The strange last voyage of Donald Crowhurst

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Now that the Vendée Globe is over, it's time to revisit some strange stories and facts, regarding round-the-world boat races.

The very first race was held in 1968, the Golden Globe yacht race, where most of the boats didn't top 9 metres in length. During that race, many strange things took place. First, there was Bernard Moltessier, who, just kilometres from winning the race, suddenly stopped, turned back, and sailed 60,000km to Tahiti. Then there was Nigel Tetley, second in the lead behind Robin Knox-Johnston. Upon hearing that Donald Crowhurst was only 3 days behind him, Tetley pushed his boat hard, and capsized. He was picked up by the navy, and, later, was awarded the 1000 pounds in runner-up prize money. However, a year later, crushed by the race, he committed suicide.

Then, there's Donald Crowhurst himself. An ambitious electrical engineer, Crowhurst had built himself a reputation and boat, the Teignmouth Electron, specially for the race. Unfortunately, halfway down the Atlantic, he realized his boat was not mechanically stable enough to finish the race, let alone survive the stormy seas pass the Cape of Good Hope. He cut off radio contact, presumably just after rounding the cape. Radio silence was held for 111 days, after which, Crowhurst reopened contact, to report he had rounded Cape Horn and was running up the Atlantic.

However, in truth, Crowhurst had merely been circling round and round the Atlantic, recording false logs each day, to chart position and movement as if he were actually running the race. He knew his boat was inadequate so he had decided to forge the books, keeping two logs: his fictional log, and a real log.

After learning about Tetley's near demise and capsize, Crowhurst was stricken with remorse. He cut off radio contact again. He slowly started to go insane, writing out a 25,000 word confessional, half of which is gibberish, raving in self-reproach, depression and guilt. His boat was found 3 months later, in a state of great squalor, save the two log books, sitting neatly and cleanly on the table, testimony to his fraud and failure. Somewhere in the Atlantic, Crowhurst picked up his ship's clock, and jumped into the Ocean.

Information gleaned from The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Tom Hall.