The year was 1965, when a hitherto unassuming copy editor from Cleveland did something remarkable. With no fanfare at all he set sail in his tiny ship, Tinkerbelle, a 13.5ft (4.1m) sailing boat with a top speed of seven knots, and commenced a lone voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, from the port of Falmouth in Cleveland to that of Falmouth in England.
Manry at Sea tells the story of this voyage, painting a picture of a remarkably brave and optimistic amateur sailor, a man with a big dream, an infectious laugh, and a fabulous moustache. ‘There comes a time when you must choose whether to risk everything to achieve your dreams or spend the rest of your life in your own back yard,’ Robert Manry is quoted as saying in the film, and it seems that it was this fear of living a mundane life that was his main motivation for the voyage. Having once promised his wife he would never become a ‘crashing bore’, he feared he had become just that, before the dream of the voyage took hold.
The film is largely made up of original footage from before, during and after the voyage, and it’s the sight of Manry squatting in the tiny hold of his boat, talking through his rations and provisions, that really rams home just how barmy this trip was. The intrepid sailor was thrown into the water six times during the voyage, suffered graphic and terrifying hallucinations and was dealing with rudimentary equipment – his ‘sea anchor’ was a canvas bucket and for two days he was left to drift about the ocean while he fixed a broken rudder. During the 80-day journey Manry admits there were times he felt depressed, but never times when he considered turning back.
Much of the story is told by Manry himself through a series of recordings. He hones in on his meetings with the much larger ships encountered during his journey. From nuclear submarines to trawler ships, everyone Manry met on the high seas wanted to help him, offering food and a chance of rescue should he want it – he most certainly did not. It was from one of these encounters that Manry learned how many people were interested in his voyage and that people on both sides of the ocean were urging him on. ‘Boy I must be famous!’ he says in amazement, with characteristic humbleness, when shown that he’s made the front page of the paper.
Therein lies a second segment to the story, told by the employees of the two main newspapers in Cleveland – The Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Herald – both of which were desperate to beat the other to the Manry story. It’s a fascinating glimpse of a time when newspapers hired spies to track their rivals and when reporters were whisked across the ocean at the drop of a hat to cover stories. So determined was the Herald to get the scoop that it went as far as to pay an English trawler ship and crew to sail out into the ocean to find Manry, with a week’s wages paid to the crew member who spotted the orange sail first. (Many a member of today’s press may look back with fascination at this time of financial plenty). The eventual meeting between Manry and the Cleveland reporters, which took place as they bobbed about in the ocean, is nothing short of charming. Despite working for one of the papers himself, Manry seems remarkably uninterested in withholding the story for cash, gladly sharing it with whoever got there first.
Manry received a hero’s welcome on arriving in Cornwall (something he clearly never expected nor sought, though he greets the crowds with joyful waves), and though the later stages of his life are revealed to be far less happy than one might hope, the film still evokes an overwhelming feeling of positivity. Perhaps it sanitises the story, largely glossing over the overwhelming danger and ending with the completion of the voyage (before fame and notoriety reportedly took their toll on the Manry family), but this is a film that reflects the news coverage of the day, when an everyday hero was clearly what the people were after. A remarkable man indeed and in the language of the day – a jolly good show.
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