The Tragic Story Of Donald Crowhurst

By Robert James Taylor

donald crowhurst

 

This is a story of a man who dreamed he could aspire to greatness in his pursuit of the impossible – “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”- yet the Gods conspired against him in his endeavour.

England- 1968.  The British were in the grip of sailing fever: Sir Francis Chichester had achieved the colossal challenge of sailing around the world, single handed, a year earlier, though he did make one stop in Australia.

The London Sunday Times announced The Golden Globe race around the world- single handed, but without stopping, and would award a prize of 5000 pounds (80,000 pounds in today’s money) for the fastest time. The deadline date for departure was October 31st.  Nine men entered the race, eight were experienced sailors and then there was a mystery man- Donald Crowhurst. Crowhust, aged 36, loving husband and father of four young children, a brilliant troubled electrical engineer living in Somerset, was the dark horse. His business was having little success in selling his ‘Navigator’ (a maritime device), and he sought a possible way out of his worsening financial woes by entering the race.  He was a week-end sailor, so the very notion of his ability to sail around the perilous Southern Ocean alone seemed ludicrous.

Enter Stan Best: a local millionaire, already propping up Crowhurst’s electronics company was talked into backing Crowhurst: he would finance the craft Crowhurst believed would have the fastest speed. But there was a proviso: if Crowhurst failed to finish, he would have to buy the boat back- the first fatal miscalculation; added to that, Crowhurst re-mortaged his home.

Enter Rodney Hallworth, a local press hack, who seized on the chance of building the publicity and thus feeding the progress of Crowhurt’s voyage to Fleet St. He fed Crowhurt’s fantasies of fame and fortune- he would later betray the Crowhurst family.

Crowhurst was beset with problems from day one: his boat was built far too quickly and far too late to be sea worthy before the October deadline. Days prior to departure Crowhurst knew it was hopeless, but Best and Hallworth told him it was too late to pull out- it was unstoppable. The night before he sailed Crowhurst wept alongside his wife, Clare, saying “the boat is not ready.” He was boxed into a corner of no escape- but the show had to go on.

Thousands lined the Teignmouth harbor as he set sail unceremoniously (his sails tangled and had to be towed back). His wife and children watched him sail across the horizon- effectively sailing into oblivion.

He made slow progress, the hatches leaked and the bilge pump was already inoperable. His only communication was by radio and Morse code. Conditions got worse by the day- he knew his vessel had no hope of surviving the ravages of Cape Horn. If he went forward he was committing suicide, and yet, if he returned he was financially ruined; there was no way out.

He decided to fabricate his progress- he would lie and deceive. He started to send messages that he was now making much faster progress, saying he clocked 243 miles in one day, and now Crowhurst , this unknown outsider, the underdog, became the newspapers darling. Crowhurst simply cheated: he circled around the coast of Argentina, out of sight, for months, with the intention of slipping in behind the others when they returned upon entering the Atlantic Ocean, northbound to England. He stopped radio contact.

Crowhurst kept two logs books-one for his fake position and one for his real position. Months later, when he  resumed radio contact (he said his radio failed for some time) he was to learn that only two others were still in the race- namely Knox Johnston and Tetley, and they were now around the Horn on the final leg home.  When he was certain they were well ahead of his position Crowhurst would ‘re-enter’ the race, but it was imperative he came in last so that his log books would not be scrutinized.  Tetley heard, by radio, that Crowhurst was only two weeks behind him and, fearing Crowhurst could catch him up, pushed his own embattled trimaran too hard, and on May 20th 1969, Tetley’s vessel gradually came apart.  His Mayday calls were answered by a Dutch vessel- he was picked up from his life raft-now out of the race.

Now the situation for Crowhurst was a dilemma: Knox Johnston was already back in England (he was the first to depart months earlier, and took the longest time). This meant Crowhurst could then actually be the fastest. Crowhurst had the audacity to carry out the hoax but not the conscience to do so. His log books would undergo scrutiny and his deception would be there for the world to see: there was no way out. The torment overburdened him and the terrifying isolation of months at sea finally led him into a state of madness: such are the delicate mechanisms of the mind. Later his logs books revealed over 25,000 words of his descent into mental chaos, with these final words: “It is finished. It is finished. It is the mercy.” Crowhurst was gone.

His boat was found floating in the Sargasso sea by the captain of the ‘Picardy’ who was the first to read the log books, and saw the deception. Hallworth sold the log books to the Sunday Times. When the truth of the hoax was out, the humiliation for Clare Crowhurst and her family was immensely painful. She is still alive today and does not believe her husband committed suicide. Knox Johnston, being the only one who returned, donated the 5000 pounds prize money to the Crowhurst Appeal Fund. Today on Cayman Brac in the Caribbean is the remains of Crowhurst’s craft, stripped and forgotten.

 

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