Astonishing tale is diluted in 'Deep Water'
Any sportswriter will tell you, the best stories come from the losers' locker room. Apparently, that's true of Davy Jones' locker room, too.
Robin Knox-Johnston would seem the obvious subject for "Deep Water," a sometimes deeply unsettling English documentary about a sailing race that involved the nonstop solo circumnavigation of the globe. Not only was Knox-Johnston the winner, he was, in fact, the only one to finish among the nine men who set sail in 1968.
Knox-Johnston, whom we see interviewed in both archival and contemporary footage, cuts a splendid figure: burly, bearded, articulate. Furthermore, he donated his 5,000-pound prize to the family of the one competitor to die in the race. He's a dream hero.
Instead, "Deep Water" offers a nightmare hero. Donald Crow- hurst was every bit as unprepossessing as his name - and easily the least plausible of the competitors. A 36-year-old father of four, he was "little more than a weekend sailor," an observer remarks onscreen.
Somehow he got a businessman to underwrite the construction of a 41-foot trimaran. Early publicity made Crowhurst a popular favorite. (The extent to which the race was little more than a massive PR event, meant to increase circulation for The London Sunday Times, is left unexplored but easy enough to discern.) Crow- hurst comes across as a combination of the stiff-upper-lip polar explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, and the future English Olympic ski jumper, the inept Eddie the Eagle.
The ineptitude was no joke, though. It took Crowhurst two weeks to sail to the race departure point, a journey scheduled to take three days. Once at sea, his boat almost immediately sprang leaks and screws began to fall out. This was just the south Atlantic. So much worse awaited Crowhurst. "Imagine being in something the size of small truck and having a 12-story building come at you," Knox-Johnston matter-of-factly states of Cape Horn. "That's the size of waves out there."
The obvious thing to do was give up. Several other competitors had already done so. More than pride argued against that option, though. Crowhurst had signed a contract with his sponsor that were he to turn back early he would be responsible for the cost of the ship and all other expenses. This would ruin him and his family. "Deep Water," which had seemed like a sort of Conrad novel, takes on the aspect of Dickens at his darkest. To give up would be disastrous for Crowhurst, and to continue was nothing short of suicide. There was a third option, too, what one might call the Clifford Irving response.
To reveal Crowhurst's decision would be to spoil a stunning tale. "Deep Water" is not itself comparably stunning. Remarkably, it includes footage and audio made onboard by Crowhurst, Knox-John- ston, and other competitors (something the PR-conscious sponsors saw to). Crowhurst's widow, Clare, registers as a memorable blend of regret, acceptance, and obtuseness. Another competitor, Bernard Moitessier, may be the most vivid figure of all: He abandons the race near the finish line and sails off to Tahiti.
"Deep Water" is good, but how could it be as good as something like that? The subject of sailing around the world single-handed cries out for the mania - and artistry - of a Werner Herzog. Imagine that ship in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" as a trimaran set free to sail an impossible sea.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.