Deep Water



"Deep Water" is a stunning documentary that not only beautifully elucidates a nearly forgotten incident but touches on crucial themes involving isolation, sanity, self-worth, impossible dreams, the nature of heroism and limits of human endurance. The film asks the right questions and never settles for glib answers; indeed this incident defies answers because the enterprise -- an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a nonstop sailing race by an Englishman who was at best a weekend yachtsman -- lacks all rationality.

The film opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York preceding a national rollout. With vigorous marketing, IFC Films should see solid art house boxoffice, and the film undoubtedly will live long on TV and DVD.

In 1968, searching for a circulation booster and mindful of the fuss the year before when Francis Chichester became a national hero by sailing single-handedly around the world, the Sunday Times of London announced a race open to anyone willing to sail solo and nonstop around the world. Two prizes were offered: one to the first man home and a second prize, worth a then-hefty £5,000, for the fastest voyage.

Donald Crowhurst, a 36-year-old father of four with a loundering marine electronics business, is determined to enter. He persuades a local businessman to fund the construction of a "revolutionary" boat. But the businessman exacts a high price: Should Crowhurst fail to complete the voyage, he must buy back the boat, which would mean financial ruin for the struggling businessman.

The boat never gets put together correctly in the rush to meet an Oct. 31 launch date. Nor does Crowhurst really know what he is doing. But no one, not even his loving wife Clare, says, "Don't go." So he steps aboard the unseaworthy craft -- in a tie no less! -- to set sail. He is leaving too late to be the first home, but he can still run the fastest.

Crowhurst has a 16mm camera and tape recorder on board. So filmmakers Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell have a treasure trove of documents from which to fashion this utterly fascinating film. They also have footage and diaries of another racer, Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, to supplement Crowhurst's.

The guides for this journey include Tilda Swinton's narration, Crowhurst's own log and writings and remarkably insightful interviews with Crowhurst's wife, son Simon, his best friend and a Fleet Street journalist, among others.

Making poor time in a leaky craft, Crowhurst is faced with a fateful decision after two weeks. To continue into the stormy Southern Ocean is sheer suicide. To turn back means bankruptcy and humiliation. He chooses a third option.

In a day when satellite positioning did not exist, he reports back record-breaking daily speeds and wrong positions while he drifts aimlessly toward South America. Then he breaks all radio contact. He even makes an illegal landing in Argentina for repairs.

His plan is to wait for the race to catch up with him, then slip back in unnoticed. As long as he finishes but does not win, no one will scrutinize his logbooks. Then two unthinkable events conspired to trap him in his own lie.

A salient fact almost slips by in one of the interviews: Crowhurst is clearly driven by the memory of his own father's destitution and early death after returning home from British India, where the family must have felt a sense of privilege. He also battles with his own self-image of a confident, can-do guy who will rescue his family from similar straits.

Then there is the isolation. A person becomes a god in the vastness of the sea. All decisions belong to you and you alone. Really, though, just by staying at sea in a "bloody boat that is falling to pieces" for 243 days is a kind of triumph. In his own way, Donald Crowhurst did achieve a tainted heroism.

IFC Films
Pathe Prods., U.K. Film Council and FilmFour present an APT Films and Stir Friend Films production in association with Darlow Smithson Prods.
Directors: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
Producers: Al Morrow, Jonny Persey, John Smithson
Executive producers: Francois Ivernel, Ralph Lee, Cameron McCracken, Paul Trijbits
Director of photography: Nina Kellgren
Music: Molly Nyman, Harry Escott
Co-producer: Stewart Le Marechal
Supervising editor: Justine Wright
Editor: Ben Lester
Narrator: Tilda Swinton
Running time -- 93 minutes
MPAA rating PG