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Mental Health, Seafaring and Mythical Voyages

The recent UK cinema release of “The Mercy” revisits the tragic tale of Donald Crowhurst’s doomed entry into the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.  This was a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race, held between 1968–1969.  The story of Crowhurst’s strange voyage starts with a series of misjudgements that entangle him ever deeper into a project which he was ill-equipped to deliver on.  From the outset, he had technical hitches that were compounded by his lack of sailing experience.  He convinced people that he was circumnavigating the globe by reporting fake positions, while in reality he never left the Atlantic.  His abandoned boat was found drifting on the 10th of July 1969.  His body was not recovered.

In The Mercy, Crowhurst is played by Colin Firth, who has remarked how the film’s central theme concerns how in the implementation of any significant plan, one starts crossing ‘points of no return’.  The film effectively charts these: the sponsorship deals provided, with the family home and business as collateral; the aggressive and ethically compromised publicist; the technically innovative but unfinished boat; the increasing malfunctions once Crowhurst started the race; and the decisions made by Crowhurst himself, that increasingly isolated him from any social support.

Donald Crowhurst’s last journal entry

While The Mercy is technically competent, it fails to adequately deal with Crowhurst’s mental unravelling.  The pressures he was under, the increasingly strange journal entries and enigmatic morse messages are all mentioned in the film, but the depiction of his existential crumbling and retreat into a bizarre inner world seem empty and incomplete.  Perhaps the format of a realist drama is not an adequate medium for capturing the extreme stresses, caused by loneliness and deception, which often lead to a mental collapse.  The documentary Deep Water (2006), using original 16mm footage, tape recordings, archive footage and interviews with Crowhurst’s friends and family does a far better job of capturing his psychological disintegration.

However, two related questions are raised by The Mercy.  First, why has his voyage enjoyed such a widespread mythologization?  Since 1969 there have been at least nine films and documentaries, eight stage productions and numerous books about Crowhurst.  There is even a Californian heavy metal band, named Crowhurst.  Second, why does Donald Crowhurst enjoy the status of tragic hero while other sporting ‘cheats’, such as Lance Armstrong, are seen as villains?

I would argue that a central reason is that the sea itself has long been mythologised as an inhospitable environment. One that is indifferent to the sufferings of those who venture into it for long periods.  For instance, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, first published in 1798, established the idea that seafaring would drive a sailor to the edge of sanity.  The harsh reality of existing for a long period in the marine environment is certainly backed up by studies of merchant sailors.  Up until the 1970s, the suicide rate for seafarers was substantially higher than that in the general population.   After this point, the rate only fell because of changes in the British Merchant Fleet which meant that there were far fewer long intercontinental voyages.  More recently there have been worrying indications that the suicide rate amongst seafarers is again rising, with a 2016 survey revealed that 37% of respondents had suffered a ‘psychiatric disorder’ – a  significant increase on the previous 2011 survey.  The mental health risks would drastically increase for those attempting a solo voyage for extended periods under competitive conditions.  As one marine specialist said:

Unless you have done that sort of race, it’s very difficult to make a judgement call as to what the trigger points are to make someone lose their mind in that way and potentially commit suicide

The second set of reasons are connected to how the Donald Crowhurst’s story is very easy to relate to.  He was the amateur ‘underdog’, the outsider in a race of professional sailors. It is important to remember that no one has suggested that he set out to cheat from the outset.  Rather a series of bad decisions cemented him into an ever-tighter trap of his own making.  Small lies, told at a distance and amplified by his publicist, embroiled him ever deeper into a nightmare that he believed was inescapable.  We can relate to him because it is so easy to understand the traps he set for himself.

The final reason for the endurance of this myth is perhaps darker.  At the time of the Golden Globe race, Britain was in the midst of a quasi-Elizabethan nostalgic obsession about seafaring.  The year before, Francis Chichester had completed his single-handed voyage around the world and been publicly knighted by the Queen, using the same sword that Queen Elizabeth I had used to knight Francis Drake.  At a time when Britain’s past empire was still a living memory, and we had yet to find a role for ourselves within Europe, the exploits of single-handed sailors still allowed us to imagine that we still ‘ruled the waves’.  Crowhurst, the small businessman amateur, fitted into this narrative of the plucky ‘have a go’ hero.  The fact that his fateful story was based on poor preparation, lies and misplaced patriotism, now serves as a metaphor for our own collective disintegration as we realise that the national mythologies that have sustained us for the past few decades are as fake as Crowhurst’s reported positions.  Maybe The Mercy, while not getting to Crowhurst’s personal heart of darkness, does capture something about the reality of modern Brexit Britain.