OCEAN SAILING MOVIES: The Mercy, Coyote, Following Seas

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Decent films about ocean sailing are, alas, few and far between, so it’s worth noting there are at least three recent offerings I’ve 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’d been looking forward to seeing this film for a long time, ever since Paul Gelder tipped me off a few years ago he’d been helping the folks making it understand what sort of boat Crowhurst had sailed in. To me it seemed very promising they were talking to Paul. He also tipped me off when he saw a preview screening for the press in the UK and told me he thought it was quite good.

For some reason, however, the film didn’t come to the US until long after the UK release, and when it did finally appear in theaters here, it was only for one day. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that another theatrical film on the same subject, called Crowhurst, had also been produced, and The Mercy’s distributor had to buy up the rights to ensure that the two releases didn’t step on each other. (It would, of course, be interesting to compare the two, but I’ve yet to find anywhere I can watch Crowhurst.)

I missed the one magic day to see The Mercy in a theater, but now finally I’ve watched the film online at Amazon Prime. Twice actually. 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 it could not possibly live up to it. The second time, however, with anticipation duly deflated, I was more impressed.

For starters it seems the time spent with Paul and any others consulted on how to represent Crowhurst’s boat, Teignmouth Electron, was well invested. It will be a great relief to students of Crowhurst’s story that the movie boat is a very faithful reproduction the real boat, a 40-foot plywood Piver trimaran. For the most part the film’s narrative also stays true to the original story, though of course there are some oversimplifications.

The movie version of Teignmouth Electron

The actual version, with the actual Donald Crowhurst aboard, setting out on his great adventure

The movie version of Crowhurst, as played by Colin Firth, inside Electron’s accurately recreated cabin

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, then is 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.

On the whole, however, I generally prefer documentary films about ocean sailing to theatrical ones. Which brings us first to Coyote: The Mike Plant Story. This was another project I was aware of before it became available for viewing (I bought a copy on iTunes), and in this case my anticipation spawned no disappointment.

Coyote, with Mike Plant at the helm. She was among the first super-wide Open 60s

Mike Plant in his element. The New York Times has called him the James Dean of ocean sailing

If you’ve never heard of Mike Plant before, you should definitely watch this film, as you’ll likely be surprised to learn that a character like Plant ever existed. In a day when the French are overwhelmingly dominant in singlehanded ocean racing, we can take some pride in the fact there was once, for a brief shining moment, a young up-and-coming American sailor who stood a good chance of beating them at their own game.

Plant took first place in Class II of the 1986/87 BOC Challenge aboard Airco Distributor, an Open 50 boat he built himself to a Rodger Martin design. He also competed in the first Vendée Globe in 1989 aboard Duracell, a self-built Open 60, and though he was disqualified after receiving a wee bit of assistance in New Zealand, he completed the course and was hailed as a hero in France. In the 1990/91 BOC Challenge Plant finished 4th in Class I on Duracell, the best result to date for an American competing in a premiere solo RTW race. Plant seemed set to fulfill his destiny in the next Vendée Globe sailing a new, more advanced Open 60, Coyote, that many thought stood a reasonable chance of winning the race. Tragically, however, he was lost at sea in 1992 as he was sailing Coyote on a solo transatlantic to the race start in France.

For those who do remember Mike Plant, the film is also a treat. You are apt to learn a few things you didn’t know about Plant (I, for example, knew nothing of his past as a drug smuggler) and will be impressed all over again with his fantastic drive and determination. The film features some really great sailing footage, much of it shot by Plant himself, and I most particularly enjoyed revisiting those salad days of the 1980s and early ‘90s when solo RTW racing was just getting established as a regular sport.

Last but not least we have my personal favorite of this bunch, Following Seas, another recent documentary (also available on Amazon Prime), about ocean cruising rather than racing. This 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.

The first Awanhee with a bone in her teeth off Diamond Head

And wrecked on a reef in the Tuamotus in 1963, with Bob Griffith in the foreground. The Griffith family spent 67 days on an uninhabited atoll working to salvage everything they could, including the engine, which was refurbished and later installed on the next Awanhee

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.

Nancy Griffith in her prime aboard Awanhee. She always said she fell in love with the boat first, then fell in love with its owner

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 finally died just a few years ago, in 2013. Following Seas is an apt tribute to her memory. If you only have time to screen one of these three films, this for sure (IMHO) is the one to watch.

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