The Mysterious Voyage of Donald Crowhurst
The Ultimate Seafaring Challenge
The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was to be the ultimate challenge for seafarers. A 30,000-mile journey around the planet would take sailors south from Britain, around the southern tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian and Pacific Oceans to the notoriously stormy Cape Horn, and then north through the Atlantic to home.
The nine entrants would sail alone and the race would be non-stop. The trophy was to go to the first person to complete the voyage, and a £5,000 prize (roughly £70,000 or $115,000 in today’s money) was to go to the fastest competitor. Sailors were allowed to start at any time before October 31, 1968.
A Desperate Gamble
At the time of the race, ocean navigation was little changed from that used by 17th and 18th-century explorers such as Captain James Cook. GPS and satellite navigation were still several decades in the future, and sailors relied on sextants to measure the angles of celestial objects to fix their position.
There was also no reliable weather forecasting. One competitor, Robin Knox-Johnston, said “my only advance weather system was a barometer from the wall of a pub.” Communication was via ship-to-shore radio and only sometimes worked.
One entrant, Donald Crowhurst, was an electronics engineer and inventor. One of his creations was a radio direction finder he called the Navicator. He reasoned that victory in the round-the-world race would deliver stellar publicity and save his shaky company from bankruptcy.
He raised some money from a businessman, mortgaged his home, and commissioned a trimaran from a boat builder in eastern England. The three-hulled vessel promised to be speedy, but its stability in heavy seas might be a bit iffy.
Crowhurst christened his boat the Teignmouth Electron. Its first sea trial was from the boat builder through the English Channel to Teignmouth in Devon. The trip should have taken three days, but there were problems with the boat and the voyage lasted two weeks.
Robert McCrum wrote in The Guardian that Crowhurst fell so far behind schedule that “there was no time to equip and provision the vessel properly for the race. Up against the departure deadline, Crowhurst was faced with a stark choice: set sail with a dodgy boat or withdraw from the race and face humiliation and bankruptcy.”
He chose to push on.
Not for the Weekend Sailor
Married with four children, 36-year-old Donald Crowhurst began an incredibly difficult and perilous venture. On the last possible day of competition, Crowhurst set sail in his ill-equipped boat.
Ed Caesar described in The Independent how the voyage started badly: “Unsorted provisions and vital equipment [were] strewn across the deck of the Electron. And, even at this early stage, calamity loomed. He was forced to return to harbour in the first minutes of his journey when an anti-capsize air-bag got caught in the rigging.” Over the next two weeks, his progress was slow.
Then, he apparently caught a favourable wind and started to radio rapid progress. The newspapers on Fleet Street were breathless in their praise—the plucky weekend mariner was sailing into the record books.
Crowhurst’s Massive Deception
Out at sea, Crowhurst’s boat was leaking like a sieve. The sailor realized his patched-together craft could not withstand the 30- and 40-foot waves it might expect to encounter in the southern ocean, such as those found rounding Cape Horn.
So, he came up with a plan to save his boat and allow him to complete the race; he began to radio in false positions. He bobbed about in the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil and then cut off radio contact altogether. Continued transmissions might reveal his true location.
At one point, he was forced to put in to a fishing port in Argentina to make repairs to his battered vessel. This would have disqualified him from the race had news of it got out.
He kept two logbooks: One was his actual voyage and a second one recounted his faked trip. He realized his fictitious log would not stand up to close scrutiny if he won the race because he had to invent weather conditions in oceans through which he didn’t sail.
So, he wandered about in the Atlantic until his made-up voyage caught up with his actual one. Then, he would head for home and aim to come in behind Nigel Tetley, who appeared to be the fastest competitor. Perhaps, race organizers wouldn’t look too closely at the second-place finisher.
Disaster Strikes Crowhurst
In May 1969, he turned for home. Nigel Tetley, hearing that Crowhurst was breathing down his neck, had pushed his boat too hard and capsized. He was rescued and awarded a consolation prize of £1,000. Crowhurst was now the outright favourite to win the £5,000 prize for fastest voyage.
Tetley’s sinking seemed to throw Crowhurst into a deep depression. He stopped sailing and began writing a 25,000-word rambling account about divinity and time travel. Clearly, he had lost touch with reality and believed he was about to be transformed into a “cosmic being.” His writing became more and more incoherent as he sank deeper into insanity in what Time Magazine described as a case study in the effects of extended solitude.
After 243 days at sea, he made his last logbook entry on July 1, 1969. He wrote “It is finished. It is finished. It is the mercy. There is no reason for harmful . . .”
Twelve days later, the Teignmouth Electron was found adrift in the ocean with no sign of Donald Crowhurst. It is assumed that he had jumped overboard and took his fake logbook with him—although his wife, Clare, asserts her husband would never have committed suicide.
And, the Winner Is . . .
Before tragedy overtook Crowhurst, Robin Knox-Johnston had arrived back in Britain to a hero’s welcome. On April 22, 1969, he sailed into Falmouth Harbour from which he had left 312 days earlier to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe single-handed and non-stop.
He also became the only entrant to finish the Golden Globe challenge and was knighted by the Queen. When Crowhurst’s fate became known, Knox-Johnston donated his prize money to the dead sailor’s family.
The French mariner Bernard Moitessier could have won the race, but he too was afflicted by mental turmoil. He passed Cape Horn well ahead of everybody, but instead of turning north to England, he just kept sailing eastwards. Eventually, he dropped anchor in Tahiti, having completed one-and-a-half circumnavigations—but failing to complete the course of the Golden Globe race.
The Race Ends, but Where Is Crowhurst?
Why Did they Do It?
What motivates people to undertake such risks to their lives? The Daily Mail wrote that Crowhurst was “carried along by delusions of glory and wealth, he . . . signed himself up for a task far beyond both his own limited yachting capabilities and those of his flimsy, unfinished boat.”
In his book about the race, A Voyage for Madmen, Peter Nichols writes: “These were not yachtsmen or sportsmen. They were hard-case egomaniacs driven by complex desires and vainglory to attempt the extreme, life-threatening endeavour. Each had powerfully visualised what must be done and was consumed by the need to do it first.”
- Zilla van den Born took a trip to Southeast Asia in 2014—only she didn’t. The 25-year-old Dutch graphic designer posted photos of herself on social media. There she is snorkelling with tropical fish, eating exotic food, and visiting temples. All of the images were Photoshopped to document her six-week long vacation, but she never left home. She created the fake journey as an experiment to show how easy it is to fool people on Facebook.
- On April 21, 1980, Rosie Ruiz was the first woman to cross the finish line at the end of the Boston Marathon. However, the 26-year-old New Yorker had faked her run. Instead of covering the 26-mile course, she jumped into the race at the 25-mile point and only ran the last mile.
- “Deep Water.” Robert McCrum, The Guardian, April 5, 2009.
- “Donald Crowhurst and his Sea of Lies.” Daily Mail, undated.
- “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst.” Ed Caesar, The Independent, October 28, 2006.
- “Stress: Mutiny of the Mind.” Time Magazine, August 8, 1969.
- “Dutch Woman’s Fake Southeast Asia Trip is Amazing.” The Huffington Post Canada, September 11, 2014.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor