-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
featuring: Tilda Swinton, Clare Crowhurst, Simon Crowhurst, and Robin Knox-Johnston
directors: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
89 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jim Steel
Donald Crowhurst is largely a forgotten figure today, but 40 years ago he was a national
hero and front-page news. His plunge into ignominy caused such guilt and embarrassment to
most of those concerned that silence has been the main result since.
Let us go back to the 1960s. In 1967 Francis Chichester had completed the first solo
circumnavigation by yacht. The British loved it and turned up in huge numbers to see him.
With its echoes of the previous Elizabethan age, he was our answer to Gagarin and Armstrong.
The Sunday Times took note of all this and decided to sponsor a non-stop around-the-world
solo yacht race. It didn't seem to concern them that this had never been done before - Chichester
had stopped off in Australia for a lengthy refit. There were to be two prizes: the Golden Globe
for the first home, and the main prize of £5,000 for the fastest time. The main criterion for
taking part was that all competitors had to have started from the south of England by 31 October
1968 at the latest. There were nine entries in total. Each one had a different type of yacht,
different experience, and a different philosophy. New, lightweight radios had just been developed
that would enable journalists to keep in touch with the racers. It would be possible for it to be
a spectator sport. Many of the competitors carried cine cameras, and much of this documentary is
taken from that footage.
Some of the competitors were very experienced sailors. Moitessier, for example, the Gauloise
smoking French philosopher, and the hard-drinking Robin Knox-Johnson, and Crowhurst looked like
a day-tripper in comparison. He wasn't the least experienced, though. That man was Chay Blyth,
who had never even sailed solo before and who set out to go around the world in a production
family yacht. It was a wonder that he made it as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Blyth said that
it was remarkable how experienced one became over the first thousand miles, though, and in the
early 1970s he would manage a successful circumnavigation. Moitessier, on the other hand, kept
on sailing and refused to finish. He went back around the Cape and eventually ended up in Tahiti.
It is quite clear that focusing on almost any of the competitors would have made for an excellent
documentary. Another obvious choice would have been to give an overall view of the race. Crowhurst's
actions rendered this impossible.
Sponsorship was one of the major problems for the yachtsmen, and many had to make do with little
or none. A local caravan magnet called Stanley Best sponsored Crowhurst, and he had a bespoke
trimaran built. Best had written into his contract that if Crowhurst turned back or gave up too
early, he was to be refunded. This would have bankrupted Crowhurst and made his young family
homeless. Best was no villain, however, and had only taken a sensible step towards protecting
Things did not go well with the preparations and the BBC, who were filming Crowhurst, got wind
of it and decided to carry on filming as if it were an impending train wreck. A frightened and
confused man appears in their footage. Crowhurst left on the very last day possible with much
work still needing to be done on his yacht. He hoped to complete it during the voyage. He had
already blown any chance of winning the Golden Globe, but the prize money was still theoretically
within his grasp. He fell further and further behind the others, and when the weather grew worse
his yacht sprung leaks. It was clear that when it hit the southern ocean storms, it would sink.
If he turned back, he would be ruined, and if he went on he would die. That was what faced Crowhurst
out there. There was, however, a third alternative.
He could stodge around the Atlantic and wait for the other racers to reappear. Winning was out
of the question, of course. The winner's logs would be heavily scrutinized and he would be found
out. If, however, he limped home in third or fourth place, honour would be satisfied. He would
probably get away with it.
The other survivors eventually rounded Cape Horn. Moitessier, wrestling with his own demons,
sailed on. Knox-Johnson finished first, but in a time that looked unlikely to land him the
£5,000. That left one yachtsman ahead of Crowhurst's supposed position and he, imagining
that Crowhurst was about to overtake him, pushed his yacht too hard and sunk. Suddenly Crowhurst,
as the last man standing, looked as if he was going to win. What to do?
On the 16th of July 1969 his abandoned yacht was found adrift in the Sargasso Sea. His films,
tape recordings and logs (he had kept two, of course) were still on board. It's not mentioned
in the documentary, but this was four days before Armstrong landed on the Moon, a fact that
undoubtedly helped sweep the affair under the carpet.
It's an irresistible subject, and there is enough source material around to fill it out.
Interviews with the surviving yachtsmen, families and others are quite moving and evocative
and it is plain that there is still much pain for many of those people. The wives in particular
seem understandably bitter. Tapes from the time are artfully interspersed with actors reading
There are plenty of extras, including features on all of the sailors. A couple are mere
paragraphs, but most have short films. There are also interviews with the journalists involved
at the time, and a touching set of interviews with members of the Crowhurst family. The only
bum note comes from a point-and-click feature made from photographs of the boat, and the tapes
that were found aboard. This was a man's life, you feel like shouting.
So there you have it. Adventure and madness on the high seas, beautifully captured...