Feb. 27, 2008 - Issue #645: Heaven’s Sent
Deep Water explores the depths of the human conditionBRIAN GIBSON / email@example.com
We’re all usually plodding around on dry land, so it’s easy to forget that about 70 per cent of the planet is liquid. But once you watch Deep Water (Alliance), a documentary about a sailing race around the world, you won’t easily shake the sprawling, implacable power that the oceans hold over the earth. The sounds of the disc’s title menu screen alone may haunt you: the creak of rigging, the sway of a ship below deck, the static-y warbling of a solitary man’s voice into a tape recorder. And then there’s the sight of a single ghostly ship bobbing in black walls of waves.
The sailing race is only the launch for the narrative. This is a documentary in the style of Touching the Void (and produced by some of the same people), where what seems like a half-mad, half-obsessive outdoor odyssey sweeps you into a haunting tale of human survival. You’ve never imagined you could be so caught up in sailing.
Neither, perhaps, could Donald Crowhurst. Most of his life, he’d only been a weekend sailor. But in 1968, he and eight other men entered the Sunday Times-sponsored Golden Globe Race, where the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop (which no one had accomplished yet) would get £5000. Crowhurst, so intent on proving himself after little success as an inventor, made his first rash deal—agreeing with his boat’s backer that he would complete the trip or else buy the vessel, an alternative that would mean financial ruin for the struggling father and husband.
Directors Louise Ormond and Jerry Rothwell—with whip-sharp editing and the advantage of extensive BBC TV footage of Crowhurst and his own tape recordings and 16mm self-documentation—plunge us into an adventure that’s white-capped by one man’s drift into self-abandonment. Excited headlines about the leader’s progress (Robin Knox-Johnston would be the only man to finish the race) are overtaken by Crowhurst’s increasingly cryptic telegrams that blip out of the darkness, reporting his position to the outside world. One reads only, “now equal footing mermaids stop.”
Interviews with journalists, friends, and Crowhurst’s wife and son build the tension. A lingering colonial sense of British adventure and ’60s “fun,” combined with memories of poverty and a broken father from his childhood, launch a stubborn man who puts on a brave public face but privately frets and withdraws. So Crowhurst leaves on the last possible day—“sailing out into oblivion” in an age before forecasts, satellite tracking and GPS—without all the ship’s safety features installed, struggling through the water in his already leaking trimaran to avoid financial failure, only to head towards death in the Roaring Forties of the Southern Ocean. But then Crowhurst hits upon a third way—an escape from both the devil’s deal and the deep blue sea that’s also a treacherous voyage into self-delusion and possible humiliation.
Deep Water shows a man lost at sea, in way over his head and then slipping down under the surface of his persona. (Crowhurst writes up a personal philosophy that argues Einstein has shown the way for man to go beyond space and time yet also chillingly records, in an echo of Biblical last words, “It is finished, it is finished, it is the mercy.”) But then failure—and our efforts to mask it—is more the human condition than success. And the journey here is mostly a deeply existential dilemma—out on the ocean alone for months, a human being can feel “an atom and a god at the same time,” confronted by a sublimely humbling, immensely powerful isolation. The most fascinating competitor may be Bernard Moitessier, who, close to catching Knox-Johnston, changes course and sails away to start another circuit of the seas, turning from fame and money to the waves’ siren call.
The DVD offers fascinating extra features, from an interactive tour of the cabin of Crowhurst’s boat to mini-docs about the journalists following the race and Crowhurst’s family. There are also details about and interviews with some of the eight other “prisoners in solitary confinement” on the transoceanic race. There’s the “nervous wreck” of a former submarine commander who sets out on the Golden Globe to pull himself together, a Frenchman so superstitious he thinks one should “never speak of rabbits at sea,” a Scotsman who hallucinates after weeks of sailing (he thinks he sees Bing Crosby), only to retire from the race but who becomes, two years later, the first to round the watery world westward and stoic Knox-Johnston, who explains just why Cape Horn is such a “bastard of a place” to pass around.
And, nearly lost in that seemingly endless horizon, fading into oblivion, is a story perhaps as mysterious and tragic as Crowhurst’s. Nigel Tetley, the sailor in front of him, pushed his boat hard to come in ahead but the vessel wrecked a few weeks short of the finish line; he managed to send out a mayday before the boat went down and was rescued. In 1971, Tetley, who had never showed signs of depression, hanged himself in the woods. He had been preparing for another attempt at sailing around the globe through those vast, indifferent waters whose deathly grip he’d narrowly escaped two years earlier. V
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