Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Nov 8, 2021
1 min read

Just because you’re out of uniform doesn’t mean you’re out of danger.

The sad truth about our men and women in the armed services is that they’re more likely to die at home from suicide than on the battlefield from enemy fire. Every day, more than 20 veterans take their own lives.

And that doesn’t begin – can’t begin – to count up the wounded warriors surviving, barely, while suffering from depression, PTSD, or various addictions.

Hell or High Seas is the story of one sailor who tried to heal himself — by going back to sea.

A world-class swimmer, Taylor Grieger was thrilled to become a Navy rescue diver, although the job took its toll. But after he left the service, he found the only thing worse than doing it was not doing it.

Lost without the constant adrenaline rush, he thought about taking his own life.

Instead, he decided to reinvent his life – and fulfill a life-long ambition to sail down to Cape Horn, at the tip of the world.

Luckily for him, he brought along a friend or two. Luckily for us, they all brought cameras. And Hell or High Seas is the record of their trip, a modern adventure in which the most important destination isn’t an exotic land, but the adventurer’s greater understanding of himself.

Physically, it promises to be a difficult voyage. Setting sail from Pensacola, Fla., their route will take them over 10,000 miles. Not everyone on the crew is an accomplished sailor, either. And their boat looks older than they are, and not very sea-worthy.

When Grieger first got it, it had holes in its hull. An old engine and a starter that didn’t always work. He made the repairs himself. The sum of his naval engineering background? Watching how-to videos online. “I went to the YouTube Academy,” he says.

It all sounds dangerous. But somehow, Grieger knows it’d be more dangerous not to go.

Still, there are more risks ahead. Before they’re even out of the Gulf of Mexico, the men run into a hurricane. The engine conks out. One night, sailing down the coast of South America, they’re pursued by – and barely escape — machete-wielding pirates.

But still they push on.

Although Hell or High Seas is earnest, it’s not always informative. Gaps in the narrative are covered up with titles like “Three months later” and personal information is sometimes scant. Even the actual purpose of the trek isn’t always clear.

Honestly, just how is this helping Grieger cope? Isn’t it just replacing one adrenaline rush with another? (It doesn’t help that, even as the trip goes on, he still seems easily triggered, slipping into anger, or tears.)

Still Grieger’s a compelling character, and director Glenn Holsten does a good job of stitching together the caught-on-the-fly cinematography. (Whenever there’s a gap in the real-life visuals, some artful animation fills in.) Our interest never lags, even when the voyage itself seems to go off course.

But then, in stories like this, it’s not the destination. It’s the journey – no matter where it leads.

4 stars (out of 5)

Hell or High Seas