Deep Water: Sink or swim time

If you want to know how well Deep Water tells the story of the attritional 1968 round-the-world sea race, you might ask the man who won it. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston gives his view
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The Independent Culture

The film Deep Water takes us back to another age of sailing exploits. Set against the backdrop of Britain in the 1960s, it tells the tragic tale of Donald Crowhurst's disappearance at sea during the very first Sunday Times Golden Globe solo, non-stop, round-the-world boat race.

Crowhurst was a 36-year-old former RAF pilot with an ailing small electronics company and, at best, an enthusiastic weekend sailor, so what convinced him he should go to sea for nine months is anyone's guess (Chay Blyth described the worst of the weather as "like being in hell with instructions").

He was also an inventor, the pioneer of the on-board computer and had a self-righting mechanism in case of capsize on his triple-hulled boat. Such technology may be taken for granted today, but if you were to force everyone back to flying in biplanes, then you could begin to understand the enormous advances that have taken place in yacht design and engineering in the last 40 years. In 1969, my advance weather system was a barometer from the wall of a pub.

Today, I am lucky. It's as if the Wright Brothers were allowed to come back 40 years on and told they could pilot Concorde. Well, 53 days into the Velux 5 Oceans race and some 37 years after winning the Golden Globe in Suhaili, that's exactly what I have been granted in sailing terms.

The Golden Globe has been described to me as not really a race. How totally wrong. It was a race, like the race to the South Pole between Amundsen and Scott, and there was everything to go for. Like the two polar travellers, we did not know in those days if a non-stop circumnavigation was going to be possible; we thought it might be and went to sea on that basis, but most people thought that none of us would make it. Some delighted in telling us so.

This did create a very different psychological approach. To put it simply, as I have said before, that was hell, this is fun. I have nothing to lose. This time around, in my rocket ship Saga Insurance, I know the voyage can be achieved; it is no longer pathfinding and I don't have to exercise the caution that goes with exploring. The sailing differences are huge, also. Suhaili is a very forgiving ketch with no large sails and so everything was manageable. If you got caught out by a squall you could deal with it.

On Saga Insurance, the sails are four times the size, much stronger, and if they are up when a squall hits that's where they stay until it passes because the boat will be on her side and you won't be able to reach anything to reduce the pressure. Saga Insurance is a much harder and more demanding boat to sail, but the compensation is that she is at least two to three times faster, so the deprivation that is a part of solo sailing around the world ought to be over sooner.

The other difference is in communications. Then, they hardly existed. Once you sailed, you tried to call in once a week and it was never a good line. In my case, the radio broke down after a couple of months so I just disappeared as far as the rest of the world was concerned until I turned up off Melbourne, handed over some mail, and apart from a quick chat off New Zealand disappeared for a further four-and-a-half months. If anything went wrong there were no means of advising anyone, you simply disappeared.

Now we have so many satellite gadgets there is constant communication, and if things go wrong you can tell the world instantly - as we saw when Alex Thomson lost his keel a fortnight ago.

Regarding Crowhurst's voyage, you must remember that he was just a name to me at the time. I only heard about him when I was off New Zealand [in November, as Crowhurst's vessel was still languishing in the North Atlantic, while the two other remaining competitors, Bernard Moitessier in The Roaring Forties and naval commander Nigel Tetley in Victress, were, respectively, close to Knox-Johnston's vessel and making progress on the Southern Ocean].

I knew from an unguarded remark by Francis Chichester, who in 1967 had become the first to sail single-handed around the world, stopping only in Australia, that he and Craif Rich (yes, our weather man) had some serious doubts about Crowhurst's voyage, which would have led to an investigation when he got back. I learnt in the Sunday Mirror offices that his boat had been found abandoned. At that time, only 12 people knew, but it came out pretty quickly that he had been broadcasting false progress reports.

Obviously, I had never met him and could only feel sorry for a fellow human being who had got himself into a situation he did not feel he could back out from. Deep Water's Al Morrow, has said: "What I felt about Donald was that although not all of us would go to sea, the situation was one that any of us could have got ourselves into. You tell one tiny lie, and that turns into another lie, and suddenly there's no way out. The other thing that struck me is that being on your own for nine months at sea is such a unique thing. You have no one to speak to. He must have been so lonely."

So I did give part of the winning purse to his family, because he left a widow and four small children. The other participants whose campaigns ended in failure were still able to look after themselves - find jobs and so on.

The reception I received from the people when I stepped ashore at Falmouth in 1969 was fantastic. It can never be repeated. Moitessier had dropped out after rounding the Cape of Good Horn, deciding simply to carry on sailing round the world a second time, and in a message to The Sunday Times he announced: "I continue non-stop because I'm happy at sea and perhaps because I want to save my soul."

As for Crowhurst and Deep Water, his widow, Clare, has said: "I think as far as anyone knows, the film has told the story of Donald's voyage as truthfully as it can."

'Deep Water' opens today; Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is currently competing in the Velux 5 Oceans race, a single-handed round-the-world yacht race