Between 27 August 1966 and 28 May 1967, Francis Chichester sailed his ketch, Gypsy Moth IV, around the world single-handed. It was a truly epic voyage and Chichester’s return to Plymouth was a huge media event. He was knighted by the Queen in a rare public ceremony, featuring the sword used by Elizabeth I to confer knighthood on Francis Drake.
Chichester had, however, stopped off in Australia for two months and made extensive repairs and modifications to his yacht. The logical next step was for someone to sail around the world single-handed, but without stopping. It was said to be impossible: the boat wouldn’t stand the strain, the sailor would go mad from stress and isolation. The Sunday Times began organising and promoting the ‘Golden Globe Race’. Sailors could leave the UK at any time up to 31 October 1968 to sail round the world single-handed, non-stop. There would be two prizes: a trophy for the first to return, and £5000 prize-money (about £80,000 in 2016) for the fastest circumnavigation.
Nine started. All were highly experienced sailors except Donald Crowhurst, an electronics engineer from Devon. As the race progressed, four men retired before leaving the Atlantic. One retired after reaching Cape Town. On the return, back in the Atlantic, one decided he couldn't face the media circus, turned round and just kept on sailing until he reached Tahiti. Three men were left, Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley and Donald Crowhurst. Could the inexperienced amateur actually win? Driving his boat too hard, Tetley sank, and it seemed Crowhurst would indeed scoop the prize for the fastest time. A huge welcome awaited him in Britain. Only the old sea-dog Chichester had his doubts about Crowhurst’s apparent exploit.
Then, Crowhurst disappeared. His boat was found drifting and abandoned in mid-Atlantic. The truth came out. He had never sailed around the world. He had been drifting aimlessly in the South Atlantic for months. He was a joke. Even worse, he was a cheat and a fraud who had taken the coward's way out.
This film explains the complex truth behind this apparently open-and-shut case, using interviews with witnesses and Crowhurst’s family (including his widow), in a compassionate, thoughtful way. Location filming of the deep ocean reminds the audience of what Crowhurst had actually pitted himself against.
Crowhurst was something of a fantasist, and he had a talent for self-promotion. His company (which made an early form of electronic navigation aid) was in trouble. What better than to win the Sunday Times race, get the cash prize and promote his company’s product? All he needed was the backing, and a boat.
With the help of a reporter/PR guru named Rodney Hallworth, the project began to take shape. Financial backing to build a boat came from a local businessman. Critically, he insisted Crowhurst would buy back the boat if he failed to complete the trip. So, if Crowhurst made it, he was saved, and if he failed he was doomed to bankruptcy and ruin - and he had been traumatised as a boy when his family lost all their money in the 1940’s. He could not let his own family suffer the same fate.
Time was pressing, and getting tighter. When the boat was completed it had many design flaws, did not perform to specification, and it became obvious Crowhurst did not have the sailing experience necessary to handle her in heavy weather.
Preparations were chaotic and sloppy. A BBC documentary film crew, sent to record the plucky amateur’s departure, were quietly told to “film the chaos”. We see Crowhurst using a public telephone to plead for some supplies to arrive in time, and gnawing his nails as he realises he has taken on far more than he can cope with, but cannot withdraw without ruining his family.
In spite of everything, Crowhurst set out – at the latest possible date. Problems with the boat multiplied until he wrote in his log she was “dropping to pieces”. He made a plan: keep radio silence, stay out of sight of land and the shipping lanes, stooge around the South Atlantic and slip back into the race as the leaders returned, finishing an honourable fourth or fifth. In the days before satellite navigation and communication, this was easy.
In practice, of course, it was not so straightforward. Months of isolation, and the mental strain of concocting a record of a fake voyage (Crowhurst had to know the correct angle of the sun, at noon, thousands of miles away, to fake his navigation) began to prey on Crowhurst’s mind. He lost his ability to separate reality and fantasy. At one point he was forced to land in a remote part of Argentina for repairs – clearly breaking the rules of the race. Here was a perfect opportunity to quit: he had a damaged boat, and he was more or less where he should have been, and at the right time. Yet he set sail once again. The Argentinian coastguards said he seemed "nervous, distraught".
Finally, when it appeared he would be the race winner, his mental state completely deteriorated. He began writing about the workings of the Universe and his place in it as a ‘Cosmic Being’. Finally, he decided the one unforgivable sin in the Universe was deception. He had forged a huge deception, so he had to be sacrificed to the Universe, which would ultimately be merciful to him. At some point, after putting all his paperwork in order, Crowhurst just stepped overboard.
The ultimate message of the film is that we should not judge people too easily. True, Crowhurst faked his records, but he left them available for inspection. When he died, the secret could have died with him. He never cheated to win the race - that came about due to circumstances – simply to save his family from ruin. He may not have circled the globe, but he still sailed 16,000 miles around the Atlantic. It is worth noting that Crowhurst’s fellow sailors did not judge him harshly. Knox-Johnston won the £5000, as the only man to finish the race, and gave it to the Crowhurst family ("[Crowhurst's] worst crime was falling short of his own vision", he said later). In his book about the race Bernard Moitessier says simply that Crowhurst “died at sea”.
The film is a detailed and sympathetic portrait of a man who dreamed great dreams but ultimately lacked the mental strength and discipline to carry them out. Donald Crowhurst was, simply, very human, and Deep Water tells a very human story very well indeed.
One of the best of the 21st century run of "stranger than fiction" documentaries, this one is truly heartbreaking and vitally doesn't seek to condemn the subject. The thought of his utter, hopeless isolation at the end of his life is chillingly conveyed.