The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst

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The Strange Last Voyage of Donald CrowhurstNicholas Tomalin

“Traditional systems, like wood-plank keeled boats, have an advantage over innovative systems, like the then-novel plywood trimarans, in that the whole process of maintaining traditional things is well-explored and widely understood: old systems break in familiar ways; new systems break in unexpected ways.”

Stewart Brand, The Maintenance Race

Alone, alone, all all alone, alone on a wide wide sea

This is a wonderful book about a truly remarkable, moving and literally tragic misadventure. I first stumbled across Donald Crowhurst’s story through a terrific Channel 4 feature film, Deep Water, and was so captivated by it that I bought this and another account of the race (fellow competitor Bernard Moitessier’s The Long Way which, for the record, doesn’t really touch on the Crowhurst story).

The Bard himself could not have scripted a tragedy better than this. Crowhurst, a mercurial but fundamentally unremarkable director of a struggling electronics business, hits upon a means of saving his business and assuring his family’s future: entering (and winning) the 1968 Sunday Times single-handed round-the-world yacht race.

Yes; quite.

Not only, he rationalises, will his entry publicise his firm’s own brand of navigational equipment, but the £5000 prize will satisfy an ever more anxious major creditor. His plan to win, cobbled together from a standing start in six months, is to use an (at the time) almost unheard-of design: the trimaran, substantially of his own specification.

No matter that, a weekend yachtsman, Crowhurst has never been out of the Solent and has no realistic chance of beating the hoary old sea-dogs, renowned explorers and ex-navy officers already signed up for the race. No matter that preparing the boat involves raising further finance from the same major creditor who was already breathing down his neck (you do have to wonder what he was thinking, don’t you). No matter that there is no time to have the boat properly finished, let alone thoroughly ocean-trialled.

And thereafter a perfect, inevitable, tragedy unfolds. Crowhurst is carried by events, some of his own making, to prosecute a plan it is plain, even to him, is madness. But events and circumstances spur him on. A BBC film crew is following him. A rather over-excited publicist inflates expectations. Before he knows it, Crowhurst is off the coast of Portugal in a slow, leaking, malfunctioning, poorly provisioned boat, fearing for his life if he should go on, and for his solvency and marriage should he not. He realises there his no hope of success, but is compellingly obliged to soldier on, stiff upper lip, and makes the hasty and fatal decision to exaggerate his progress. From that point on, fortune’s wheel is set.

The ironies and twists of fate which thereafter play out and force events to their sorry conclusion are so cruel that one can hardly blame Crowhurst for reneging on a lifetime’s atheism and laying his plight at the hands of a malicious (and game-playing) God. The saddest irony of all was the last: Crowhurst, never intending to do anything but come in a respectable but uninteresting last, announces (to add some drama!), that he is closing on the last remaining competitor who, in panic, redoubles his efforts to coax his own damaged, worn out and jury-rigged boat faster, causing it to break up entirely and sink - leaving Crowhurst to win (if he arrives home at all) by default - the one thing he simply cannot afford to do.

Tomalin and Hall’s book, which came out within a year of the original event, is an expertly pieced-together and beautifully written forensic study of the whole awful saga, and charts sympathetically and extensively Crowhurst’s descent into what they assume (plausibly enough to me) to have been a form of paranoid schizophrenia by the end of his life. The relation of Crowhurst’s final plunge into the abyss, and his final burst of energy in recording his cosmic revelation is by turns dreadful and somehow uplifting: here is a hero going out in true Nietzschean style with the psychology of the tragic poet:

Not so as to get rid of pity and terror ... but beyond pity and terror, to realise in oneself the eternal joy of becoming — that joy which also encompasses the joy in destruction

See also