In 1968—a year that seems surprisingly ancient when viewed through Deep Water‘s faded, sleepy shots of English coastal towns—the
Sunday Times sponsored a contest to see if a man could sail around the world, single-handedly and nonstop. There were nine entrants, from the well-known yachtsman Bernard Moitessier to the astonishingly inexperienced electrical engineer Donald Crowhurst. Moitessier, who’s as chiseled a Superman as they come, conquered the course easily, but just as he was about to glide into port and set a world speed record, he decided to renounce fame and fortune, turn around, and circle the globe again. Crowhurst, on the other hand, was a world-class bumbler; not only did he fall apart, but he managed to do it in as nutty and disgraceful a manner as possible. Realizing early on that his practically homemade trimaran couldn’t survive the rough southern waters known as the Roaring Forties, he abandoned the race and spent several months drifting off the coast of Brazil, sending word to his sponsors that he was actually in the Indian Ocean. Things only got worse—much worse—from there. It would have been hard to squeeze a movie out of this Ayn Rand–ian fable were it not for Crowhurst’s own 16mm footage of his voyage, which the filmmakers found in a dusty BBC archive. His efforts to film himself look like something you might see on Facebook, but they are haunting evidence of the toll that isolation and exertion can take on a relatively average guy from Somerset. Given that the tedium of months on the open seas could and did drive a man insane, co-directors Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell have done a commendable job of making
Deep Water . . . well, not boring. Part of their success lies in a canny decision to probe the psychology of Crowhurst’s wife Clare, a sad-eyed Penelope who is infinitely more interesting than her sweetly incompetent husband. But they also pay keen attention to the blow-by-blow of the race itself, which unfolds as a practically mono-mythological journey. It’s striking how disengaged these yachters were from the sociopolitical turbulence of the late ’60s, perhaps because they knew the modern world no longer needed their heroics: They were setting out to conquer the seas a few hundred years too late to be legendary.