A race around the world. A man with more ambition than sense. A descent into madness.
Dir. Louise Osmond & Jerry Rothwell, 2006, 93 min
Some documentaries succeed on the strength of an important or interesting subject. Some do so through stylistic flair and craft. And some documentaries simply work by riding the merit of a story so extraordinary that it seems too strange to be true, a story that exemplifies the adage about truth, fiction, and strangeness. Deep Water is one such documentary, with one such story.
In 1968, the British newspaper The Sunday Times organized a great adventure for sailing enthusiasts. The Golden Globe Race was a competition to see who would become the first man to sail around the world non-stop and single-handedly. The race would begin in England, with the sailors traveling south and then east, around Africa, through the Indian Ocean past Australia and around New Zealand, then across the Pacific Ocean, around South America, and then north back to England.
The nine men who entered the race varied greatly in skill and motivation. Some were seasoned seaman, while others had considerably less ocean hours, with one entrant having no sailing experience at all. Robin Knox-Johnson sailed for glory, intent that an Englishman would be the one to claim the honor. Bernard Moitessier scorned the idea of prizes or commercialization, and sailed for his own personal adventure. And then there was Donald Crowhurst.
Crowhurst was a small-time businessman whose sailing interest was strictly in the amateur realm. He declared his intention to participate out of a desire to accomplish something great in his life. In order to finance his expedition, he leveraged everything he owned, including his house, putting his wife and four children at risk. He was the last of the racers to embark, nearly a month after the rest. If this was a Hollywood story, these high stakes and slim odds would practically guarantee his victory. But it wasn’t, and Crowhurst’s ambitions turned out to be drastically misplaced.
The witnesses who remain are the ones who tell us this story. There are Crowhurst’s wife and son, Moitessier’s widow, a newspaperman who sponsored Crowhurst, and more. Their words combine with footage taken by the sailors, newspaper photos, CGI presentations of the sailors’ journals, and sometimes simple reenactments. The presentation is straightforward and non-flashy, and that’s how it should be. Anything too extravagant would get in the way of this story.
Nine men set out. After ten months, only Robin Knox-Johnson finished. Bernard Moitessier abandoned the race just when he could have won, and ended up circumnavigating the globe one and a half times. Six others all gave up, or their vessels gave out. And then there was Donald Crowhurst. It didn’t take long for his fortunes to worsen, and it became obvious that he had no chance of winning the race. So he began to lie. In his radio and telegraph reports back home, he made up increasingly extravagant claims about his progress. The gulf between where in the world he claimed to be and where he actually was widened every day.
The best way to describe Crowhurst’s journey is as a Ernest Hemingway novel brought to life by way of the Coen brothers. He was one man against the elements, all alone in the world. As his situation deteriorated, he became a worse enemy of himself than the winds and the waves. Crowhurst’s tale is an unreal parable of pride gone awry. Trapped by his lies, he could only lie further. He drew up an elaborate journal of a voyage that didn’t exist, while he drifted aimlessly about the south Atlantic.
Interspersed with these false coordinates and notations were deranged philosophical ramblings, half-mad justifications for his continued deception, for his long radio silence that left the world and his family wondering about his fate. Crowhurst was in an inexorable current towards self-destruction. His tale is riveting as it is devastating.
There’s a strong, storied symbolism associated with the sea; it’s something primal and powerful. We have long claimed that we can “conquer” it simply by surviving it, which is laughable. It was this fallacy that drove the Golden Globe Race, and which fueled Donald Crowhurst’s extraordinary, strange, extraordinarily strange descent into madness. He gazed at that abyss, the abyss gazed back, and he pushed himself into immortality in a way completely different from that which he set out for. Deep Water is his fitting testament.