Nic Compton's Blog

January 3, 2018

Donald Crowhurst & The Mercy

Of all the tales of human tragedy at sea, few have caught the public imagination as much as the strange story of Donald Crowhurst. His tragic intervention in the 1968 Gold Globe Race has inspired several plays and books, as well as an art installation by Tacita Dean, a epic poem and even an opera. I devoted nearly a whole chapter to the story in my recent book book: Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea. This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the Golden Globe, two movies are being released – not about the race, but about Crowhurst's part in it.

I went to a press preview of The Mercy back in October and was completely gripped by it. Most films about sailing are so littered with technical errors as to make them almost unwatchable to a real sailor. The Mercy doesn't make the mistake of trying to recreate an authentic sailing experience; it's more interested in what's going on in Crowhurst's mind and the relationships with his family, agent and press. And of course it's the psychological aspect of the story that makes it so compelling and enduring: how a man can back himself into a corner through a series of small deceptions, until there is no way out. The sea is an essential backdrop to the story, but the human drama takes centre stage, as it should.

I happened to go to the same screening as Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – the man who won that historic race and became the first person to sail around the world non-stop and singlehanded (at the very same time as Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon). There was something quite disconcerting about having the person being depicted on screen sitting just a few inches away – like watching a movie about the Second World War with Winston Churchill sitting next to you.

When the film was over, I asked Sir Robin what he made of it, and he seemed to think it was a very fair depiction. His only criticism was that the waves in the Atlantic aren't as big as they were made out to be in the film – they are only that big in the Southern Ocean, and of course Crowhurst never made it that far.

Having researched the Crowhurst story in detail for my book Off the Deep End, I'm not sure Colin Firth has the emotional intensity to portray a man in the full throes of a mental breakdown – there's something too genial and likeable about him – but it's still a great film. And the shots of Teignmouth in glorious 1960s technicolour are wonderfully uplifting – a pean in an otherwise dark tale.

Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea
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Published on January 03, 2018 07:34

September 27, 2017

A young war veteran's tale

Here is an edited transcript of an interview I recorded yesterday with Spirit of Falmouth's bosun's mate, Ashley Bowes. There's not much I can add, except to say what amazing work Turn to Starboard does, transforming the lives of veterans with PTSD. They deserve all the praise they get.

"I grew up in a little town called Keighley, in Yorkshire, but I didn’t do very well at school and left with no qualifications. The only option for me was to either get into trouble and end up in prison, or join the army do and something with my life. So I joined the army at 16, and after basic training joined the Royal Logistics Corp. My trade was driving, transport, that sort of thing. I did my first year with the 27 Regiment in Aldershot, then I went to Iraq [twice]. When I got back I was posted in Abingdon, which is where met my partner Jessica, who is now mother to my son Oliver [aged 4]. We’ve been together for nearly 12 years.

"After I’d been in the army for five years, I started getting a little bit down in the dumps. I didn’t know what was wrong with me; I was very confused, and all this stuff was going on in my head. So I went to the med centre and said I feel like crap, and after 3-4 weeks they sent me over to Brize Norton see a doctor. I know now I had PTSD, but he didn’t tell me what was wrong. He just said, what d’you want to do? I said, I want to get out of the army that’s for sure – because I hated the army at the time, I don’t know why. He said, how do you feel about going part time? I said nah, I just want to get out, and within a week I was out. There was no thanks, no nothing. Just, leave your ID card at the gate on your way out, and that was it. They didn’t ring me to see if I was doing ok, didn’t contact me to say d’you want to do resettlement courses, didn’t give me any advice.

"I joined the army at such a young age, my brain was still developing at that point. I was in the army cadets before that, so that’s all I’ve ever known. When I got out I was 21, and I still had my whole life ahead of me. But for the last ten years I’ve just messed it up. I can’t settle in a job. I just hate everybody; everybody is dangerous. It’s terrible, absolutely terrible. I’ve gone from job to job, and always try to get out of situations, like going to family for dinner, or going round to my mate’s house, or going shopping. I just hated life, I hated me. And because I hated myself, I thought no-one else is going to like me, so I just shut the door and stayed in.

"As time went on, my partner started to notice I was deteriorating, in myself. I just stopped looking after myself – stopped shaving, stopped brushing my teeth, not showering, staying in bed all day. I wouldn’t leave the house for months. So I contacted a charity to see if they could help me. While I was there, I met one of the first mates from Turn to Starboard, who said to me, have you ever been sailing? I said no, I’ve never even thought about it; I’ve never stepped foot on a boat. So he got an application form and said, fill that in and wait for a phone call. So I did. After a few days, I got a phone call from Turn to Starboard saying I’d been preselected for the Round Britain Challenge. I went down there for a week’s assessment training, and Shaun [founder and CEO of Turn to Starboard] was graceful enough to give me a position on the challenge for the full eight weeks. I’ve not looked back.

"I was a bit dubious to start with, thinking what if I mess something up, and I got a bit anxious about that. Then I got really badly seasick for the first few days out of Falmouth. I was so seasick, I fell unconscious. I couldn’t hydrate, as soon as fluid went in it came straight back out, and I was bringing up blood I was straining so much. I had to be dropped off at Padstow, and Shaun picked me up and put me on a train home. Before I went he said to me: it’s not just about sailing, it’s a challenge. And as soon as I got in my house I knew I was going back. I didn’t want to miss out, and I didn’t want someone else doing my job. So I joined them again in Liverpool, and I’ve not had a seasick problem since. I think it’s because I was determined not to mess up again.

"I get so anxious and worried, thinking everything’s dangerous and anything can happen. But while we’re out at sea, I don’t have to worry about a damn thing. All I have to worry about is my job, getting rest, making sure everybody is ok – fed, hydrate, get on with your job. That’s been my focus now since I got on, and I’ve literally taken to it like a duck to water. I got interested in what Andy the bosun was doing in the engine room, changing the engine oil, and all that sort of stuff. I watched him, and listened and learned, and they’ve made me the bosun’s mate.

"I absolutely love being on this boat. When I’m sitting at the bow and it’s a nice flat calm day, and dolphins are jumping, it’s just amazing. I’ve been enrolled on the Yachtmaster programme and we’ll go from there. Hopefully there’s a career here for me in sailing, because I’ve never felt at peace like this before.

"I’ve never achieved anything properly I my life. I’ve always quit. I’d think, oh yes I can do this, then straight away I’d go, d’you know what, I can’t be bothered. But this is different. This is life-changing. This is going to turn me around. It’s going to give me myself back. And hopefully in time if I qualify as a Yachtmaster, I can get commercial endorsement and can start doing this as a job. I’m 100% committed to doing my Yachtmaster – otherwise I wouldn’t have bought these fancy [Dubarry] boots and a lifejacket of my own! That was my way of committing. I mean, sailing for a living, who wouldn’t want to do that?

"I don’t know why my partner’s stuck with me. I’ve put her through a lot, not intentionally, but she’s been through the mill. I think I’m just blessed. There’s some big entity out there that made us attracted to each other. We are meant to be. She’s willing to move the earth for me, I don’t why. She’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and she’s a fantastic mum as well. I’m a very, very, very lucky man."

More info about Turn to Starboard at - and of course in my new book Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea.
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Published on September 27, 2017 07:04

September 25, 2017

The Flying Dutchman and other sea-borne illusions

One of the abiding legends of the Age of Sail was the story of the Flying Dutchman. Many sailors reported seeing an unmanned ship sailing out at sea, far from land, which mysteriously vanished from view before it could be hailed. The story went that the 'ghost ship' was condemned to sail around the world forever because of some heinous crime committed by her captain and/or crew. Even the future King George V claimed to have seeing the Flying Dutchman while sailing off Australia in 1880.

In fact, the most likely explanation for this apparition – apart from the crew being drunk – is they were experiencing a Fata Morgana. This so-called 'superior mirage' occurs when the lower layers of air in the atmosphere are colder than the layers above – rather than the other way round, which is the norm. When this happens, the light rays from an object in the distance are refracted so it appears higher that it really is. Thus the image of a ship passing on the other side of the horizon is temporarily 'raised' so it can be seen by another ship. Once the atmospheric conditions returns to normal, the 'ghost ship' disappears back behind the horizon and both ships carry on their way, oblivious to each other. This phenomenon has also been used to explains UFOs, where a car's headlight on the other side of the horizon might be refracted into the air to look like a flying saucer...

Just one of the ways the sea can 'confuse and beguile' our senses and make us question our sanity (or the sanity of others!). Lots more in my new book: Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea
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Published on September 25, 2017 04:34 Tags: madness-at-sea, off-the-deep-end

September 21, 2017

A(nother) new book is born

Publication day at last! After four years planning, refining, writing, and re-writing, my book, Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea, is finally out. No going back now! So what was the original inspiration? This book started life as a story about the psychology of the sea - inspired by an old book I came across called Psychology of Sailing by Michael Stadler (Adlard Coles, 1987) – and indeed the opening chapter of Off the Deep End borrows heavily from Stadler. My original chapter headings (back in September 2013) were: HEALTH, ILLUSIONS, MADNESS, RELATIONSHIPS/MUTINY, FREEDOM and TECHNOLOGY. It soon became clear, however, that the chapter about madness had the best stories and the most emotional resonance. So I turned it around and made that the focus of the book, with some of the other subjects snuck in alongside it. It took another 2 1/2 years before I finally signed a contract with Adlard Coles (an imprint of Bloomsbury) and started work on the book in earnest. And here, four years later, is the result. Even though it's the 18th book I've written or co-written, it still somehow feels like the first. It's certainly the most interesting, so go buy yourself a copy, and prove that my four-year-long obsession was worthwhile! Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea
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Published on September 21, 2017 06:03