Deep Water An exceptional journey into the heart and soul of humanity. A documentary about the disastrous 1968 Sunday Times round-the-world yacht race. A group of men set out to do something that had never been done before with no support vessels, wooden boats, no satellite phones, no GPS, and just their wits and skill to get them round the globe in one piece.
The Sunday Times Challenge
In 1969 The Sunday Times announced the first non-stop, single handed round-the-world sailing race. The rules stated that anyone who attempts a non-stop circumnavigation is automatically entered, with two prizes on offer: the Golden Globe for the first man home and a ₤5 000 for the fastest voyage.
1968 was a turbulent year for the West. Across the world the social and cultural revolutions now associated with the times were in full swing. The Americans were facing demonstrations against their war in Vietnam, there were riots in Paris whilst in Prague the Czechs rose up against their Russian overlords.
However, away from the arena of international politics the pace of life was far slower. It was a less cynical age, one in which explorers were still venerated and adventures seemed within the reach of any one with the drive to make them happen. Against this backdrop, single-handed sailors, who embarked on heroic voyages had become media celebrities.
In May 1967, Frances Chichester became a national hero having sailed single-handed round the world, stopping only in Australia. The final pinnacle of achievement was to circumnavigate the globe and non-stop.
The Sunday Times had enjoyed a massive circulation boost with Chichester's one stop circumnavigation and in an effort to repeat that success they dreamt up The Golden Globe Sailing Race.
Under pressure from Chichester who was made chair of the race judges, the newspaper set a departure deadline on October 31, 1968, so as not to be seen to be encouraging sailors to enter the Southern Ocean in winter.
Dennis Herbstein was the journalist who was given the unenviable task of filing weekly reports on the race. For months at a time, the sailors were out of radio contact, and it became increasingly difficult to come up with newsworthy stories when no one had a clear idea of their positions.
How the project began
Producer Al Morrow brought the Deep Water project to APT Films as an independent producer but has since joined the company as a development executive.
Independent film producer Jonny Persey, who the managing director of APT, has always "been attracted to stories which really test the limits of human capability, which take a character, or an audience, from a place of disempowerment into a position of knowing something that really wasn't on the agenda before."
"When Jerry and Al told me the story of Deep Water it sounded like they were telling me a fictional plot," says Persey. "It was a story so perfect in its narrative form … it transcended sailing, wasn't about racing, it was about a journey which we all go though on some level, but in a dramatic context that is the stuff of the movies."
Producer John Smithson is founder and Creative Director of Darlow Smithson productions, a multi-award winning independent TV and film production company, based in London. Widely regarded as an industry leader in high quality factual programming, DSP has achieved worldwide recognition for its groundbreaking documentaries, series and docu-dramas. Smithson recently produced Touching the Void, the most successful British theatrical documentary in UK box office history and winner of 15 awards, including Outstanding British Film at the BAFTA Awards.
What excited Smithson about the project was that "this is a great story that has been crying to be told,"
How does it compare to Touching the Void in the production process and how does Smithson feel it contrasts in mood with that film?
"The earlier film involved a very long and elaborate location shoot which was extraordinarily challenging in its way, whereas Deep Water has not used reconstructed drama in any form but relies on the impressions of people who were obviously not on the boat with Donald but were involved at the time. It's a very different sort of problem to face. As to the contrasts in tone between the two films, it is axiomatic that those in peril on the mountain survived, whereas the man in peril on the sea did not, giving us very different outcomes."
Financing the documentary
"You can only really attract people to a project once you know exactly what lies at its heart, what makes you love it yourself, and have found a way of communicating that with passion and efficiency," says Persey.
"We spent a long time honing that pitch on many levels. We wrote and re-wrote the narrative - for even with a true story there's a million ways to tell it, more so because there are so many different stories one could tell. We made a five minute 'trailer' using archive footage, music of the period, and our insights into the story. And we made sure that we had the elements of a package together that would take away any doubt from even the most sceptical of financiers."
The producers were well along the road to financing the film with a series of independent European co-producers and distributors when Pathe was approached.
"Nobody could have reacted more positively," says Persey. "They were keen to take on both distribution and international sales without giving away any territories, so we let go of our patch-work approach, and together we approached the UK Film council and FilmFour as well as IFC in the USA and Hopscotch in Australia and New Zealand."
"That all makes it sound pretty easy, but in reality that whole process took two years or so. With the film financed and distribution assured, we were able to approach John Smithson and Darlow Smithson who documentary experience and phenomenal track record we knew would add a unique and brilliant creative edge to the project
Focusing on the most unlikely of sailors
Deep Water, which marks Morrow's first full-length documentary feature for cinema, focuses on the most unlike of sailors, Donald Crowhurst, a 36-year-old amateur yachtsman, a father of four whose marine electronics business was ailing.
"I've always been interested in individuals who actively seek out adventures," says Morrow. "I'm basically an avid armchair explorer and knew about the Golden Globe from reading extensively about the various competitors. Out of all of those who took part, Donald Crowhurst undertook the most extraordinary voyage."
"We wanted Crowhurst's story to be at the heart of the film, with the story of the race and the other sailors serving as a backdrop," says director Louise Osmond.
The documentary uses Cowhurst's original 16mm films and tape recordings to re-construct the extraordinary journey; much of this incredible archive has not been seen for over 30 years and was only recently re-discovered for the production.
As a freelance director and co-founder of the production company 'World's End Pictures', Louise studied modern History and joined ITN's Editorial Trainee programme when she graduated. She worked in the Europe Bureau events in Brussels, Paris and Rome and a Foreign Desk Editor in London, before leaving to work as a documentary editor.
Her recent work includes three full length documentaries: Blitz: London's Firestorm (short listed for the 2006 Grierson Award for Best Historical Documentary), The Search for the Northwest Passage - both for Channel 4/PBS - and Looking for Victoria for BBC1.
She also made Why We Went To War, opening More 4's Iraq Season, The Real Hughie Green (Channel 4), Timewatch: Death of a Battleship (BBC2) and To the ends of the Earth: Hell on High Water (the story of the storm that hit Sydney to Hobart yacht race in 1998 for Channel 4/CNN).
"We also wanted everyone interviewed to have been an eyewitness to the events. There are no pundits. Everyone is recounting their memories and each of them has a distinct perspective. It was an event that changed all of their lives."
Osmond worked with director Jerry Rothwell, an experienced documentary filmmaker with over 10 years broadcast experience.
"Jerry and I had been talking for quite a while about projects that we might do together and when I told him about Donald's story, he was hooked," says Morrow.
Documentary versus Fictional Film
"We just felt that it had to be a documentary because we thought we would not be doing justice to a true story if we went into the whole process of fictionalising it," says Morrow. "Besides, we had the great fortune to unearth a trance of excellent archive material, so we had the bare bones around which to accurately reconstruct the body of Donald's journey."
Persey was always sure that it should be a documentary.
"The story itself is so powerful that to turn it into fiction would almost be to reduce its impact," says Persey. "What matters so greatly is that it is true. Once Al and Jerry had approached me with the story, it rapidly became clear that this was a 'must make' film. It's just a terrific story, which needed no spicing up."
Rothwell researched the story behind Deep Water for several years.
"We just tried to piece together every aspect of the journey from day to day, based on all the evidence we had accumulated," says Rothwell. "We tracked down the surviving sailors and their wives, the journalists who covered the race, and set about trying to find Donald's original films and sound recordings which seemed to have gone missing twenty years ago."
"In the age of the database, if material isn't archived on a computer, it's hard to establish that it exists."
The filmmakers knew that Donald had left extensive recordings, both on film and tape, because they had been used in earlier TV programmes.
Rothwell was concerned that the BBC had destroyed the archives in one of their periodic culls. "Fortunately, we had some great strokes of luck," says Rothwell. "When we were speaking to a BBC archivist about Donald, he mentioned that he just happened to see the name Crowhurst on a box of reels in the warehouse very recently..
"At that time, the round the world sailors were major national heroes," says Rothwell. "Donald's story has the shape of a myth - the tale of a man who over-reaches himself and is faced with the consequences. Even though the circumstances of the story are so extraordinary and exceptional, we can all identify with it. Donald ended on his voyage with different values from those with which he started it, asking himself the big questions that we all ask ourselves at moments of crisis. His logbook writings are his answers to those questions - philosophical, poetic, mystical - but also increasingly detached from the everyday world of those on land."
"It's a story about what happens when we are stripped of every reference point - the people we love, our society, our system of values," says Rothwell.
One of the biggest challenges in making the film was that Osmond and editor Ben Lester had to find a way to stay with Crowhurst right to the end of his voyage.
"After he set sail we only have his logbooks, and some audio recordings and film footage to try and unravel his state of mind," says Osmond. "Clare Crowhurst, Simon and Crowhurst's closest friend Ron Winspear allowed us to get perhaps as close as we could. Their insights and their candour were invaluable. I think they allowed u to understand how Crowhurst came to the decisions he did. They make it a story we can all empathise with; a story of a man pursuing a dream and the terrible pressures brought to bear when that dream starts to unravel."
"We were telling a story about a man and an experience that was so important to so many people, and despite the fact that he may not have still been living, in many ways he was still alive in the hearts and minds of a great many people with whom we had strong bonds," says Persey. "And we felt a huge responsibility to get that story right, particularly it being a story which had been sensationalised and poorly told on too many occasions. Yet we had a way to tell it, to get it right, and hopefully to inspire people with the power and lessons of that experience.""
"Ironically enough, one of the challenges arises when you have a decent budget to play with, because it raises the stakes accordingly. Particularly, when you have a documentary film about a central character who is, by definition, unable to be interviewed and who only had a brief glimpse of others in the last nine months of his life. Again, I believe we've rises to this and made it paradoxically into one of the film's strengths, but there is no doubt we had to think and plan very carefully."
The Participation of the Crowhurst Family
For Rothwell it was important to get the Crowhurst family to collaborate on the film.
"The story is as much their story as Donald's, and I don't think it would have been possible to make this film in this form without their collaboration. They've been very open to our exploration of the story - even though it has made them relive a very painful period in their lives."
Clare Crowhurst, who was during the event labelled by The Sunday Times labelled as "The Sea Widow", was delighted to support the documentary.
"I just like the people," she says. "We get many offers to participate in programmes and I almost invariably turn them down, but when I met Jerry, Al and Jonny, I felt they were approaching the subject with proper sympathy and understanding, so I decided to go ahead.
"It was really quite gruelling," says Simon Crowhurst of being interviewed on camera. ""There were a lot of tough things to go through - I can still recall my father kissing all of us children on our foreheads as he said goodbye - but some of the memories that I managed to pull up from the back of my mind were also unhappy and exciting, such as seeing all the boats around us, and it was good to be reminded of those."
"I don't think we could have made the film without them," says Persey. Firstly, from a moral perspective, we would never have gone ahead without their full involvement and endorsement. And they provided us with such depth of insight into the man that in may ways it has become their film as much as Donald's."
"We had some other members of our family staying when the film arrived, so we all sat down to watch it together," says Simon. "I must confess that it was exceptionally hard for my youngest daughter to sit through, but she managed it and we certainly all found it a very moving experience. In fact, my tension had been relieved by the fact that my mother and the Devon group had already seen the film and I'd heard from them that it was fine."
The filmmakers emotional commitment to Donald's story was important for Simon.
"Other attempts to chart my father's voyage have tended to use the material to make simplistic, moralistic points when the truth of the matter is that no-one-else has ever been faced with quite the same challenging set of circumstances. That the makers of Deep Water went out of their way to understand that makes it a superior film. It does have overtones of an adventure story in the Boys' Own style but, at heart, I think it is a very human story."
A Happy Ending
The filmmakers were thrilled with the end product.
"I'm thrilled with the finished film and believe we've told the story with sufficient sensitivity, so that the Crowhurst family can also watch it all over again without undue apprehension, knowing we've tried to explain fully what happened and why," says producer Al Morrow.
"I think it will attract a healthily large audience," says Smithson. "Touching the Void has demonstrated that there is a market for adventure documentaries out there and, although this is a very different type of story, it is one that touches all of us who realise what things might be like if we get into some predicament over our heads. I must say I am delighted with the final film."
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