Saturday, December 16, 2006

DEEP WATER - the torment of the Wide Sargasso Sea

DEEP WATER is a fascinating doc by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell. It tells the tragic story of a British middle-aged man called Donald Crowhurst. By the mid-1960s Crowhurst was a beloved father and husband but a professional failure. He longed for financial security, having watched his own father die in poverty, and added to that, respect, fame and glory. This longing for a better life as well as a Walter Mitty like talent for invention (both in engineering and in life) led him to enter the race to circumnavigate the globe single-handed and with no stops in port. No-one had ever completed such a journey and the idea of such a race - a Boys' Own adventure - gripped the British nation in the late 1960s.

Crowhurst was up against battle-hardened sailors, including a Frenchman named Bernard Moitessier. Many in Britain considered him something of a joke, and he was by far the last to start the race. Two prizes were available - and he was already out of the prize for finishing first. But he could win the prize for fastest trip if he survived.

The race was an endurance course that felled most of the sailors. Sailing through the south seas is gruelling stuff, without even starting to consider the pyschological impact of sailing alone for ten months against the elements. The documentary makers are blessed with acres of video and audio footage taken by the sailors themselves and Moitessier in particular is articulate in explaining both the psychological strains but also the addiction to the challenge.

The scandal of the race - and the main subject of the documentary - is Crowhurst's descent into a sort of cabin fever. It soon become clear that his tri-maran would not make it into the south seas but Donald was afraid to turn back and face personal humiliation and bankruptcy. And so, by stages, this fundamentally decent man took the decision to fake his journey. He would simply sit off the coast of Argentina for a couple of months and then rejoin his colleagues when they came back round the Cape of Good Hope.

The story is a tragedy of one man full of ideas and hope coming up against callous nature, bad luck and his own cabin fever. The documentary is a complete success in that it allows us to empathise completely with his psychological state. It is also a deeply insightful tale of how, even forty years ago, Fleet Street was spinning its nefarious tales: Alistair Campbell is no modern phenomenon.

I have no real care for sailing and certainly no prior knowledge of Don Crowhurst, but I found DEEP WATER to be a deeply emotionally involving drama that left me shaken. It is a stunning montage of archive footage and discreet interviews with people close to the various sailors as well as with the sailor who eventually won the race. Thoroughly recommended.

DEEP WATER showed at Telluride 2006 and won the prize for Best Doc and Rome. It is on release in the UK.

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