Hell or High Seas is an incredible documentary about Taylor Grieger, a Navy Rescue Swimmer who left the service only to find himself directionless and surrounded by what seemed like a neverending succession of suicides among the men with whom he served. Grieger set out on a mission: Sail south through the Atlantic and around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the South American continent. Some call it the “Everest of sailing” due to its difficulty level. The point where the two oceans meet is a constant churn of storms and high wind. It’s so treacherous and so far south that the United States dredged a canal through Panama just to avoid it.
The film is an incredible exploration of a man trying to make peace with himself and a world he has to re-enter with far fewer friends than he’d expected. It’s as raw, captivating and true an adventure film as I’ve ever seen — filled with incident but at the same time an intimate journey of self-discovery and solace for a man who just wants the world to understand what he and his friends have experienced.
One of the most prominent pop-cultural footprints of America’s 21st-century forever wars is the abundance of stories about traumatized men coming home to a world that no longer understands them. This generally takes one or two forms in fiction — showing the men turning to criminality or brutality (Den of Thieves, for instance), or struggling to live civilian lives (American Sniper) with the specter of suicide following them. These stories are usually set up by the idea that violent combat is a defining element of veterans’ struggles. But those aren’t the only men who suffer after leaving the service.
Grieger wasn’t a combat veteran but his experiences were no less extreme or traumatizing. He describes his military career as such: 13-hour shifts on a helicopter flying above the ocean, popping caffeine pills to stay alert in case they pass over someone in need of rescue and oftentimes never finding anyone to save. “Eighty percent of the calls I got, you didn’t find anybody,” Grieger says. “There wasn’t anybody to bring home.”
He purchased and fixed his rig, the Old Lady, using YouTube instructions and was lucky enough to find a partner to accompany him: Stephen O’Shea, an academic and former swim teammate. O’Shea is credited as a writer on the project, while experienced filmmaker Glenn Holsten helped Grieger bring together the raw footage of the two sailors’ journey south, as well as the Kickstarter that helped them start back up again when the Old Lady became too damaged to continue around the Horn.
The two set out from Texas only to run straight into Hurricane Henry; they snag a coral reef off the coast of Central America, damaging the boat; they’re skimmed by pirates near Colombia. While on the Atlantic, the storms hit them fast and fierce, necessitating constant repairs. Their motor constantly dies. At one point while on shore, the two even come to blows. Eventually, they have to cross the Panama Canal. After 140 days together, they bring on another veteran, John Rose, who is shocked to learn just how small the Old Lady is. The three of them eventually make it farther down the coast before the Old Lady becomes too damaged to continue. So Grieger sends his companions home and continues southward on his own, in a boat that isn’t even seaworthy, all the while recording himself and his journey.
It’s captivating on all levels, depicting their struggles as they lived them. When footage isn’t sufficient, the film uses short animated sequences with first-person narration by O’Shea; for instance, the two only escape the pirates by turning off their lights and slinking away, as there is no footage of it. It’s artful and expressive storytelling.
In the end, their story becomes national: In order to fix their boat and complete their mission, they launched a Kickstarter that became fully funded. The journey gave Grieger a path in life to create adventure programs for recently discharged veterans. While sailing, he mused that a lot of the friends he lost would’ve been better off if there were proactive steps taken to give them a direction after leaving the service rather than a decaying set of reactive programs that only click into place when — and if — a soldier expresses his struggles. It seems this adventure gave Grieger a purpose in his civilian life far beyond rounding the Horn and audiences are lucky to experience it with him.