Colin Firth on Donald Crowhurst, the sailor lost at sea in a boat made in Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 15:56 08 February 2018 | UPDATED: 15:34 09 February 2018
The Mercy tells the story of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst who set off in a round-the-world race in a yacht built in East Anglia and was never seen again. Director James Marsh, Colin Firth and the Essex boatbuilder who remade the boat tell us more.
Fifty years after Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor hoping to becoming the quickest person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe without stopping, set sail in his yacht built in East Anglia, his strange story and unknown fate is the subject of a new film.
The Mercy stars Colin Firth as the yachtsman who departed on October 31 1968 in his unfinished triple-hulled yacht Teignmouth Electron, laden with untested, newfangled gizmos, to competed in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
He left his wife, Clare, and their children behind to embark on his high seas adventure providing updates on his progress via radio that caught the public imagination. Unfortunately, his heroics on stormy seas against more experienced competitors were a web of lies.
Stranded in the Atlantic in a stricken vessel while falsified logs suggested he was rounding Cape Horn, his boat was discovered without any sign of its captain.
Authorities presumed Crowhurst had committed suicide because he could no longer maintain the facade of his false voyage. His body has never been recovered.
Director James Marsh, best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire and The Theory of Everything, carried out painstaking research into what made Donald Crowhurst tick in prepration for the film.
Capitalising on this wave of interest in individual round the world voyages, The Sunday Times sponsored the Golden Globe race. No qualifications were required for entrants. Nine sailors started the race, four retired before leaving the Atlantic Ocean.
British sailor Robin Knox-Johnston was the only entrant to complete the race. He was awarded both prizes and subsequently donated his £5,000 prize money to Clare Crowhurst and their children.
“He was a fairly inexperienced sailor but he wasn’t as inexperienced as some people think he was,” explains the director. “He hadn’t sailed the ocean properly, yet he built this very fast trimaran, but the boat wasn’t fully tested and finished.”
Cox’s Marine Ltd of Brightlingsea, Essex, built the three hulls of Crowhurst’s trimaran then L.J. Eastwood Ltd of Brundall in Norfolk assembled the hulls and completed the fit-out on the boat.
Time was of the essence as Crowhurst had a October 31 deadline to set sail, so it was for this reason that the construction was split between the two boat builders.
Marsh adds: “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. 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 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.”
Colin Firth also mined archive material in prepration for playing Crowhurst, including the largely unflattering book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst — “it was written very soon after the events, and by the Sunday Times journalists, and I think there was an agenda” — as well as the tapes that Crowhurst made during his voyage for the BBC.
“I literally heard his voice because I listened to the tapes continually,” he said. “They were fascinating partly because of some of the information he was able to give about daily life. He focussed on his cooking regime, on what he was seeing, on the weather, his problems with his transmitter. He sang a lot - Christmas carols, sea shanties, ballads. He played his mouth organ. Paradoxically, you can feel you’re in the company of a man who’s completely alone.
“Then you have the logs, some of which are just ship’s log - positions and records of the things you’re supposed to put in a ship’s log. Some of it was more to do with his thoughts and were very, very rigorous and stark breakdowns of his practical problems - calculating his chance of survival if he went forward as being at best fifty-fifty.”
More about the Norfolk links to tragic sailor Donald Crowhurst
The boat used in the film is as faithful as it possibly can be to Crowhurst’s original Teignmouth Electron. It was also constructed in the region by Jim Dines, at his boat yard in Maldon, Essex, after accessing the original drawings from a museum in the United States.
It gave the boatbuilder an insight into the vessel that Crowhurst took to the high seas in. “I think the Teignmouth Electron was capable, so if Crowhurst had been better prepared he would have done it and it would have worked. He just didn’t have everything on board that he needed, stuff was taken off that he thought was on board,” he concludes.
“The boat was very well built apart from the problems with the glass fibre which they put on with the wrong paint because they couldn’t get hold of it, and this was something Crowhurst had been dwelling on. In his head, right from the beginning, he was never as prepared as he should have been.”
“I hope the film portrays a man who tried to achieve something and do the right thing. I don’t think he went out foolhardy, he was just put up against it on time. Back in those days, people went off and did these things. It was a sort of boys’ own adventure thing. Chichester did it the year before, only stopping once, so the idea of doing it and not stopping at all was an adventure.”
Stepping into the role of Crowhurst, Colin Firth admits he had almost no experience of sailing.
“My uncle Robin took me sailing when I was a little boy. The last time I did it, I must have been about eight years old,” he said. “He came to visit me on the set as he’s down in Devon and he still goes out sailing every weekend. That was my connection as he’s the same generation as Donald and Clare Crowhurst and he knew all about it.
“Obviously there was a bit of a rush to get me acquainted with the basics in order to do this film. I did everything from going out on the boat that we had built for the film, to single-handing on a little catamaran when I was on holiday on an island off the coast of Cambodia and that’s when I started to love it.”
Crowhurst’s doomed endeavour was a peculiarly English thing to do don’t you think? “Oh it’s very English although it’s not exclusively English – the Americans have their own version of having a go but they were going to the moon.
“There’s a British maritime obsession, with Chichester and Alec Rose and all these guys. It’s partly because we’re an island, it’s partly because of maritime history, and it’s partly because we had a bit of a self-esteem problem in the 1960s. We couldn’t afford the space programme so all you need is a guy on a boat and we’d prove our mettle.”
• The Mercy is in cinemas from February 9