In search of the (rare) great ocean-sailing flick

Review by Charlie Doane
For Points East

“The Mercy”
directed by James Marsh. Perf. Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, and Ken Stott. StudioCanal 2017. YouTube, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon Prime.

Decent films about ocean sailing are, alas, few and far between, so it’s worth noting there are at least two offerings I’ve recently screened that are truly worth watching. The first, unbelievably, is an A-list flick starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, “The Mercy,” which recounts the well-worn tale of Donald Crowhurst’s tragic voyage during the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race.

I’ve actually seen the film twice. The first time I was inevitably disappointed, as my imagining of how great the film was going to be had been so sharpened by my anticipation that it could not possibly live up to it. The second time, however, with anticipation duly deflated, I was more impressed.

For starters, it will be a great relief to students of Crowhurst’s story that the movie boat is a very faithful reproduction of the real boat, a 40-foot plywood Piver trimaran named Teignmouth Electron. For the most part the film’s narrative also stays true to the original story, though, of course, there are some oversimplifications.

What’s best, really, is the acting. Colin Firth does a fine job of leading us into the psyche of a man who inflated himself from a marginal marine-electronics entrepreneur into a would-be Chichester. His portrayal of Crowhurst’s descent into his wild deception, fooling the world into thinking he was sailing around the world while noodling aimlessly around the South Atlantic, is authentic and believable. Particularly intriguing are the scenes where Firth/Crowhurst edges up to, then steps back from, the precipice of confessing his sin. Rachel Weisz is also very good as Clare Crowhurst, the poor woman who reluctantly supports her husband’s overambitious scheme, is then left alone to pick up the pieces of his failure and disgrace.

What gnaws on me about theatrical films like this, however, is the problem of dramatizing a true story that is both so deep and so well known. If you are coming to the story cold, “The Mercy” does almost nothing to place Crowhurst’s tortured character and the drama he played out properly in context within the larger drama of the Golden Globe Race and its other equally fascinating characters. It’s like being shown just one detail of an oversized masterpiece painting.

On the other hand, if you do know the story – which is not unlikely, as Crowhurst’s saga has long had traction outside the sailing community – you end up constantly second-guessing what you are seeing. Precisely because you can fill in the many gaps you find in the film, you question why each one is there.

In my own case, for example, though of course I understand there’s only so much you can show in a two-hour movie, I thought “The Mercy” would have been much stronger if they’d put in at least a few cameo glimpses of what was going on with Knox-Johnston, Moitessier, and Tetley during the race. Contrasting snapshots of their struggles with Crowhurst’s own struggle would have made for a much richer story.

At the very least, seeing as how they’d already hired someone to play Francis Chichester, they could have at least added just one scene showing Chichester publicly questioning Crowhurst’s reported daily runs (as, in fact, he did). This would have demonstrated how likely it was that Crowhurst’s logs would be carefully examined if he won a prize, thus creating more dramatic tension. Instead we learn of this key story element through Crowhurst’s interior monologue, a decidedly undramatic reveal.

That said, for a theatrical film about ocean sailing, “The Mercy” rates way above average.

 

“Following Seas”
directed by Tyler J. Kelley and Araby Williams. Perf. Bob and Nancy Griffith. Journeyman Pictures 2017. YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime.

“Following Seas” is a documentary about ocean cruising, rather than racing. It follows the careers of Bob and Nancy Griffith, who cruised throughout the world during the 1960s and ’70s aboard Awanhee, a 50-foot cutter built in wood to an Uffa Fox design, and a successor Awanhee, self-built in ferrocement to roughly the same design.

I was dimly aware of the Griffiths, but knew little about them beyond that they were the first Americans to cruise Antarctica, a grand adventure the film covers in some detail. In all other respects the film was for me a great revelation. These were very serious sailors. Bob Griffith was a super strong character, clearly a force of nature unto himself, but his wife Nancy was just as strong.

Mostly this is Nancy’s film. All the spectacular vintage sailing (and shipwreck) footage you see in it was shot by her on 16mm film, and hers is the voice that drives the narrative. Indeed, my one quarrel with the film is that it should have been a bit longer so as to include more detail on the independent sailing career Nancy pursued after Bob died (of a heart attack, after he characteristically refused to stop running on a treadmill during a cardiac stress test) in 1979. During the 1980s Nancy ran a heavy-weather sailing school, then later skippered large sailing cargo vessels throughout the South Pacific.

Nancy herself died just a few years ago, in 2013. “Following Seas” is an apt tribute to her memory.

Charlie Doane has worked as a boating journalist since 1986, including stints at “Cruising World,” “Offshore,” and “SAIL” magazines. He’s currently the cruising editor at “SAIL” and has authored two books: “The Modern Cruising Sailboat” and “The Sea is Not Full.” His blog, WaveTrain (www.wavetrain.net), is always fun and interesting.

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