In 1969, the UK’s Sunday Times sponsored the Golden Globe Race, a solo sailing race around the world. As long as one had a boat and the entry fee, the race was open to all. During the race, the participants would check in through radio frequencies and Morse code to illuminate their positions. One by one, the racers dropped out as their boats fell apart or they just couldn’t handle the isolation. But one strange sailor who had started way behind the rest was making incredible gains. Donald Crowhusrt, an English native and the least likely to even fnish, was going to win fastest time. The press and thousands of people waited for his triumphant return. He never showed up. The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst is the true story of mind-boggling deception. International Marine Publishing | 1995 (first published in 1970) | Paperback | 317 pp
Donald Crowhurst was a brilliant man but hadn’t led a successful life. He was a tinkerer and a philosophical dreamer. He had great ideas but wasn’t very good at running a business and so his ventures were failures. He was married with children and although he wasn’t the best provider, he was a loving family man. His friends adored him although they often thought he was pompous and constantly trying to sell himself. When Donald heard about the race, he desperately wanted to enter. This could be his chance to make a lasting impression on the world. There was just one problem – he didn’t have a boat. He also didn’t have the experience required for such a feat.
After many letters and pleas, he was able to come up with the funds to have a boat built to his specifications. He chose the form of a 40-foot trimaron and named her the Teignmouth Electron. A trimaron has three hulls and is known for its stability and speed, but capsizing could be a problem since they are impossible to right once capsized. An inflatable buoyancy bag placed on the mast helps to prevent this. The boat was built in a local boat shop but each time progress was made, Donald ordered more changes. The result was a ship not ready for sailing.
Screws were loose, hatches were improperly sealed, the sails and buoyancy bag were tangled, and about a million other problems existed, but Donald had to set sail or he was out of the competition. He was at the final deadline to begin. It was now or never.
Donald’s solo journey from here on is recounted through the journals found on his abandoned vessel. It was a slow start but eventually, he began to radio in impressive speed, including a record-breaking day of sailing 240 miles. As he received messages about other sailors dropping out, he continued to relay positions, but not exact coordinates. His radio messages were few and far between, and often ridiculous – mentioning mermaids and talking about his dwindling food supply rather than his positions. The truth was, Donald was lying. He never left the Atlantic Ocean and was milling about in the southern waters, sometimes in circles.
He kept up the deception until the very end and even when he might possibly have made it back in time to complete his charade, if he had only tried, he gave up and began to drift. Consumed with guilt and the inevitability of being discovered, he stopped sailing altogether. His journals provide testament to a man in severe psychosis. Verse filled with philosophical and theological rants, paranoid delusions, and nonsensical meanderings told his story well.
In the end, his boat was found only a day after his last journal entry. The boat was intact, off course by hundreds of miles from where he was expected to be, and Donald was simply not there. He was never found.
Although this is a fascinating true story, the book is a complete snoozefest. To perfectly understand the majority of the book, one would need to be well-versed in sailing or boating of any kind. It wasn’t written for the layman. The technical level of this book is a problem for those who can barely use a compass – such as myself. I am a reader who rarely skims, yet I found myself skimming through large passages.
The writing is dry and painfully dull. It is filled with passages from Donald’s logbook, passages that are barely comprehensible – as if the book wasn’t bad enough. I skimmed most of these as well.
Another aspect that didn’t work for me (on a personal level) is that of Donald’s characterization. He is described mostly through hearsay and complete conjecture through his writings and letters. I think it would be impossible to detail what, exactly, was going through his mind and what his motives were – yet this was exactly what was done. The authors show you Donald as they want you to see him.
In 2006, a documentary on Donald Crowhurst’s voyage called Deep Water was released. I highly recommend watching this rather than reading the book. And this year, a drama called The Mercy with Colin Firth playing Crowhurst is scheduled be released. There is no trailer yet for this film.
The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst
By Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall