DEEP WATER (Britain)

deep-water-dvd-cover-artI’m no sailor and know very little about it, but a few weeks ago an amazing documentary named “Deep Water” was broadcast on TV. Thinking ‘this will bore me soon and I’ll turn over’ I gave it ten minutes to hold my attention. It certainly did. In 1968 nine men set off in nine small boats to circumnavigate the Earth, unsupported and non-stop.

This was a race, the brainchild of the London Sunday Times, inspired by the solo circumnavigation the year before by Sir Francis Chichester. Sir Francis, however, pulled into port along the way to make repairs and re-supply. The Sunday Times rules would not allow any stops for any reason.

Only one man, Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston, actually finished the race. The initial leader, Bernard Moitessier, turned his boat from its winning course and headed toward Tahiti instead of heading for the finish line at Falmouth, Cornwall. He just could not face docking in front of thousands of cheering people.

Avoiding the finish would “save his soul” he claimed. Being alone at sea for months had made this loner allergic to civilization. The inscrutable Frenchman had an attack of what we might today call social phobia. In the mid-Atlantic of all places! By avoiding the media frenzy waiting for him, he handed Robin Knox-Johnston a magnificent victory.

2_Donald_Crowhurst_071004083334163_wideweb__300x219Another Englishman, Donald Crowhurst, left Devon on October 31, 1968. He was the next to last competitor to leave, just before the deadline. His boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was a trimaran. This cardigan-wearing weekend sailor was dangerously out of his depth in ability, craft and experience. He was also seriously in financial debt, which seemed to blind him to what he was taking on. He sailed at a disappointingly slow speed for a while and then reported a few amazingly fast days.

Radio communications halted as he approached the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and nothing was heard from him for 111 days. Then radio communications resumed as he re-entered the South Atlantic, around Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. He was leading the race, and seemed assured of the trophy and the cash prize of £5,000. Then, on July 10, 1969, his boat was found drifting in the Atlantic, with no sign of Crowhurst on board. More than two months before, on April 22, Knox-Johnston had sailed into Falmouth to claim the winning prize.

onluCrowhurst never left the Atlantic Ocean, let alone sailed around the world. He left massive documentation which showed that he had cheated. He had stopped off the South American coastline and waited for the genuine race leaders to pass him as they headed for home. As another racer named Tetley suffered a shipwreck only 1,000 miles from completion of the race, Crowhurst found himself in the strange position of potentially winning the race for the fastest time. Crowhurst is painfully aware that Chichester will scrutinize and uncover his fraudulent logs. He is afraid of the ensuing shame. He descends into madness and writes 25,000 words about “God and Truth” in 8 days. Then he commits suicide by abandoning his boat, believing an this would be an honourable death, rather than returning to his wife and four children. His body was never found.

The black and white footage of his young family expectantly waiting for him is heart-breaking. The boat will be recovered with his logs and writings intact. The press feast on it. Crowhurst’s shameful legacy will live on. Except for the success of Robin Knox-Johnston, who was knighted and enjoyed fame and fortune, this truly was a voyage for madmen across the water. Sir Robin at least had the heart to donate his winnings to Crowhurst’s widow. A surreal modern Greek tragedy if there ever was one. And another Englishman to follow in the footsteps of Captain Scott and General Gordon of Khartoum- a ‘heroic’ failure.

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