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Maybe madness and fraud at sea will enliven the latest sailing movie

2018 April 3

Batten down the hatches. Another sailing movie is setting sail. 

At least I hope we have to secure the hatches in preparation for some stormy drama. The last sailing movie I saw induced a torpor that still leaves me groggy when I think of it. That was All is Lost, featuring a cast that included Robert Redford and no one else. Old Bob did his best as a solo actor playing a solo sailor dealing with a sodden screen play and a sinking boat. The sole dramatic high point came in the final scene (after some in the audience may have nodded off) when Bob managed to set fire to the life raft in which he was floating.

Now comes The Mercy. It’s another movie about a solo sailor, but this singlehander might actually be an interesting character, having the distinction of being the perpetrator of the biggest fraud in sailing history. It is also encouraging that there is more than one actor in the film. Besides Colin Firth as the hero-villain, Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz is in the cast as the long-suffering wife who the Firth character duped along with the rest of the world.

The movie is about Donald Crowhurst, an Englishman who has probably been the subject of more written words than any singlehanded sailor not named Joshua Slocum. One of the most recent tellings of the Crowhurst story is in a book by Nic Compton, the British writer and photographer whose excellent work has appeared in SAILING for years. The book, entitled The Deep End, is about crazy sailors. It’s instructive that the book is quite thick.

Yes, a lot of sailors have qualified to fill the pages of what Compton calls “a history of madness at sea,” but Crowhurst is at the head of the class. Afflicted with paranoia and driven by delusions of grandeur, he nearly pulled off an audacious scam before going off the deep end—and off the deck of his trimaran in an apparent suicide.

Crowhurst’s scam was to turn a grueling singlehanded, nonstop race around the world into a virtual race in which he could garner glory while drifting in a windless region of the Atlantic Ocean.

Compton describes Crowhurst as a charismatic self-promoter who had a knack for technical innovation but was clueless in business. He had only dabbled in sailing, but when his instrument company failed, he sought redemption by entering the first Golden Globe race in 1968 in the hope of gaining fame for inventions that would be showcased on his 41-foot, yawl-rigged trimaran.

The rules of the race were simple: With only one person aboard, boats had to sail around the world via the three great capes without stopping, starting from any British port between June 1 and October 31, and finishing at the same port. Crowhurst further simplified the rules for himself by not rounding any capes and instead just saying he did.

Ever the salesman, Crowhurst was able to persuade an electronics company to pay for the construction of his custom-built boat, but the tri was hardly a finished product when it was launched barely in time to make the October 31 start deadline. The boat began falling apart before Crowhurst crossed the English Channel and none of his inventions were working, including a buoyancy bag at the top of the mast that was supposed to inflate in the event of a capsize.

Early on it became obvious the boat was unlikely to survive a circumnavigation, much less perform in a way that would bring the acclaim its owner so desperately sought. 

“He had mortgaged both his house and the boat against the success of the project,” Compton wrote. “If he dropped out, he and his family risked financial ruin. If he kept going, though, he faced almost certain death. Instead, he embarked on one of the most daring deceptions in yachting history: he began to falsify his journey.”

Crowhurst turned around off the coast of South America and headed back toward England, but in his logbook and positions he transmitted to the press and race authorities he was still sailing around the world, and now at high speed. 

One of his phony position reports showed him covering 243 nautical miles in 24 hours, then a sailing record. In truth, he rarely sailed half of that distance in a day. His logbook was a work of fiction, but it had every appearance of being a precisely accurate record of a spectacular voyage, using chart coordinates and information from radio weather reports to describe imaginary positions at imaginary times far along the course.

The subterfuge was so brilliantly executed that Compton believes it required “a much greater degree of mathematical skill than navigating the actual course.”

In fact, Crowhurst performed his perception too well. The British press and public bought it hook, line and sinker, and when the boat that was expected to win the £5,000 elapsed-time prize sunk, Crowhurst was hailed as the probable winner. The BBC and a newspaper organized a hero’s welcome. A crowd of 100,000 was expected to greet him in his home town of  Teignmouth.

Meanwhile, Crowhurst became becalmed in the Sargasso Sea, a fate that has tested the sanity of even sailors not facing disgrace by being caught cheating to win a yacht race. He could neither abandon the race nor finish it in a way that would not reveal the fraud. He chose the deep end.

Crowhurst’s last thoughts were written in a 25,000-word manifesto found on his abandoned trimaran. There was a rambling confession, followed by, “It is finished. It is the mercy.”

I haven’t seen The Mercy, but Nic Compton has and reports that “the focus is firmly on the psychological drama rather than on sailing—which is probably just as well considering how often films get the details of sailing wrong.”

Which brings to mind the one sailing movie I’ve seen that got the details of sailing right. That was the 1992 film Wind, inspired by the America’s Cup races off Fremantle, Australia. Great sailing scenes were shot off Newport, Rhode Island, where Lisa Blackaller, the daughter of America’s Cup skipper Tom Blackaller, was the sailing double for movie star Jennifer Grey, and off Western Australia, where Aussie Cup skipper Peter Gilmour saw to it that everything about the boats, gear and sail handling was accurately portrayed.

My favorite scene derived from the invention of the gennaker, the precursor of the asymmetric downwind sails that are standard on today’s racing boats. In the movie, the sail is deployed as a secret weapon of such enormous size and devastating power that it is named “The Whomper.”

My boat happens to carry a huge descendant of those early gennakers. After we used it to good effect in a race last year, one of the skippers we beat said to me later: “No fair—you used a Whomper.” Obviously, Wind made a lasting impression, but he was only kidding about not being fair. The Whomper is perfectly legal. Most sailors don’t cheat.