The Mercy is about a participant in the1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which produced the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. But it felt much more than a film on Donald Crowhurst. Besides the reality of single handed sailing, vastly different from life ashore, it was invitation to contemplate why we chase goals, how prepared we are for what we wish to accomplish and how apt the sponsorship models adopted for the same, are. The film is recommended viewing.
Hurricane Gilbert of 1988 is one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.
It was the most intense hurricane till it was surpassed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Gilbert wrought widespread havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; it killed 318 people, damage to property was estimated at $ 2.98 billion.
The Cayman Islands, an autonomous British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean Sea, was among regions affected by Hurricane Gilbert. Cayman Brac is part of Cayman Islands. In 1988, among other things, Gilbert damaged further an already damaged trimaran – 41 feet long and at that time, twenty years old – which lay neglected on the beach at Cayman Brac. Whenever the story of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (GGR) is told, the little known Teignmouth Electron is as crucial a player, as the Suhaili, which won the race essaying the world’s first solo, nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat or the Joshua, which upon getting back to the Atlantic traded its chances of winning for another half voyage around the world. Teignmouth Electron was originally built for Donald Crowhurst, the only sailor who didn’t survive the 1968 GGR. He faked a whole voyage around the world, from the Atlantic and back to it, while all along remaining in the Atlantic. It would be easy to dismiss him as a fraud. Behind every act of fraudulence is a story and such stories typically point to circumstances as much as they do to person.
The 1968 GGR is remembered in India because Suhaili – the sail boat in which, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the race – was built in Mumbai. Crowhurst was born 1932, in Ghaziabad. According to Wikipedia, following India’s independence, his family moved to England. Their retirement savings were invested in a sports goods factory in India. But the factory burnt down during the riots around India’s partition. Thanks to financial problems, Crowhurst was forced to leave school early and become an apprentice at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He subsequently served in the air force and the army. Eventually he commenced a business called Electron Utilisation which had among its products, a radio direction finder useful at sea. His attempts to sell this product and related presence at an expo around boats and sailing where Sir Francis Chichester (the first man to circumnavigate solo along the clipper route and the fastest circumnavigation till then) discloses plans for the 1968 GGR, form the opening scene of the film, The Mercy. “ A man alone in a boat is more alone than any man alive,’’ Sir Francis’s character played by Simon McBurney says. Colin Firth’s Donald Crowhurst is in the audience, listening.
A married man with wife and three children and a business struggling to stay afloat, he decides to participate in the 1968 GGR hoping to leverage his participation and the visibility it may bring, to rejuvenate his business. He builds a trimaran because it is capable of great speed. He also tweaks the design to accommodate one of his innovations meant to steady the boat should it capsize in rough weather. Stanley Best – played by Ken Stott – agrees to fund his participation in GGR; Rodney Hallworth – played by David Thewlis – comes aboard as press agent managing publicity. Until GGR, Crowhurst had only been a weekend sailor. What unfolds in the race is even more desperate than the challenges he faced attempting to succeed at his business.
I first heard of Donald Crowhurst in 2013, while writing an article on Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy project that gave India its first solo circumnavigation in a sail boat (Captain Dilip Donde [retd]) and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation (Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; at the time of writing this article, out on his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR). It was Captain Donde’s recommendation that I read the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Crammed with details from Crowhurst’s logbook, the book was not an easy read. Compared to it, The Mercy moves faster. However, books tell stories more comprehensively and you feel that about The Mercy, which introduces you to a Crowhurst willing to risk it all without giving you matching insight into what made his character so. Equally taken for granted or relegated to backdrop is the sea. If the sea and its nature played a part in weekend sailor-businessman becoming even more desperate miles away from shore, then that evolution is not adequately conveyed by the film. The isolation, loneliness and work to keep home upon water floating, don’t come through although the general sweep of Crowhurst’s story gets told. That’s the film’s strength. In particular I could sense the pressure caused by his expectations, the ill finished boat and the publicity accompanying sponsorship model. Into the voyage, fiction gradually replaces fact in Crowhurst’s progress reports.
The 1968 GGR entailed circumnavigation starting in England and ending there. In era preceding GPS, Crowhurst’s periodic radio transmissions are all that family and support team in England have to go by. When Crowhurst’s fictitious report puts him near the Cape of Good Hope, Hallworth in his statements to media pegs him farther out to build a positive, adventurous image. The publicist’s enthusiasm isn’t agreeable with Crowhurst, who is banking on a finish in last place to spare him probing questions that may unravel his fraud. He goes into radio silence. Hallworth keeps the momentum going with invented reasons for radio silence and access for media to interview Mrs Crowhurst, which she dislikes. When Crowhurst commenced his sail around the planet, he was a weekend sailor in a newly built, untested boat with no assurance of winning the race, his business and house on land marked as collateral to sponsors underwriting the voyage. In the seven months that follow, his plight – combination of boat not up to the mark and his own limited experience as sailor – becomes clear. Instead of admitting failure, he starts to fake circumnavigation. At one point, his fake radio transmissions have him sailing at record breaking speed. Eventually as the mix of cheating and loneliness gets to him he loses his mind. He hallucinates, becomes deeply reflective. “ The end must come to all human experience and that alone is certain,’’ he notes.
In July 1969, the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned in the Atlantic; there was no sign of its occupant. Crowhurst is believed to have committed suicide. A film on a circumnavigation that didn’t happen, The Mercy – I felt – found its clearest moments in dialogue. Towards the end of the movie, Rachel Weisz’s character, Clare Crowhurst, says the following and it should stay with us as reference point for our times, wherein few are content being themselves and there is imagery by money, media and marketing for use as currency to be larger than life. To the media gathered outside her house after news broke that her husband had possibly faked his voyage and was now missing at sea, Clare says: I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell or if he jumped as you are now saying. I would like you to rest assured that if he did jump, he was pushed and each and every one of you had a grubby hand to his back; every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a news stand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement. Last week you were selling hope, now you are selling blame. Next week you will be selling something else. But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father and I will still need my husband. I am afraid that doesn’t make a particularly good story – does it? But then I suppose the truth rarely does. In The Mercy Crowhurst is not entirely cheat. You see context and person. The 1968 GGR was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He donated the prize money he got to Crowhurst’s family.
Both the Suhaili and the Joshua were at Les Sable-d’Olonne in France, when the 2018 GGR commenced in July. Following the 1968 GGR, Teignmouth Electron was auctioned off. It changed hands a couple of times before ending up on that beach at Cayman Brac. According to information on the Internet, it continues to be there. In addition to the damage it suffered, some of its parts have been stolen by vandals. A replica built for use while filming The Mercy, survives. The Mercy was released some months before the 2018 GGR. A second film on Crowhurst called Crowhurst – starring Justin Salinger in the title role – has also released to good reviews.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)