Donald Crowhurst was born near Delhi in British colonial India in 1932 to John and Alice Crowhurst. At the age of eight he was sent to an Indian boarding school where he would spend nine months of the year. Two years later, his parents moved to Western Pakistan. After the Second World War, aged fourteen, Donald was sent back to England to board at Loughborough College. His parents returned to England in 1947 when India gained Independence from Britain and the Partition took place. His father ploughed all of his retirement savings into an ill-fated business deal in the new territory of Pakistan. The Crowhurst’s life in post-war England was a far cry from colonial life. The lack of funds forced Donald to leave Loughborough College at the age of sixteen once he passed his School Certificate, and sadly John Crowhurst died in March 1948.
After starting as an apprentice in electronic engineering at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Technical College in Farnborough, Donald went on to join the RAF in 1953; he learned to fly and was commissioned. He enjoyed the life of a young officer and was described by many as charming, warm, wild, brave and a compulsive risk-taker who defied authority and possessed a madcap sense of humour. After he was asked to leave the RAF, he promptly enlisted in the army, was commissioned and took a course in electronic control equipment. He resigned from the army in 1956 and went on to carry out research work at Reading University aged twenty-four.
Crowhurst is remembered as being quite dashing and he caught the attention of his future wife Clare at a party in Reading in 1957. Clare was from Ireland and had been in England for 3 years. Apparently he told her that she would “marry an impossible man”. He said he would never leave her side and took her out the very next evening. Theirs was a romantic, whirlwind courtship that took place over the spring and summer of 1957. They married on 5th October and their first son, James was born the following year. It was at this time that Crowhurst began sailing seriously.
He secured a job with an electronics firm called Mullards but left after a year and aged twenty-six, he became Chief Design Engineer with another electronics company in Bridgwater, Somerset. His real dream was to invent his own electronic devices and he would spend hours of his spare time tinkering with wires and transistors creating gadgets. He also found solace in sailing his small, blue, 20-foot boat, Pot of Gold.
Crowhurst designed the Navicator, a radio direction-finding device for yachting and set up his company Electron Utilisation to manufacture and market the gadget. Donald and Clare’s family expanded with the arrival of Simon in 1960, Roger in 1961 and Rachel in 1962 and they lived happily in the Somerset countryside.
When Electron Utilisation hit financial difficulty, Crowhurst was introduced to Taunton businessman, Stanley Best, who agreed to back the company and Best eventually
sponsored Crowhurst’s attempt to circumnavigate the world in the trimaran Teignmouth Electron.
With the Empire gone, in 1960s Britain there developed a phenomenon where men sought adventure, recognition and heroism. Sending men to the moon was something Britain couldn’t afford, so instead, heroes came in the form of people like Francis Chichester who was the first person to tackle a single-handed circumnavigation of the world, starting and finishing in England with one stop in Sydney. Upon his return in 1967, Chichester was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and instantly became a national hero.
Capitalising on this wave of interest in individual round the world voyages, The Sunday Times sponsored the Golden Globe race, a non-stop, single-handed round the world yacht race. No qualifications were required for entrants but the rule was that they had to depart between 1st June and 31st October 1968 in order to pass through the Southern Ocean in summer. The trophy would be awarded to the first person to complete the race unassisted via the old clipper route, of the great Capes: Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn. The newspaper also offered a cash prize of £5000 for the fastest single-handed navigation.
Nine sailors started the race, four retired before leaving the Atlantic Ocean. Chay Blyth who had no previous sailing experience, retired after passing the Cape of Good Hope. Nigel Tetley was leading the race but sank with 1,100 nautical miles to go. Frenchman Bernard Moitessier rejected the commercial nature of the race, so abandoned it but continued sailing, completing the circumnavigation and carried on half way around the globe again.
Donald Crowhurst’s Teignmouth Electron was discovered mid-Atlantic, 1,800 miles from England at 7.50am on 10th July 1969 by the Royal Mail vessel, Picardy that was en route from London to the Caribbean. On inspection, the trimaran was deserted and a subsequent US Air Force search for Crowhurst followed to no avail.
British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston was the only entrant to complete the race. He was awarded both prizes and subsequently donated his £5000 prize money to Clare Crowhurst and the Crowhurst children.
Director James Marsh carried out painstaking research and delved deep into the heart and soul of what made Donald Crowhurst tick: “If I can speculate on Crowhurst’s background and his experience, he seemed to have a series of failures, if you like, and he escaped the failure by rolling the dice bigger on the next adventure. He was a man of enormous energy and charm and that energy and charm led him into decisions like the ones he made in joining the race, for example. He had enormous self-belief as well, and people around him substantiated that. He managed to fund and build that boat, so there’s a danger of overlooking what he achieved in this story as well as what he didn’t achieve. He achieved enormous amounts”.
“He was a fairly inexperienced sailor but he wasn’t as inexperienced as some people think he was. He hadn’t sailed the ocean properly, yet he built this very fast trimaran, but the boat wasn’t fully tested and finished. He made a pretty good go at sailing round the world – he stayed out in the ocean for the best part of seven months so all in all, he achieved much more than people ever thought he could, he just didn’t achieve what his objective was. It was a case of over-reach, it was hubris and that is what caused the tragedy of his demise”, concludes Marsh.
The research materials available on Crowhurst were “endless” says James Marsh, “there are quite a few books out there and great raw materials that he left behind, his logbooks, his diaries and letters he wrote to his wife”.
In the course of the research, Marsh also read a lot about psychology and about isolation, “You can read about what happens to prisoners who are on their own for six months and what that does to their minds. I made a documentary about a chimpanzee and he went mad within three days. There’s something about us as animals that are entirely social”.
Marsh found Crowhurst’s logbooks to be one of the most fascinating elements of research “because they’re the real thing when they’re not the real thing, he’s disguising the real thing. You can perceive the real story through the disguise”.
“I would drive around the country looking at locations listening to Crowhurst’s tapes” recalls Marsh, “He sings on the tapes, mostly sea shanties and he speculates about the state of the world, about politics, about his own life. It’s extraordinary really, some of that is a persona but some of it also is the truth. That’s the great joy of this kind of film – you get a chance to research and the more you know the more you want to know”.
The public persona Donald Crowhurst created through his tape recordings and the way he talks to his family and people on dry land were, according to James Marsh, “increasingly divorced from what he was feeling and experiencing. In our portrayal, he becomes primitive essentially. He’s stripped of civilisation and becomes much more elemental and that’s shown in his physicality, he loses weight, doesn’t wear as many clothes and starts to look like a vagabond on the boat. The mental journey is much more interesting than the physicality and we just had to bring that to the character”.
“There are entries in the logbooks and in the tape recordings that he became aware of the cosmic reality of where he was.” comments Marsh. “No-one behaved rationally after a certain point in that race. Moitessier lost his mind a bit too – he went round again! Robin Knox-Johnston was perhaps the exception but his boat was in a very strange state when he came back to the British coastline. All in all, no-one was spared by this journey”.
“The sea is like a desert. It’s also mercurial, it has moods, it changes, and it threatens you. But, all you’re seeing is a horizon and a sky. The sea changes colour, it can be stormy and it has this sort of personality that can destroy you,” muses Marsh. “The
isolation is a huge part of what goes wrong in Crowhurst’s mind. Your brain chemistry changes when you don’t speak to people”.
When a real-life character is portrayed on screen, there comes a certain responsibility to the memory of the person and to the feelings of loved ones. James Marsh doesn’t think there is any ‘definitive’ version of any true story, “that’s the great virtue of true stories, you can interpret them this way or that way, endlessly”. He says The Mercy is “a version of a story that we think has some truth to it. There’s no definitive version apart from the reality of what actually happened. You capture and distil it somehow into a dramatic form or a documentary form. There is a duty to respect that character and to be sympathetic. Colin and I both respect that – we both really liked Crowhurst, we felt we knew enough about him to go on with this story and get to the truth of it. Colin plays him with such sympathy and such careful precise emotional progression, which is totally profound”.
“A lot of artists became quite obsessed with Donald Crowhurst” notes Rachel Weisz who plays his wife Clare in The Mercy, “I actually think this story is a very loving portrait of him and his ambitions. There’s a kind of Donald Crowhurst in all of us, we all dream of some kind of glory. I think in the culture we live in now, we’re encouraged to reach beyond our lot or our station. Crowhurst could have made it and it would be a very different story. At the time, there was perhaps this notion that he’d cheated and lied, but I don’t really feel the story’s about that. It’s about somebody who is a dreamer and he gets caught up in a kind of white lie. Everybody exaggerates a little bit now and then to suit his or her story but obviously, this is a very extreme version of it, therefore it makes good drama. I think Donald Crowhurst is immensely human and relatable. He’s not a strange, un-understandable being. I think he’s very understandable. I think the essence of the film is celebrating him as a kind of romantic hero. I hope his family might feel that too, because that’s my feeling about the film” concludes Weisz.
This post and photo was from the StudioCanal UK production notes and press assets for The Mercy movie premiering in the UK on February 9, 2018.