On This Day

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Donald Crowhurst

On This Day: Donald Crowhurst’s Boat Found Abandoned

July 10, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 10, 1969, British sailor Donald Crowhurst’s boat was found adrift in the Atlantic, ending a bizarre eight-month fake voyage around the world in a sailing race.

Crowhurst Sails Around World Without Leaving Atlantic

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Donald Crowhurst, a Royal Air Force veteran and recreational sailor, was the owner of a failing electronics business that sold marine navigational equipment. In an effort to publicize his business and possibly win the £5,000 prize for the fastest time, he entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a nonstop solo sailing race around the world, in 1968.

Crowhurst used his home as collateral to buy a trimaran, a three-hulled boat that is good for speed but dangerous in open water. He received funding from a local millionaire, Stanley Best, but he would be forced to return the money if he didn’t complete the race.

With the help of publicist Rodney Hallworth, Crowhurst, “a self-confessed ‘romantic’ in search of fame and glory,” writes Robert McCrum in The Observer, became a national celebrity, hailed as an example of British pluck and ambition. He raced to install his own safety and navigational devices into his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, before the Oct. 31 deadline, but couldn’t complete his work in time.

He wept in his wife’s arms the night before the race, but, fearing financial ruin, he refused to back out. The following day, with much of his safety equipment scattered in the boat or mistakenly left on shore, the “visibly unnerved” Crowhurst set out on a journey he feared he couldn’t complete.

Early in his journey, Crowhurst found that the boat was leaking and that he had left an important part of his bilge pump in England. Realizing that he could not survive a trip around the Cape of Good Hope, and unwilling to face the humiliation back home if he pulled out, Crowhurst began faking results and then ended radio contact for 111 days while he sailed around the Atlantic.

In the spring, when he was scheduled to reenter the Atlantic Ocean, he announced that he had completed his circumnavigation and was heading home. He was told that Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the race and Nigel Tetley would soon follow with a faster time.
Crowhurst began sailing home, hoping that Knox-Johnston and Tetley would claim the prizes. However, when Tetley sank, Crowhurst was in a position to win the fastest-time prize. Knowing that his logs and account of the race couldn’t withstand the scrutiny he would receive, he became depressed and sank into insanity.

Contact with Crowhurst was soon lost, and on July 10, 1969, his boat was found drifting in the mid-Atlantic, intact but empty. “His logbooks, which gradually lapsed into incoherence, provide a revealing case study of the effects of extended solitude,” wrote Time. They also indicated that he had never left the Atlantic.

“There are no clues to what became of Crowhurst,” reported Time, but his final log entries led many to believe he committed suicide. “It is finished. It is finished. It is the mercy,” he wrote on July 1.  He ended, “There is no reason for harmful …”

In 1970, two British authors published “The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst,” revealing the details of Crowhurst’s deception and madness to the world.

“In the end,” wrote Sports Illustrated in a review of the book, “recognizing the futility of maintaining the deceit, he seems to have chucked himself into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to escape the embarrassing consequences.”

Reactions: Crowhurst’s Family

After the release of the documentary “Deep Water” in 2006, Crowhurst’s widow, Clare, spoke to the media for the first time since immediately after her husband’s death. She said that she struggled to deal with her husband’s death, but was helped when winner Robin Knox-Johnston gave the Crowhurst family his £5,000 prize.

She believes that Donald would never have killed himself. “I have always been convinced that Donald didn’t commit suicide,” she told The Observer. “It’s such an awful story and I suppose we will never know what happened at the end.”

Key Players: Chichester and the Golden Globe Race Entrants

Sir Francis Chichester
In 1967, 65-year-old Francis Chichester completed a nine-month solo trip around the world with just one stop, returning home as “250,000 well-wishers cheered and sang,” reported the BBC.

His trip inspired others, including Robin Knox-Johnston, Bernard Moitessier, Bill King and Loick Fougeron, to try to sail nonstop around the world. The Sunday Times decided to sponsor a race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, awarding a trophy to the first man to complete their journey and £5,000 to the man with the fastest time. Nine sailors would attempt to make the trip.

Robin Knox-Johnston

Johnston was the only man to complete the race, finishing in 313 days. He continues to sail today and completed his second solo trip around the world in 2007, finishing the Velux 5 Oceans race in 159 days. After the race, the 68-year-old Sir Robin said it would be his final global race.

Nigel Tetley
Tetley was a veteran of the Royal Navy who, like Crowhurst, was making the trip in a trimaran. He successfully circumnavigated the Southern Ocean and sailed back to England on pace to beat Knox-Johnston’s time.

However, believing that Crowhurst was close behind him, he pushed his boat too hard and capsized. He was rescued, but he would hang himself in 1972.

Bernard Moitessier
Frenchman Moitessier could have won the race, but didn’t care for the commercialism and personal glory associated with it. After passing Cape Horn, he decided to make a second trip around the Southern Ocean rather than return to England.

“To have not done what he did, Moitessier would have been out of character,” wrote Don Holm in “The Circumnavigators.” “His actions were completely logical for a man whose kinship with the sea was as nearly complete as is possible for a land mammal.”

Reference: Crowhurst’s Trip and Boat

PBS provides a look at “Deep Water,” a 2006 documentary film about Crowhurst. It includes a trailer for the film with video clips of Crowhurst and an interview with the director. It also features an interactive map of the race, charting Crowhurst’s fake and real route as well as the routes of his eight competitors.

The Teignmouth & Shaldon Museum shows Crowhurst’s positions at 18 different points of his journey.

The Teignmouth Electron was taken to the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac, where it remains. Photographer Michael Jones McKean took pictures of the rotting boat in 2006.
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