Strange voyage

1969 was a year of extraordinary exploration. Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to sail single-handed non-stop around the world. The 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Round the World Race was controversial. Several of the sailors left land unprepared for what was ahead. Only Knox-Johnston completed the race, with several racers retiring partway through, while one decided to keep on going and started to circle the world again before coming to a stop in Tahiti! The strangest story though was that of Donald Crowhurst, who seemed to be on the verge of setting a record for the fastest circumnavigation ever, but nothing was quite what it seemed...

Donald Crowhurst setting sail
The strange voyage of Donald Crowhurst (published in the States as The strange last voyage of Donald Crowhurst) by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall tells the story of this most mysterious of journeys. Both Tomalin and Hall were involved as journalists in the original events, and had access to the Crowhurst family and the people who organized the race and backed Crowhurst.

Donald Crowhurst was an enthusiastic weekend sailor.He ran his own electronics company, which was running into financial trouble and saw the race as being a way to publicise his inventions, particularly a new version of navigation instrumentation, the Navicator, pre-GPS and satellite navigation. The race could be a way to save his company. If he won the race and got the fastest time ever around the world his future would be assured. But there were problems....Crowhurst wasn't the most experienced of sailors, he had certainly never done any serious ocean racing, the boat had lots of problems most of which remained unresolved as he set sail; and, perhaps most seriously, I think the book indicates that he had some mental health issues even before he set off. For someone going about their everyday life, this probably would not have manifested as anything more sinister than a slight case of over-confidence in their own abilities, perhaps a bit of a fantasist. But, alone at sea, this would have devastating consequences. 

As Crowhurst struggled with the boat it soon became clear (at least to him) that there was little likelihood that he was going to win the race. He was so worried by the condition of the boat that he felt (probably correctly) that continuing into the Southern Ocean, would almost certainly result in his death; and so 6 weeks in he started to live a double life; the boat would theoretically sail around the world, but in fact would drift around the Atlantic pending the time when it would appear to emerge triumphantly round Cape Horn. In order to achieve this Crowhurst went into radio silence, while writing a fictional log to accompany the one that truly revealed what had happened.

Once his fictional life had started though, it gained a momentum of its own, and as the end of the race beckoned, Crowhurst attempted to pull back from the brink of carrying through his fantastic tale, but then his main competitor, Nigel Tetley, was marooned at sea when his boat sank, and Crowhurst had to decide whether to live a lie for the rest of his life. As he plunged into madness, there appeared to be only one way out. His body was never found.

I became aware of the Crowhurst story when I saw the documentary, Deep Water, earlier this year, and was reminded of it again reading The terrible privacy of Maxwell Sim. It's an incredible story, one of those where truth really is stranger than fiction. At times this is a very difficult read especially Crowhurst's final descent into madness.

Was the whole journey a great fraud? I don't think he set out at the beginning of the race to defraud anyone, but I think the whole project was much bigger than he had anticipated, and over-whelmed he decided to perpetrate a fraud, probably just to try and make himself, and more importantly by extension his company, look better; and to avoid the humiliation and financial ruin of having to drop out of the race early. Crowhurst was unfortunate in that all the other competitors except Knox-Johnston were knocked out, and so it was inevitable that his fraud would be discovered (Sir Francis Chichester was already suspicious).

To focus on the fraud too, is to a certain extent, unfair on Donald Crowhurst. The supreme irony is that the speed and distance figures that seemed so incredible to Sir Francis were often genuine, they just didn't happen where Crowhurst claimed they happened. For a weekend sailor, he did amazingly well covering many thousands of miles. Indeed at the time of the first publication of the book (1970, the edition that I'm reviewing), only one other sailor (Tetley) had gone further in a multi-hull. As for the end of Crowhurst's life, although suicide does seem the most likely explanation, it could have been an unfortunate accident.

The closing chapters of this book make difficult reading as they pry further into Crowhurst's troubled soul - alone, confused, desperate to avoid humiliation and hurting his family. It's a salutory tale of the dangers of biting off more than you can chew; but it's hard not to admire a man who was desperately trying to do his best for those he loved, and to pity him for the failure of his dreams.

A sense of what that period was like can be seen in the closing quote of the book. The town of Teignmouth had taken Donald to its heart anticipating great publicity when he finished the race in triumph, there may have been mockery after Crowhurst's demise but as the Chairman of the Council pointed out "Despite the sad end the voyage has brought up more publicity than this Committee has managed in 50 years. We have had this extremely cheaply, and I hope the town appreciates it". "Extremely cheaply", a sad comment on the death of a misguided but brave man.
The ruin of high hopes. Teignmouth Electron on Cayman Brac. There's a very moving blog post about the remains of the boat at


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