by Timothy Lane 1/9/14
When London’s Sunday Times decided to sponsor a yacht race – around the world alone, without making landfall or receiving any assistance – in 1968, no one realized that the biggest danger would come not so much from the physical threat of storms (even though that was very real), but from the psychological strain. It was a very British notion, with a Golden Globe for the first to finish and 5000 pounds for the fastest trip (from Britain – or France – to the South Atlantic, around the world in the Roaring Forties, then back home), and not surprisingly most of the entrants were British as well. But the journey went poorly for most of them. (It didn’t really take anyone 80 weeks, but that’s such a neat title. From the first departures to the last culmination of a voyage was about 13 months.)
The race has been the subject of a very fine history, A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols. In addition, one of the voyagers (the last to set out) has been the subject of a separate book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Robert Hall, which was the basis for a chapter in yet another fine book, Great Exploration Hoaxes by David Roberts. These give an idea of the tragedies that ultimately awaited some of the yachtsmen.
Several gave up long before they reached the Roaring Forties, including some of the most promising. They may have been the lucky ones, however painful and embarrassing such decisions were. In the end, only one person (Robin Knox-Johnston aboard his yacht Suhaila) would complete the full journey, though it took him nearly a year. Another, the enigmatic Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, who loved the idea of the journey but hated the idea of racing for money, eventually decided not to head home after all (thereby effectively taking himself out). Instead he started around again in his yacht Joshua (even though he was considered a shoo-in for the fastest voyage with a good chance of finishing first to boot), eventually reaching Tahiti before he finally stopped his trip.
That left two other men who, in mid-1969, were in the running for fastest voyage: Nigel Tetley in his trimaran Victrix, and Crowhurst in his trimaran Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst, a brilliant electronics inventor (though lacking in business skills) had come up with a clever design relying heavily on fancy new electronic equipment, paid for by his personal sponsors (he could be very persuasive). But in the haste to complete it in time to set out (by the October 31, 1968 deadline), he never got it all properly installed, and thus set out at the deadline in a subpar boat, In the final effort to prepare, somehow a basket of treats from his wife Clare somehow got left behind – a pity, since they would never see each other again.
Crowhurst had disappeared from the radio for months before somehow getting it to work again as he entered the South Atlantic after his circumnavigation – or so he said, and naturally people believed him. In reality, he had stopped off for help in a small, isolated port in Argentina (thereby breaking the rules of the race) and had never left the South Atlantic. But Tetley didn’t know that, and perhaps he pushed his fragile boat (a solitary, unassisted circumnavigation in the Roaring Forties is hard on yachts) a bit too hard. Eventually, in the wee hours of May 21, his boat broke down. He was able to send off a distress signal and get rescued, but it was a bitter disappointment, and is thought to be the reason he committed suicide a couple of years later.
But there was one more tragedy remaining. Crowhurst had been keeping a double set of logs, one with the actual figures and one with the fake circumnavigation data. No doubt he expected to finish safely out of the money – and no one would check his fake log closely enough to detect the fraud. But it was likely to be a different story if he (supposedly) had the fastest trip (or so at least he reasonably expected). After he heard of Tetley’s misfortune on May 23, he began to fill his log with half- (or maybe wholly) crazy writing. Finally, on July 1 he reached the end of the log with a final incomplete message time at 11:17: “I will play this game when I choose I will resign the game 11 20 40 There is no reason for harmful”. His empty yacht was found 9 days later.
One nice touch afterward: As a fine example of British noblesse oblige, Knox-Johnston donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst, who undoubtedly needed it and certainly wasn’t at fault for the tragic events.
As a final coda to this article, I will mention that Great Exploration Hoaxes covers voyages from Sebastian Cabot to Crowhurst, including the controversies involved polar explorers Frederick Cook, Robert Peary, and Richard Byrd. Included is the story of James Bruce, whose story of visiting Abyssinia in the 18th century was roundly disbelieved – until visitors decades later not only found that his reporting was accurate, but that there were still people there who remembered his visit. Not all hoaxes really are hoaxes, it seems. • (790 views)