I recently watched Deep Water, an excellent documentary about the 1968 Golden Globe race that saw nine men set out to become the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. It was the perfect complement to Peter Nichols’ A Voyage for Madmen, a fascinating book about the race that won’t disappoint anyone who loves sailing or adventure.
Whereas the book goes into captivating detail about the race and all its competitors, the documentary focuses mostly on the moving story of Donald Crowhurst, a 35 year old British amateur sailor and businessman. Crowhurst was drawn in by the excitement and challenge of the race, plus the chance of winning the £5000 prize for the fastest circumnavigation, which would have aided his failing business. The documentary gives a sympathetic account of how an intelligent and decent man took one step after another down a dark road from which he could find no way back.
Crowhurst’s first and perhaps overriding mistake was to sign a contract with his main sponsor, entrepreneur Stanley Best, that required him to buy back his 40 ft trimaran, Teignmouth Electron, if he dropped out early in the race. This would have meant bankruptcy and the loss of the home he shared with his wife and four young children. Had failure only cost Crowhurst his pride, he may have made choices with less tragic consequences.
Competitors could set sail at any time after June 1st, but in order to cross the Southern Ocean during summer they had to depart by October 31st. This gave Crowhurst little time to build and equip his boat and secure sponsorship, putting him under tremendous pressure. On October 30th he confessed to his wife and close friend that the boat wasn’t ready, but nevertheless he departed the following day, the last day possible. Shortly after setting off he had to be towed back into harbour when his halyards became entangled and he couldn’t hoist the sails. It was the second bad omen for the voyage. The first had been at Teignmouth Electron’s launch, when the bottle of champagne failed to smash against her hull.
During November and December, as Crowhurst headed south through the Atlantic, serious problems with the integrity of his boat made him realise that she would not survive the Southern Ocean’s treacherous waters. It was at this point that he took another step along that dark road by claiming to be sailing faster than he actually was and submitting false position reports. At the same time, Crowhurst decided to loiter in the South Atlantic whilst maintaining the deception that he was chasing the lead boats across the Southern Ocean. He intended to fall in behind the others once they rounded Cape Horn and follow them home to the finish line in the UK.
Crowhurst created a second, fake log book that contained fabricated descriptions of weather and sailing conditions, and meticulously calculated false positions that required celestial navigation research. He must have been aware that the success of his plan depended on him finishing in a position that would not invite close scrutiny of his journey, but his claims of fast progress had already attracted doubters, not least the first man to sail solo around the world and the inspiration for the race, Sir Francis Chichester. At one point Crowhurst was also forced to pull in to a river in Argentina to make repairs to one of the floats on his boat, a violation of the race rules that could have come to light. He might have considered dropping out of the race at this stage, but to do so would have revealed his deception, as by now he was expected to be far beyond South America.
Robin Knox-Johnston, Bernard Moitessier and Nigel Tetley were the only men to round Cape Horn and Crowhurst fell in behind them as they headed for home. But his plan to finish last began to unravel when Moitessier decided he could not face the fanfare that awaited him upon his return. The seven months he’d spent sailing alone around the world had transformed him and he felt at peace on the ocean, with which he felt he had made a spiritual connection. Although his wife and children were waiting for him at home he changed course and began to sail around the world a second time, heading back to the Pacific.
Crowhurst’s falsified position reports meant that by April 1969, far from arriving home to little attention, he was actually in line to become the fastest man around the globe. This news spurred Tetley on to push his boat harder, even though Victress, also a trimaran, was not in good shape. In May he ran into a storm near the Azores and she began taking on water. Tetley abandoned ship just as Victress sank beneath the waves. He was 1100 nautical miles from the finish.
Although Knox-Johnston had made it back to the UK on April 22nd, Crowhurst was now certain to beat his time. A hero’s welcome and the prize money awaited him, neither of which he deserved. Months of isolation and the dishonour of what he had done began to weigh on his mind. He tried repeatedly to get a call through to his wife, but his radio transmitter was failing and he didn’t succeed. His writings and tape recordings from this time show a man struggling to make sense of his life and to find a way out of the impossible situation he had created for himself. Perhaps if he had managed to speak to his wife he would have found a way.
But on 10th July 1969 Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned and adrift. With no other possible explanations for Crowhurst’s disappearance, and the implications of the final words written in his log book, it seemed clear that he had committed suicide. His wife and children had been in high spirits as they prepared to welcome home their husband and father as a hero who had succeeded against the odds. Now they had to deal with the news of his deception and death.
Moitessier had said that anyone who entered the race for money or fame would come to grief. It was money that brought Donald Crowhurst to grief, but it wasn’t the only reason he entered the race. He had wanted the challenge and adventure; he had wanted to make his dream a reality. He was a good man who made a bad decision when things started to go wrong, and maybe because he was good he couldn’t live with the consequences. In a generous gesture of understanding, Robin Knox-Johnston donated the £5000 prize money to Crowhurst’s family.