished. It is finished. It is THE MERCY."

The directors have made use of Crowhurst's own movie camera, recordings and writing, as well as interviewed many people who were intimately involved with the man and the race, especially his widow Clare and son Simon. The story is tragic, at times heartbreaking, always enthralling, never dull and ultimately ironic. It is neither an apology, nor an expose. It is a tribute to a brave man who was too proud to fail and too much alone to live.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2006
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The story of the disastrous 1968 round the world yacht race.
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