Sunday 14 January 2007

Donald Crowhurst

I have always been fascinated by this story.

After Sir Frances Chichester’s successful single-handed circumnavigation of 1967 in Gypsy Moth, with only one stop in Sydney, adventurous yachtsmen realized that the next great challenge was the solo, non-stop circumnavigation.

The Sunday Times, having profited from their sponsorship of Chichester was keen to support the sailor who took up the challenge. However, several yachtsmen declared their interest and so the Sunday Times organised the event into a race—The Sunday Times Golden Globe. The rules were few—anyone leaving a British port between June 1st and October 31st 1968 and returning to the same port having rounded the capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn was in.

Of the 9 entries to cross the start line 5 had to give up in the early stages. The 4 to continue were Nigel Tetley, Robin Knox-Johnson, Bernard Moitessier and Donald Crowhurst.

The front man of a failing electronics business, Crowhurst saw in the Golden Globe an opportunity to gain public recognition, demonstrate electronic equipment that he had developed and save his company from bankruptcy. Flamboyant, enthusiastic and plausible, people believed in Crowhurst. The tragedy, they say, is that Crowhurst did too—he believed his own hype to the point where he didn’t recognise his own limitations. He never doubted that he was capable of competing and winning.

His boat, the trimaran Teignmouth Electron, was built hurriedly in Norfolk and delivered in September with many faults. But Crowhurst was busy developing the complex equipment that he planned to take and there was no time for extensive sea trials, as October 31st drew near it became plain that the Teignmouth Electron would not be ready. Crowhurst had worked hard to “put up a front” when dealing with sponsors, publicity and the rounds of lectures that he gave. It was this confident and relaxed ‘front’ that propelled him onto his boat and away at 5pm on October 31st 1968. By now it was too late for him to bridge the gap between what he had promised and what he knew he could deliver.

Teignmouth Electron was a mess, and after two weeks at sea Crowhurst realized that he wasn’t going to make it round the world. But he kept on sailing unable to acknowledge the truth. Then he made a false assertion. He claimed a record-breaking day’s run of 243 miles and, in order to prove it, he started a fake logbook. Though he may have been planning to retire from the race, the falsehoods snowballed. He reported good progress when he was still becalmed in the doldrums and then he declared generator problems and ceased to emit radio messages.

He spent the next two and a half months drifting on the south Atlantic staying away from shipping lanes, repairing the boat, cooking up logbook entries and writing poetry.

In April he announced via radio that he was approaching Cape Horn from the west though at the time he was just off the Falklands. In May his real and false routes converged and he started on the journey home. His plan was to come in second, he would still receive some of the honour and his logbooks would not be too closely scrutinized. However, the good speed he reported forced the leader, Nigel Tetley, to push his battered trimaran too hard and just 1000 miles from the finish line Tetley’s boat sank.

Now Crowhurst was going to win, it was unavoidable. But he knew that his records wouldn’t bear expert examination. Having backed himself into an isolated, lonely corner, he began to distance himself from reality. His soul gushed out on paper, thousands of word on physics, God, nature and his own position in the universe demonstrating that he had achieved enlightenment—a reward far greater than winning the Golden Globe. All that was left was to choose the moment in which to leave this world for the next. He left his tape recorders and logbooks on the cabin table and on July 1st 1969 at 11.20 he jumped over the side.

As for the other contenders, Tetley was rescued but returned home a broken man, he tragically committed suicide two years later. Moitessier, who from the beginning had been anti the trivial concept of a race, rounded Cape Horn but continued straight on around again to Polynesia thus making a farce of the race. Robin Knox-Johnston in Suhaili, a boat he had built himself, was the only entrant to return, with robust good humour and on a diet of institutional English stodge he completed the circumnavigation in 313 days. When the news of Crowhurst’s death broke, Knox-Johnston immediately donated the ₤5000 prize money to the Crowhurst family.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story - would make a good series - 'heroic failures'.
When do you think your boat will be finished? Will there be a ceremony for the maiden voyage?

Ben said...

Isn't there a humorous bogside book called "heroic failures"?
I think what's compelling about this story is the inevitable tragedy--you just know it can't end well when Crowhurst starts a fake logbook.
As for the launch, hopefully march. I've got the champagne. Depending on what the boat looks like I'll either break it on the bows or on my head.