Multihull Disasters on the Silver Screen


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Many multihull aficionados are familiar with the sad tale of Donald Crowhurst, the ill-starred Englishman who took part in the 1967-68 Golden Globe round-the-world race on a trimaran. The story was told in an excellent book by a pair of British journalists called The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, and several films, including a documentary called Deep Water (which is well worth watching). It has most recently been reprised in a feature film called The Mercy, in which Colin Firth does a fine job of portraying the conflicted English sailor.

To cut a long story short, Crowhurst saw the Golden Globe—the first-ever round-the-world race—as a golden marketing opportunity for an invention he’d been hawking to sailors without much success. He convinced a local businessman to fund the construction of a trimaran that would be a “certainty” to win the race, putting his house and business up as collateral.

When it became obvious that not only would the boat not be ready in time, but that its construction was not suitable for such a voyage, Crowhurst nevertheless persevered, fearing that his family would lose everything if he failed to start the race, let alone failed to finish it.

Setting off at the last possible moment in an unfinished boat, the mentally exhausted Crowhurst soon realized that neither his craft nor his seamanship were up to the rigors of the Southern Ocean and came up with a cunning plan—he would sail a slow circle in the southern Atlantic while faking his daily position reports to make it seem he was sailing the race. In those pre-satellite days his scheme may well have worked, except for one thing—and I’m not spoiling the film by telling you what that was. It is no spoiler, however, to reveal that the pressure of keeping up the pretense of competing slowly pushed Crowhurst into insanity. His boat was found drifting, empty, its interior covered with the scribblings of a lunatic.

Firth’s performance is as understated as usual—stiff-upper-lip Brit to the core—and Rachel Weisz waltzes primly through her scenes as the concerned but supportive spouse. The villain here is not the sea, but the conceit and stubbornness of a man who concedes too late that he has been defeated by his own ambitions. The film was never on general release in the United States but can be viewed on Amazon Prime. I suggest watching both it and the Deep Water documentary, which delves far deeper into the complicated mindset of Donald Crowhurst.

Then there is Abandoned, a title that puzzles me since it’s not about abandonment at all—not even the abandonment of hope. It is the dramatized story of the crew of the Rose Noelle, a 40ft trimaran that vanished on a passage from New Zealand to Tonga in 1989. The crew had long been given up for dead when one day, four months later, four skinny, bearded men appeared on New Zealand’s Great Barrier island. They told authorities they had spent the intervening months adrift in the upturned Rose Noelle, which had been capsized by a rogue wave. The men were so healthy-looking that their story was at first met with ridicule until the wreckage of the boat was found to have several months’ worth of marine growth on the decks and cabintop. They had survived for 119 days by catching fish and collecting rainwater.

It’s quite a remarkable story, and worth watching for tips on longterm survival. Rose Noelle’s builder and owner, John Glennie, okayed the script and also wrote a book about the ordeal, called The Spirit of Rose Noelle. Australian actor Dominic Purcell stars as Glennie in this New Zealand-made production, which will keep you entertained for the full 90 minutes. Like The Mercy, it’s currently available on Amazon Prime. 

MHS Summer 2019

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