In no sense whatsoever did Donald Crowhurst have the right stuff. He was a fusty, middle-aged bumbler whose modest electronics shop was all but on the rocks. When the London Sunday Times announced in 1968 that it would sponsor a contest challenging the world’s finest yachtsmen to sail around the globe, solo and nonstop, Crowhurst had no business entering the race. He did, however, have a wife, four children and mounting debts. Somehow he got it into his head that the 5000-pound cash prize and fame that came with it would be the solution to his problems. In retrospect, the amazing thing isn’t that this folly ended in tragedy. The amazing thing is that it was allowed to happen at all.
With their haunting documentary, directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell offer something of a flip side to the recent In the Shadow of the Moon. That doc looks at the trials and triumphs of the Apollo astronauts. Left out of the space race but inspired by it, Brits embraced the quaint notion of nine men going where none had gone before — at least not without pausing along the way to restock and make repairs. If Crowhurst had pulled it off, he would have been the seafaring equivalent of Neil Armstrong.
But that was never going to happen. The filmmakers weave together archival footage and present-day interviews with key players to create an absolutely riveting account of a man getting in over his head. In the beginning, Crowhurst’s dark-horse status seemed to suit his purposes. The press latched on to the “mystery man” angle, and the public loved the idea of a local boy and underdog going up against some of the most experienced sailors on the planet. In point of fact, though, this was the first trap.
Crowhurst confronted his second trap when the deadline for starting the race arrived before the work on his sponsor-financed experimental trimaran was done. A businessman by the name of Stanley Best had paid for the construction on the condition that Crowhurst sign a contract obligating him to buy the vessel back if he withdrew from the competition. Public disgrace thus wasn’t the only likely consequence of backing out — it would also have ruined Crowhurst’s family. In interview footage, Clare Crowhurst recalls that her husband wept in their hotel room the night before he embarked.
So, not only did Donald Crowhurst not have the right stuff to circumnavigate the globe, but his craft didn’t have the right stuff, either. Several electronic systems and pieces of guidance equipment didn’t arrive in time to be installed. Within days of setting sail, screws were falling out and hatches failing, forcing Crowhurst to bail out hulls by hand — an impossible task in heavy seas. Very quickly, the poor fellow determined that neither turning back nor forging on was an option. The third option he chose all but sealed his fate.
While drifting in calm waters off the coast of Brazil — essentially waiting out the race — Crowhurst attempted to save face by radioing in a fake report claiming to have set a new record for miles sailed in a single day. Too late he realized that, from then on, he wouldn’t be able to communicate with the outside world, because his signal would reveal that he was nowhere near where he was supposed to be. That was the third trap. What makes this story so astonishing is how many more followed.
What makes Deep Water so unforgettably compelling is the artistry with which Osmond and Rothwell intercut archival and interview material with audio and video footage of Crowhurst himself. The BBC set him up with a tape recorder and 16-millimeter camera, intending to turn his own document of his journey into a television special upon his triumphant return. The filmmakers discovered the recordings in a dusty archive of the broadcaster’s headquarters. Those images of the doomed sailor attempting to put on a brave face for the camera while cracking under the strain of his ordeal offer a harrowing, heartbreaking portrait of a man who dreamed too big and literally got in too deep.