Deep Water, 93 mins, rated G, DVD release on 17 April 2008, RRP: $39.95


[This is my review as published in the April 2008 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal]

In May 1967, Francis Chichester, aged 66, completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe, in his famous boat, Gipsy Moth IV. He was instantly world-famous. 250,000 well-wishers greeted him on arrival in Plymouth. It had taken him 9 months and one day. We in Australia were particularly connected to this feat. Chichester had stopped in Sydney along the way to do some major repairs.

Primary school children in Australia followed his journey, plotting his positions with pins and flags on maps of the world in their social studies classes.  His success was part of a kind of English renaissance – “a new Elizabethan Age,” as PR man Ted Hynds put it. It was a great time for PR men.

The Sunday Times immediately set a new challenge: “The Golden Globe” race. Competitors would again sail single-handed around the world – but this time without stopping. They could leave at any time before 1 October 1968. There would be prizes for the first boat home, and the fastest time. 9 yachtsmen took the challenge. 8 were experienced seamen.  The documentary film, Deep Water, tells the story of the 9th.

The film, out on DVD this month, tells the story of amateur seaman, Donald Crowhurst, and his just-built, unproven 12-metre trimaran, the strikingly-named “Teignmouth Electron”. Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had an electronics business called “Electron Utilisation Limited”, and had invented a navigational aid, the radio direction finder called the “Navicator”. In order to publicise his failing business, he entered the Golden Globe race.

His quest to win the prize took him from incredible optimism and daring – some would say blind faith – to the edge of insanity. Along the way he found himself literally and metaphorically in “deep water,” as he faced challenges that were physical, mental, and ethical.

Deep Water had a short release on the big screen last year, in Australia and elsewhere. If, like me, you blinked and missed it, here is your chance to see it at your leisure. It’s a story full of amazing twists and turns, and great highs and lows. The truth about Crowhurst’s journey is jaw-droppingly audacious.

Crowhurst recorded some of his voyage on 16mm film and audio tape. Another competitor, the poet and philosopher Bernard Moitessier, also took some beautiful film footage, and his ship’s log is quite lyrical. In addition to these resources, the film makers use contemporary newsreel, newsprint, and many interviews with Crowhurst’s and the other sailors’ families, friends, PR agents, and journalists.

One advantage of the DVD is the “bonus material.” There are several short films about the other competitors, their families, and the journalists involved. There are many still photographs, some “interactive,” and other resources to fill out the story.

But the film itself is a fascinating document. It was produced by Darlow Smithson Productions, which also produced the superb documentary Touching the Void (2003), reviewed here in June 2004.  The eventual winner of the prize for first home did the journey in 312 days – that’s nearly a year – in almost total isolation. In 1968 there was no GPS. Once you were over the horizon, you were, as the film says, “in oblivion”. The film explores what that, and the pressure to perform, can do to a man’s mind. It also raises questions about the point at which daring and heroism crosses over into selfishness and even madness. Is the difference just a matter of success or failure?

The Golden Globe race received a huge amount of publicity world-wide. It was promoted as “The Everest of the Seas”. Yet I recall nothing of it from that time. Perhaps, after the excitement of Chichester in 1967, and in the lead-up to the first moon landing in July 1969, the Golden Globe race was overlooked. But the story of that race is just as compelling in human terms. It is a journey through the deep waters of the mind and soul of man.