Friday, February 25, 2011

By Michael

Still from Crowhurst's self-shot video
While much has been written about the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, it is such an incredible story, on so many different levels, that it is worth repeating for anyone who is not aware. Several nights ago, I again watched the 2006 documentary, Deep Water. It is about the Race and its most fated entrant. If you want to watch a compelling, riveting, true story of a man pushed over the edge by the pressures of a classic Mexican standoff in which he plays both sides, Deep Water is for you.

In July 1967, all of Great Britain—and much of the world—was captivated by the knighting of Sir Francis Chichester, an experienced and accomplished yachtsman who had just finished sailing around the world alone, in record time via the southern capes. This had never been done before. This was a remarkable achievement, one that catapulted him to fame.

The newspaper that sponsored Chichester’s voyage enjoyed a tremendous return on their investment, given the success and sustained popularity of the story. They were eager to repeat their success…but how?

Less than a year later, The Sunday Times upped the ante by announcing a £5,000 purse to the person who not only repeated the feat,  but who did it non-stop (Chichester had stopped for repairs and supplies in South Africa). Many doubted such a voyage, non-stop and much of it in the southern ocean, was possible. Even if a vessel could endure 26,000 miles without stopping, could a human being cope with the stress of such sustained isolation?

Nine men entered the race. Eight of them had impressive sailing resumes, one did not.

Donald Crowhurst was an Englishman and tinkerer with a failing business and a wife and three kids to support. He day sailed on the weekends and hatched a plan that eventually put forces into motion he could not control.

While he’d neither owned nor sailed a multihull, Crowhurst had an idea for an inflatable airbag device that could be mounted atop the mast and prevent a multihull from capsizing.

Crowhurst believed that if he could sail one around the world non-stop, alone, and faster than his competitors, he would prove the viability of his airbag invention and sell a ton of them, or so he hoped. He commissioned a yard to build his vessel, a Piver-designed trimaran. Teignmouth Electron was finished only a few weeks before the departure deadline for entrants. The construction was rushed and incomplete when he took delivery. He had only a few weeks aboard the new vessel to shake it down and learn to sail her. Crowhurst departed on the last possible day with strong reservations about the undertaking, little faith in his vessel, and the knowledge that if he didn’t start and finish the race he would lose his house under terms he signed to fund his boat.

He had spent very little time sailing her. He was still making repairs and installing fittings the day he left. His invention was neither complete nor installed. But on that cloudy day, thousands of his countrymen gathered to see him off. His campaign was heavily publicized by the paper. He was the underdog and had become immensely popular.

Diaries and log books recovered later reveal that Crowhurst determined early on that his boat was not fit for the trip. He knew that if he continued on to the southern ocean, he would die. He knew that if he sailed home, he would lose his home and face financial ruin and humiliation. He hatched another plan: Crowhurst decided to fake his trip.

He would hang out in the relatively benign equatorial region, sailing nowhere for months while the other racers made their way around the globe. He would report fake positions over the radio, keep a fake logbook, and at some point tuck in behind the others and finish the race, but not win the race.

Crowhurst radioed false position reports that gradually put him in a competitive position. (This was 20 years before the first GPS and the complexity of interpolating a false position, recording false celestial sights and the corresponding calculations, is noteworthy.)

However, in short order, the 9-boat field shrank down to four boats, following five sailors' abandonment of the race. Of the remaining four, Robin Knox-Johnston finished the race, leaving Bernard Moitessier, Nigel Tetley, and Donald Cowhurst in a battle for the finish and the prize for the fastest time (Knox-Johnston departed much earlier).

Moitessier looked to be the sure winner, but just prior to completing the race, he decided to forego the fame and instead did a one-eighty and headed back around the world without finishing (reflecting his personal rejection of the commercialization of the race).

This put Tetley in line to win, but he was not far ahead of Crowhurst (so he believed) and so he charged on, pushing his boat hard. But Tetley’s boat was falling apart by this time and not prepared for any charge. It sank and he was rescued from his life raft.

When the English press announced that Crowhurst was now likely to win with the fastest time, the English people went wild. When Crowhurst learned of his fate, sailing directly into exposure of his fraud, and financial ruin, his descent into madness was brief. His suicide followed.

Again, the documentary about Crowhurst and this remarkable race is called Deep Water. It is in video stores and on Netflix. It is a fascinating, detailed telling of this story and includes a lot of video of Crowhurst—the anxiety on his face the day he leaves is apparent. Almost 40 years after the race, his wife and one son are interviewed extensively in the film, as is the reporter from The Sunday Times who followed the story as it unfolded.

I would love to read your comments if you’ve seen it already, or your impressions after you do.


  1. The History Channel has a show called "Vanishings" and Crowhurst was the subject of an episode. He had taken a movie camera with him to film his experiences and it's very interesting to see some of his breakdown. At one point, he was singing about how much he liked booze...........wait a minute...........that could be me!!!!!

    Good seeing you guys out in LA last week. Take care!

  2. I saw the movie a couple days ago after reading your post (I stopped after the first paragraph as to not give away what happened) and I was shocked! I was also angry at this man for leaving his wife with four young children! But I loved the fact that the winner gave his earnings to the Crowhurst family.


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