Weekend Warm-Up: Deep Water

Oceans

Francis Chichester returned to Britain a hero in 1967, after becoming the first man to sail single-handedly around the world. Thousands of adoring fans greeted him with a rock-star welcome.

His fame caught the attention of a 37-year-old husband and father of four, Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst was an inventor with a history of failed businesses who secretly yearned to be recognized with the same vigor as Chichester. A year later, he saw his opportunity.

Donald Crowhurst strikes a pose.

The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race challenged all comers to circumnavigate the globe, alone and without stopping. The winner would be the first in the world to do so without touching land. Nine sailors eventually signed up for the challenge.

The first one home would receive a coveted trophy and the fastest (because they all left at different times, within a period of some months) would win a 5,000-pound cash prize. During the 1960s –- a time before GPS tracking, mobile phones, and the internet –- the winner of such a prestigious race would invariably also receive TV and newspaper deals. For Crowhurst, who was struggling financially and who yearned for a big success, the bounty offered everything he dreamed of.

Donald Crowhurst was a mystery man in a line-up of otherwise experienced sailors. This appealed to people on the street, who could fantasize through him about their own grand, out-of-nowhere successes.

With so little sailing experience, his best chance of winning was to build a superior boat. He didn’t have the money to fund it himself, but a millionaire businessman sponsored Crowhurst’s innovative craft, christened the Teignmouth Electron. The catch: If Crowhurst dropped out of the race, he would need to buy the boat from his sponsor. To do so, Crowhurst would have to sell their family house, leaving him bankrupt. He gambled everything he and his family had on his success in the race.

Psychiatric experts of the day said that a human would go mad if they attempted to sail totally alone for 10 months. When a reporter asked Crowhurst what sort of mindset a single-handed sailor needed, Crowhurst responded, “I think one’s psychology has to be fully stable and one has to be aware of the risks one is facing.”

Crowhurst believed in himself. He was confident, charismatic, charming, and he felt that he was capable of winning. But his boat was plagued with issues, and he didn’t have enough time to rectify them before the set departure date. As it was, he set to sea on the very last day possible, October 31, 1968, already well behind the other competitors.

When his young children each kissed their father goodbye, they couldn’t realize that this would be the last time they saw him.

Crowhurst’s wife, Clare, and four young children waited in vain for Donald Crowhurst to return.

With a 16mm camera and tape recorder on board, Crowhurst shared his thoughts while alone at sea. A confident, ever-positive character came through on film, but his logbook revealed a different story entirely.

Crowhurst logged worrying details and concerns over faults on his boat. Early on, he realized that all his latches were leaking, and he had to bail continuously with buckets. This worked fine in smooth seas, but once in the Southern Ocean, he risked swamping. He noted in his logbook that he had a “50/50 chance at best”.

Soon, all but four sailors retired from the race. Crowhurst’s progress remained painfully slow; barely 100km a day in a boat that couldn’t handle heavy seas. He faced a terrible dilemma: To continue was suicide but to turn back was financial ruin. His instincts told him that he should give up, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so.

A third option crept into Crowhurst’s mind. If he was able to pretend that he was traveling faster than he really was, then he could fake a top place — not first, which would invite too much scrutiny, but a respectable third or fourth.

Thus began one of the great tragic exploration hoaxes of the modern era. In a second logbook, Crowhurst secretly detailed his true positions, while in the original book, he falsified his locations to make him seem farther along on his round-the-world trajectory. Once, his false logs recorded a new one-day sailing record of 391km.

It wasn’t easy to make all these falsehoods plausible. Among other things, he needed to find out the weather in places where he hadn’t yet arrived, without modern technology.

As time went on, news from Crowhurst became increasingly sporadic and telegrams harder to decipher. In mid-January 1969, he sent out a message that he was having communications troubles and to expect no further word from him. Radio silence made his true position harder to detect.

Then a new message came through that restored public faith in the popular underdog. It suggested that he was already 800km into the Southern Ocean.

By February 7, Crowhurst had been at sea for 100 days. He was busy creating false recordings that he expected to be presented once he returned home. “Tremendously exciting and tremendously challenging,” the upbeat persona insisted on tape.

Yet the isolation created a ticking bomb. His mind was now becoming a bigger problem than his leaking vessel.

The next calamity of his failing boat was a split float that he needed immediate help to repair. At this point, his true position was near Brazil and not in the Southern Ocean as he’d reported. If he radioed for help, his transmitter would reveal his true position and his lies publicly uncovered.

Meanwhile, his wife Clare and his children hadn’t heard from him for seven weeks. Clare’s thoughts were turning bleak.

“You think, well, I didn’t stop him. And I should have done,” Clare says. “He wept on his final night, in our bedroom, for a long time. It was a time that it would have been easy to have said, “Don’t go,” but it didn’t happen.”

In Brazil, he went ashore anonymously and met a coast guard agent who helped him with his repairs. “He looked like he had lost a lot of weight,” the man said later. Then Crowhurst set off again without phoning Clare.

By this stage, he was probably “half in and half out of the real world,” the state of a mind grappling with long isolation that the psychiatrists had spoken of earlier.

After 159 days at sea, his voice recordings became even more unusual. He muttered to himself and spoke in peculiar accents. Madness was surely taking over.

To make it home, Crowhurst now needed to plan when he should break radio silence and where in the world he should reemerge so that his doctored reports made sense.

A twist now occurred, as one of the four remaining sailors pulled out of the race. He’d been at sea for seven months, and with just six weeks to go before finishing, the man eccentrically decided that he’d rather carry on for another loop around the world. Now just Crowhurst, Nigel Tetley, and Robin Knox-Johnson were in the running to become the most famous man in Britain.

Knox-Johnson eventually became the first sailor home after 312 days at sea.

Eventually, after 312 days at sea, Knox-Johnson reached home on April 22, 1969. He was now the winner of the Golden Globe Trophy, with Tetley and Crowhurst contending for the 5,000 GBP prize. Crowhurst’s plan now depended entirely on Tetley: If he came second (which Crowhurst hoped), his own logbooks would not be inspected.

But suddenly, Tetley’s boat sank. Crowhurst would be announced as the fastest sailor.

“Donald’s not a stupid man,” Clare said later. “He knew what it would mean. He couldn’t come into port and fade away. He knew everything would be scrutinized…and Don knew it would end in humiliation, which was not an option for him.”

In the days after Tetley’s sinking, Crowhurst repeatedly tried to call Clare, but his transmitter kept failing him. He desperately wanted to speak with her. “I think he just wanted human contact,”  said Clare. “Contact from someone he trusted.”

On June 24, instead of being exposed as a liar, publicly humiliated, and forced into a financial mess, Crowhurst turned his boat away from England and let it drift. He then began to scribble in his logbook. He’d concluded that enough was enough.

His logs were mad philosophical rants. On July 1, after 243 days at sea, he recorded in his log that he had reached “the end of my game”. The boat was eventually found drifting in the mid-Atlantic 1,130km from land. Crowhurst was not on it.

Today, Crowhurst’s boat still lies on the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac.

The media attention was quite different from what Crowhurst had initially dreamt of. “Lone sailor faked round the world race” was a typical headline.

Since Robin Knox-Johnson was the only man to finish, he also received the prize money. Graciously, he gave it to the Crowhurst family, which allowed them to keep their home.

Crowhurst’s son, grown-up now, still recalls the sound of the gale in the hotel lobby the night before his Dad left. The 89-minute documentary — made by the same crew that turned the book Touching the Void into perhaps the best climbing movie ever — recounts the whole sad, crazy story of the dreamer who found himself boxed in and paid the ultimate price for dreaming too big.

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
10 months ago

That’s sad.

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