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September 5-11, 2007

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THEN VOYAGER: Donald Crowhurst prepares for his nonstop sail around the world in the documentary 'Deep Water.'

Sail Away

Documentary 'Deep Water' tracks the improbable sea journey of Donald Crowhurst

By Richard von Busack

AS LITERATURE, as a study of the testing and breaking of character, the story of Donald Crowhurst was fit for Joseph Conrad. As straight-out horror, it's a tale that would have suited Poe or Lovecraft. If adapted for a feature film, it's a subject that would have been perfect for Orson Welles—the elements of fraud, failure and hubris would have beguiled the big man. Crowhurst's story has been told from many angles already, in memoirs and histories, in a novel by Robert Stone and in a modern opera. Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell's documentary Deep Water seems like a last word; the film gives a full and aesthetically satisfying overview of the tragedy, in which interviews mesh with dramatizations.

The tale begins in 1967, with Francis Chichester's solo circumnavigation of the world in the Gypsy Moth IV. This journey, achieved in a time before GPS equipment or satellite communications, is justly likened to the astronauts' voyages to the moon. As Ambrose Bierce wrote, the ocean covers two-thirds of a world designed for man, who has no gills. The hazards of such a voyage are so obvious that few stop to think about them: the titanic waves of Cape Horn, for instance (reading Robert Henry Dana's account of the Cape in Two Years Before the Mast was enough to permanently confine my seafaring to the Sausalito ferry). There are the storms of the Roaring Forties, as well as those lonely stretches of the South Atlantic, where sailors start to imagine things. Somehow Chichester made it through this heroic trip, and, as we see here, was knighted by a very young queen holding a tiny sword. Some newspaper promoters decided that the journey would be even more impressive if the sailors never stopped (Chichester himself had pulled into Australia for repairs and provisions). The London Sunday Times promoted a round-the-world, nonstop race, open to all comers. Most of the contestants were experienced sailors with good financial backing.

The dark horse contestant was Crowhurst, an unsuccessful electronic entrepreneur in his late 40s, married with children, a weekend yachtsman. Lacking the finances to go ahead, he made a diabolical bargain with a well-off travel-trailer manufacturer, which would get all Crowhurst's assets if he failed to make the voyage. Thus Deep Water is not only a sea ordeal but also something very much like Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Engineering an experimental trimaran called the Teignmouth Electron, Crowhurst left his wife and family for the lethal voyage. This stunning documentary features interviews with the survivors. Their voices are rich with significance, the imagination of terror and unspeakable regret. Crowhurst's tale was bought and paid for by the press, so there are plentiful first-person accounts, 16 mm film, tapes and logbooks. We can follow his terrible progress, from lying jauntiness to touches of delirium; through digital animation, one of Crowhurst's cablegrams composes itself: "NOW EQUAL FOOTING MERMAIDS STOP." Lastly, after Crowhurst sailed off some indescribable edge, we hear a final calculation, made in ultimate solitude: "The cosmic integral—the sum of man—adds up to nothing."

Movie TimesDEEP WATER (PG; 92 min.), a documentary by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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