Chillingly constructed from pieces of audio recordings, fragments of 16mm film and talking-head interviews with the people closest to the story, Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's superb documentary about a round-the-world regatta gone terribly wrong echoes the dark poetry of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym, men who sailed to sea in search of fortune only to encounter the abyss within themselves.
Described by one interviewee as a "second Elizabethan age" for Britain, 1967 saw several causes for celebration, not the least of which was the successful voyage of Francis Chichester, who became the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone, making only one port of call. Chichester returned to a hero's welcome that would have impressed even Charles Lindbergh, and his triumph inspired London's Sunday Times to push the envelope yet further. In 1968 they announced the Golden Globe, a contest in which sailors would compete to become the first to single-handedly circle the globe without making a single stop. There would be two 5,000-pound prizes: one for the sailor who makes it home first, and a second for whoever completes the voyage fastest competitors in this category could leave whenever they felt they were ready. There was, however, one stipulation: They must leave by October 31, after which date the waters of the notoriously treacherous Southern Ocean become too dangerous to navigate. Nine sailors entered, including regatta veterans Robin Knox-Johnson and Bernard Moitessier, and one unknown named Donald Crowhurst, a 36-year-old electronics manufacturer who made navigation systems for sailing vessels. A husband and father to four young children, Crowhurst wasn't a sailor per se but longed for recognition. Even more impressive, he was determined to build his unusual vessel an innovative three-hulled trimaran he named the Teignmouth Electron himself. To finance this extraordinary venture, he signed a Mephistophelian contract with local businessman Stanley Best, who agreed to foot the bill as long as Crowhurst completed the voyage. Should he fail, Crowhurst would assume the entire cost, a liability that would bankrupt him. Even before setting sail from Teignmouth on the last possible day, the Electron was besieged with structural problems; within the first weeks of his journey, Crowhurst knew he was in trouble. The vessel began taking on water, which Crowhurst could bail out manually in fair weather but which would probably sink his boat once he entered the stormy Southern Ocean. To head back, however, meant financial ruin. So Crowhurst made the decision that proved as inescapable as maelstrom: He would cheat.
Osmond and Rothwell's gripping account asks us to first imagine a world without extended weather forecasts, special prepackaged foods and high-tech global-positioning systems, and then try to conceive the courage it took to head out into the vast oblivion of the ocean for nearly 10 months, alone. In this context Crowhurst's tragic and largely forgotten story takes on near-epic dimensions, and proves so riveting because its hero is so deeply and so humanly flawed. It's haunting to hear Crowhurst's voice, recorded on the portable reel-to-reel he had on board, and production designer Jane Linz Roberts' re-creation of the Teignmouth Electron's chaotic interior, which serves as the background for the audio, is unnerving. But the real emotional impact of the film lies in the candid interviews with Crowhurst's wife, Clare, and his son, Simon, both of whom are clearly still haunted by Crowhurst and his fateful voyage. leave a comment --Ken Fox