Joyce Glasser reviews Savage Waters (October 27, 2023) Cert 12A, 92 mins.
Director/cinematographer Mikey Corker lucked out when he found a narrative to support a documentary that might otherwise be considered another surfing movie, perhaps entitled, The Lost Wave. Corker’s film is then, much more than the exploits of a band of British nautical athletes and adventurers who sail to some of the most beautiful safe and unsafe harbours you’ll see all year.
While essentially a biopic of the can-do expert sailor Matthew Knight, his supportive wife Suzanne and their (now adult) surfer children, Savage Waters draws in Matt’s friend and champion big wave surfer Andrew “Cotty” Cotton, and endurance swimmer Ross Edgley whom Matt accompanies in his 2018 swim around Great Britain.
But that’s not all. There’s a “hook.” And the hook is a book.
The book is a seafaring adventure travelogue that a friend of Matt uncovered and brought to him, partly because the author, E.F. Knight, shares Matt’s surname and partly because of the description of a wave. The book, The Cruise of the Alerte, was published in 1891 and chronicles British author Edward Frederick Knight’s adventures in search of buried treasure to a trio of tiny islands surrounded by rock formations called the Savage Islands.
Matt, and then Suzanne, become transfixed with the description of a wave on page 27 of EF Knight’s book:
“A huge green roller, very high and steep, suddenly rose as if by magic from the deep, then swept over the shoal and when it reached the shallowest part, its crest hung over forming a cavern underneath…”
Like a red cape to a bull, when North Devon born surfer Andy Cotton reads the description, he signs on for Matt and Suzanne’s expedition to the Savage Islands. For Cotton, part of professional surfing is earning a living by competing in the big wave area of Nazaré, Portugal, which is where he spends his time away from his family. But another part is discovering that unknown wave that you are the first to conquer.
Suzanne tells us how her attempt to impress Matt’s mother after he proposed, backfired. Suzanne reassured her that as his wife, she would never put the brakes on his madcap adventures, only to see “her face drop with disappointment.” Their long marriage has been based on this freedom to take risks and an unconventional family life in nature.
The hook works because Corker tells the parallel stories of EF Knight’s expedition alongside Matt Knight’s quest to find that “green roller.” The book goes on: “I decided to set sale in search for the treasure. I knew I might not find anything but felt there was enough possibility of success to make it worthwhile.”
As we hear this passage, Matt is coming to the same conclusion. He has to figure out from the descriptions and a map in the book that the crew will sail 800 miles to Nazaré, then 450 miles to Madeira. The Savage Islands must lie about 18 hours south of Madeira. Matt takes the Savage Islands (the central, larger little island is allegedly the one with the buried treasure) as the destination of the buried treasure.
In this case, “treasure” is a metaphor for “the perfect wave”, or the wave that no one else has discovered. Matt, who tells us he is not motivated by money, knows that this is an offer Andy Cotton cannot refuse. That said, as the story continues (in parallel with EF Knight’s), after the experience of the Savage Islands, a serious injury riding a 55-foot wave in Nazaré nearly ends Andy’s career.
When Andy recovers, he must make up for lost time in Nazaré to maintain his ranking and, while he is torn between the expedition with Matt and his professional obligations, the 38-year-old decides that work and supporting his family come first. He makes the right decision as well as managing a spectacular comeback in 2020, winning a world record for riding an 80 foot wave in Nazaré.
While Andy is off at Nazaré, Matt and Suzanne take a break to accompany kindred spirit Ross Edgley on his record breaking 157 day (1,780 miles) swim around Great Britain. We get to see his tongue, ravaged by salt water. It is a bit peripheral to the central narrative of the film, as is an interview with Andy’s parents, and one might wish for more cohesion with the central narrative hook.
Knight, who went to Cambridge and became a barrister and then a war correspondent in addition to sailing around the world, has an interesting biography but neither Matt nor Corker seem interested in telling us about EF Knight. Nor do they turn poetic with a thought of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Dry Salvages in The Four Quartets. The Dry Salvages are group of three rock formations in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Gloucester, a port famous for losing thousands of sailors in sea wrecks. The name The Dry Salvages is thought to come from the French Les Trois Sauvages (the three wild ones).
That said, it is still uncanny how Matts’ search echoes the 1891 book that inspired it, but to say more would be a spoiler. For finding metal treasure or green rollers is a risky undertaking, and all the more so when your destination is a bit of land surrounded by outcrops of rock and when the elements are in charge.