In 1968, soon after the completion of the first around-the-world boat trip by a solo sailor, the Sunday Times of London sponsored a contest to one-up that record and sail all the way around the world, alone, without stopping once. A cash prize was offered for the fastest time, and nine men took up the challenge. Eight of them were experienced seamen, and the last was amateur Donald Crowhurst, the subject of the fascinating documentary Deep Water.
Crowhurst’s story turned quickly from inspiring adventure to unbelievable tragedy, and directors Osmond and Rothwell chronicle it in clear-eyed detail, using a traditional documentary structure (talking heads, archival footage) along with some artful embellishments to convey the mounting dread as Crowhurst’s voyage hits one disaster after another. It’s immediately clear from the tone of the interviewees (who include Crowhurst’s wife, son and best friend, along with journalists and a fellow competitor) that the trip would not end well, and the suspense builds along with sympathy for the horribly misguided subject.
Crowhurst mortgaged his family’s financial stability on his ability to complete the race, insisted on using a high-tech boat that was riddled with flaws, left at the last moment possible and was ill-prepared for both the physical and mental challenges of being alone at sea for months on end. Faced with the prospect of going bankrupt if he quit, Crowhurst started falsifying his logs to paint a picture of a journey that he never completed. As his situation spirals further and further out of control, the matter-of-fact accounts from the interviewees contrast with the chaotic, eerie footage that Crowhurst himself took on the boat, along with tape recordings and his increasingly unhinged journal entries. A handful of carefully crafted images that convey the vast indifference of the ocean repeat over and over again, emphasizing the overwhelming force Crowhurst was up against.
There’s enough material in the race itself, a mesmerizing historical footnote, for at least two documentaries: Osmond and Rothwell barely touch on the story of a French racer who forfeited his chance at winning by declining to return home and instead attempting to circle the globe a second time; or the one man who did complete the race, who offers only intermittent insights; or the six other racers who dropped out along the way for various reasons. As a portrait of obsession, competition and, finally, delusion, Deep Water is haunting and engrossing, and one of the best nonfiction movies of the year.
Directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell