In 1996 Tacita Dean began a series of art works collectively entitled Disappearance at Sea, all inspired by remarkable stories of personal encounters with the sea. A key figure in these works is Donald Crowhurst, a competitor in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Single-Handed Round-the-World Yacht Race.
Within a few weeks of departing, Crowhurst realised that his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was not up to sailing around the world. Rather than returning home, he began to issue false reports of his progress and position until he could bear the deceit no longer and retreated into an internal world, developing an obsession with time and his faulty chronometer. Two weeks before Crowhurst was due home to a hero’s welcome, Teignmouth Electron was found adrift and empty.
For many, Donald Crowhurst is just a cheat who abused the sacred unwrittens of good sportsmanship. But for some, it is more complicated than this and he is seen as much a victim of the Golden Globe as the pursuer of it. His story is about human failing, about pitching his sanity against the sea, where there is no human presence or support system on which to hang a tortured psychological state. His was a world of acute solitude, filled with the ramblings of a troubled mind.
Tacita Dean has created a number of works that respond to this story. A carving has been made in the wooden handrail of the balustrade around the Upper Deck of Neptune Court in the National Maritime Museum. The text: IT IS THE MERCY, is a phrase taken from one of the last entries in Crowhurt’s log-book. It is both ambiguous and unusual: it reminds us that any sailor or passenger who sets out to cross the sea, crosses it at its mercy.
The film, Disappearance at Sea I, is Dean’s first work referring to the story of Donald Crowhurst. This hypnotic film, made in anamorphic (wide-angle) format was created almost entirely on location at St Abb's lighthouse and focuses on the turning mirrors, prisms and filaments of the lighthouse optic. It is filmed at the moment when day becomes night, exploring the quality and movement of both artificial and natural light as the lamp lights and the sun sets. Filmed almost entirely within the safety of the lighthouse, the ghostly images of Crowhurst and Bas Jan Ader – both lost at sea – become symbolic of its unpredictability and dangers.
Continuing her investigation Dean travelled to Cayman Brac, a small island in the Caribbean where Crowhurst’s trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, lies beached. It has been abandoned there for over 20 years after having been refitted as a tourist boat. The NMM commissioned Dean to photograph the vessel, which remains a sad yet still majestic reminder of these events.