Independent Lens: Deep Water

I think doubt started to set in when reality started to set in and the reality wasn’t quite as perfect as the idea. This is why ideas are dangerous.

— Ron Winspear

It lies within us to make god.

— Donald Crowhurst

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst set off to sail his yacht around the world. A 36-year-old businessman, he wasn’t precisely prepared for a nonstop adventure in a one-man craft, and yet he went. Deep Water, Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2007 documentary (airing on PBS’ Independent Lens), tracks his voyage over the horizon and into himself, filtered through observations by associates and family members, and amplified by Crowhurst’s own log books and film and audio recordings. The differences among these versions — even as they come together in a stunning end — offer a portrait of desire and despair, forever part soaring fantasy and part grim consequence.

Crowhurst’s participation in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race seems here less a matter of fate than odd chance. The excitement generated by Sir Francis Chichester’s one-stop voyage around the world in 1967 inspired would-be adventurers and promoters to put together a contest, complete with newspaper and television hoopla. “There could be no greater challenge,” recalls television reporter David Kerr (appearing dramatically shadowed in a doorway), suggesting the race was part of an era’s fabric, a neo-Elizabethan thrill alongside sexual liberation and the Beatles.

This notion of a “boys’ own” adventure, Kerr says, attracted nine original racers, including experienced sailors Robin Knox-Johnson (“This was something humans had hadn’t yet attempted to do,” he says now, “Ten months of total loneliness”) and Bernard Moitessier. As his wife Françoise Moitessier de Cazalet recalls, Bernard was a “poet” who “needed to prove to himself that he was capable of doing this.” The “mystery man” in the mix was the amateur Crowhurst, who appears for the first time in Deep Water in a sport jacket, pale and professorish, pondering what it takes to be able to sail around the world alone. “I think one’s psychology has to be fairly stable,” he says matter-of-factly. “And one need be constantly aware of the risks.”

And yet these risks remain at some level unknowable. Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the film itself evolves from what seems a rather conventional combination of talking heads and archival footage into an existentialish exploration of what it might mean to contemplate individual limits and fears. As his son Simon remembers, Crowhurst “had grown up with Kipling’s stories of adventure,” and imagined he might live one. “In a sense,” says Simon, “My father wanted to take on that feat and take on that persona.” The ambition was complicated when, in need of money because his electronics firm was failing, Crowhurst signed a contract with a sponsor, Stanley Best, and hired a public relations officer, Daily Mail crime reporter and “Dickensian character” Rodney Hallworth. While his entry into the race was now funded, if he dropped out for any reason, he would be bankrupt and he would lose his house, a finish he could not bear to deliver to his beloved wife Clare and four young children. “He was gambling everything,” says Simon.

Setting off in a 40-foot boat he built for the occasion, the Teignmouth Electron, Crowhust is at once scrappy and hapless. When he first leaves port, some three weeks behind the others, he sends back cables and keeps meticulous track of his progress. As his exploration turns increasingly inward — indicated in the gaps between his tape recordings (made for public consumption) and his journals (more meditative, though no less self-image-conscious) — the messages come less regularly. The film’s reconstruction of the voyage, based on records found on Crowhurst’s boat, is increasingly harrowing. Even as, Kerr notes, “He was building the character of a long-distance sailor,” Crowhurst was also dealing with serial structural and mechanical problems, spending long hours bailing out the boat with a bucket. “The bloody boat is falling apart,” he records early on.

While Clare, Simon, and Crowhurst’s best friend Ron Winspear offer possible reasons for his decision to go on (he had an “isolated childhood,” he feared financial ruin, having seen his father’s death under such duress), Crowhurst devises to make up a journey, to concoct reports of places he isn’t going. Remarkably, no one catches on, hoping against hope that he — along with only three other sailors still in the race — will return home triumphant. But as he sends back this fiction, a second log keeps track of the real journey. As the film repeatedly shows pages of script, a voiceover reads, “The rigging sighs a sigh of cosmic sorrow… A sigh to fill man’s soul with melancholy waves, to sweep away my melancholy.”

As Crowhurst is apparently drifting off the coast of “Brazil” (his cables, increasingly sporadic, leave his exact location unknown), Winspear imagines, “There you are, alone on your boat, just you and the ocean” (the film inserts footage Crowhurst took of himself, sunburned and scrawny). “It just accentuates the isolation. From that moment, the time bomb was ticking. He had no longer one enemy, which was the sea. He had himself, this problem of imagination and the delicate mechanism of the mind.”

Deep Water evokes Crowhurst’s internal charting, his efforts to track his loss of hope and sense of connection with “the universe.” While those who remember him cannot know what he experienced, their own devastations and losses punctuate the movie’s compelling fiction of Crowhurst, joined effectively with his fiction of himself. Winspear suggests that his friend’s decision not to return has to do with his inability to face failure: “He’s got a role to play and he mustn’t drop a line.” The film shows the child Crowhurst, dressed in sailor suit, then offers up his tape-recorded voice: “There are close similarities between sailing a small boat and living,” he says. Ends can never be wholly anticipated. His last recordings are unnerving, if revealing. “I was forced to admit that nature forces on cosmic beings the only sin they are capable of, the sin of concealment. It is a small sin for a man, but it is a terrible sin for a cosmic being.” Even as this cosmic being decides on his own punishment, the film submits, it continues to take tolls on those he’s left behind.

RATING 7 / 10