Story of an impossible battle on the waves between heroism and mythomania

By Egle Damini / LUZ

Bridgwater, England, 1968

Donald Crowhurst was 36 years old. Born in British India in 1932 to English parents, Crowhurst was a Sunday sailor, a passion that allowed him to isolate himself from the world and escape for a while from reality. A reality that, back then, did not smile upon him. His commercial activity was in fact on the verge of bankruptcy, and despite the good product intuitions born from his experience as an amateur sailor, like the Navicator handheld nautical radio, he would have soon been forced to declare bankruptcy.

To turn the tide of his fortune, destiny offered him a solution: the Golden Globe Race, a non-stop race around the world with a sizeable money prize for the winner.

The feat was already an ambitious one for an experienced navigator, let alone for an amateur like Crowhurst. However, he seemed to be deaf to basic common sense. In his mind, the plan was very clear: the regatta’s prize - £5,000, equivalent to over £60,000 today – would have been the perfect opportunity to pay off his debts and show everyone his sailing skills.

Crowhurst lied about his achievements, hired Rodney Hallworth, a criminologist from the Daily Express, as his communication officer and obtained the sponsors necessary to build his racing boat and enter the race. On 31 October 1968, with just a few weeks of experience on board his new boat, the trimaran Teignmouth Electron, Donald Crowhurst entered the race.

Teignmouth Electron sets sails
The Golden Globe Race competitors had to start from England, sail towards the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, cross the entire Pacific sailing south of Australia and New Zealand, round Cape Horn and only then return home heading north on the Atlantic.

Crowhurst regatta started badly. Due to technical problems with the boat, general inexperience in manoeuvring a hull not yet tested on the high seas and lack of nautical skills with respect to the other sailors - some of them destined to become sailing legends, such as Bernard Moitessier - the distance between Crowhurst and the other participants widened immediately. Crowhurst lacked both the equipment and the experience to succeed in that feat.

A complex undertaking even to this day, let alone with the boats and navigation technologies of more than half a century ago.

Crowhurst himself was aware of it: in his logbook, he estimated his ocean crossing survival chances at 50% - and only if he managed to make some safety improvements to the trimaran during navigation. Once on the water, Crowhurst realized he could not keep the pace he had planned, finding himself more and more trapped with each passing day.

Between November and December 1968, Crowhurst came to the realisation that he would have never wonHe was down to only two options: he could admit defeat a few weeks before departure, declare bankruptcy and let his family live in poverty; or he could continue a desperate race, with very little chance of survival and on board of a boat clearly not suitable for sea crossing and in need of immediate repairs. Yet, he could have not or would have not admitted defeat, either to himself or to the world that was waiting for him.

Crowhurst chose a third way. He decided to lie to everyone. Even to himself.

Therefore, he began to live an imaginary journey, communicating false positions to the jury and making it believe he was ahead of the other competitors. However, the reality was much different: his boat never left the Atlantic Ocean.

In full disregard of the rules, Crowhurst pulled his boat ashore in South America to make the necessary repairs, before keeping an aimless wander across the Southern Atlantic Ocean.

The quiet before the storm
His tactic, as unfair and desperate as it was, was not completely irrational: lie while claiming to be still in the race, falsify the logbook and catch up with the rest of the participants along the way back. Sure, he would have not won the race, but the fame derived from the completion of a circumnavigation around the globe would have allowed him to solve part of his financial problems.

Liars are said to have a good memory, and Crowhurst was no exception. In the midst of his delirium, he went full circle: he started to keep a second, real logbook.

In the first one, he kept track of false but realistic calculations to deceive the jury once the race was over; in the other one, he freed himself from the burden of deception, writing the truth about his voyage and the anxieties that came from deceiving the whole world.
The meticulousness in falsifying was almost more complex than reality
Months went by, and his tactic seemed to be working. Outside of the Teignmouth Electron, Donald Crowhurst was hailed as one of the winners of the race, despite the fact that some sceptics doubted he was where he claimed to be. That was because many of the participants to the regatta had in fact renounced the endeavour, and the radio announced that the race had turned into a neck-and-neck between Crowhurst and the South African yachtsman Nigel Tetley.

The reality was far from it: Tetley was in fact well ahead, approaching on one occasion Crowhurst’s hideout while sailing close to South America. Nevertheless, the South African sailor, feeling the pressure of the competition, pushed his trimaran to the limit, reaching the point of irreparably damaging it and having to forfeit on May 30, 1969.

Crowhurst's ignorance was also his bliss
Crowhurst was then alone in the race, completely unaware of the events occurring to Tetley. In the fake logbook, he wrote that he had dubbed the Cape of Good Hope and was setting off on his way back. He turned on the radio signal again and the reality of the situation hit him in the stomach. According to the false information provided to the jury, Crowhurst was not only one of the few sailors remaining, but also very likely to win.

Upon hearing the news, Crowhurst must have understood that even in the event of completion of the race, his lies, meticulously noted in the fake logbook, would have come easily to the surface.

Crowhurst's latest reflections on life are also the toughest
Afflicted by the hypothesis of being labelled as a fraud and full of guilt after learning of Tetley's fate, his thoughts, immortalized in his real logbook, became more and more erratic. A nervous breakdown soon struck him hard.

On 29 June, after a failed attempt to contact his wife, he turned off the radio signal once again. In his diary, he began to pen down his thoughts on human nature, the last-ditch attempt to justify himself from his misconduct. He concluded by writing: " It has been a good game that must be ended at the […] I will play this game when I choose I will resign the game […] There is no reason for harmful. It is finished — it is finished IT IS THE MERCY ". The day was July 1, 1969. The clock on board marked 11:20 AM.

The story of a man completely with his back to the wall
9 days later, his trimaran was found drifting off the Bermuda Islands. Inside, the real diary of Crowhurst was found, thanks to which the world has been able to know of his desperate attempt. Crowhurst, his falsified logbook and his chronometer were never found.

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