Brian Hancock takes you for a journey into madness…
I watched the movie Deep Water last night. It’s been around for a while but I finally found it on Netflix and it really resonated. It’s the story of Donald Crowhurst. Who Crowhurst you ask? Let me explain. One of my favorite books is The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and it’s about the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first ever single-handed, non-stop race around the world that took place in 1968/69.
Crowhurst was an electronics salesman whose business was lagging and mostly as a publicity stunt to bolster his business he entered the race. It was not a wise move as he had very little sailing experience and he decided to compete in a home-built plywood trimaran, a certain recipe for disaster.
It was a disaster, but a very interesting one for us armchair sailors. Crowhurst got tied in with a businessman who loaned him money for the boat. Once he cashed that check his destiny was set. There was no backing out. The businessman demanded that he do the race or pay back the money which would have bankrupted Crowhurst, so he did what most of us would do, he plowed ahead hoping for the best.
It was clear to almost everyone that it was a misguided mission but the thought of bankruptcy was a motivator, say nothing of the peer pressure he was under. The entire town on Teingmouth on England’s south coast was expecting him to hit the start line. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure and the stupid things it has made people do against their better judgement.
Long story short. He took off on a boat that was ill equipped for a crossing of the English Channel let along a circumnavigation. Crowhurst knew this a week or so into the trip and knew that he was on a suicide mission. That was when he came up with the fairly brilliant idea of faking his voyage. Remember this was back in the days pre-GPS and definitely pre-Sat Coms. Shortwave radio was the only means of communication. Crowhurst decided that he would remain in the North Atlantic hiding from any ships that might see him and report his position. He would then send fake position reports to Race Management.
The tricky thing is he would need to screw with his shortwave radio. As I understand it there are different wave-lengths needed for calls coming from different distances, in other words when he communicated with Race HQ and gave his position as south of South Africa, the frequency band would be different from one broadcast from the North Atlantic where he really was. But Crowhurst, being an electronics expert, was able to figure a way around this.
Now this story has special significance because in 2018 there will be a re-running of the Golden Globe Race and the entry list is over capacity. I will do a story about this separately because it’s quite amazing that in this fast paced world of instant communication and instant gratification that there are many people still hankering for a simple adventure. Yes for the 2018 Golden Globe you have to place yourself in a time warp and navigate with sextant, use a wind vane to steer, no electronics, no modern foul weather gear and definitely no streaming movies on your iPad. Furthermore you had better get used to eating out of a tin can. Don McIntyre, the race founder, is placing stringent rules that will keep the event as authentic as if it was 50 years ago and he is being mobbed with entries.
In the introduction to Deep Water Robin Knox-Johnston, the eventual winner of the Golden Globe Race talked about psychiatrists urging the sailors not to go because extended periods of solitude could lead to madness. Sir Robin was out there for 312 days and his was the fastest circumnavigation. It was no wonder then that Crowhurst had deep trepidation about his predicament. Racing around the world is one thing; faking a voyage and hiding from ships has it’s own stress. He kept two logs. One of his real voyage, and one that he would hand to the race officials at the end to document his circumnavigation. As it turned out he didn’t need either log. In the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst authors Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall document Crowhurst’s descent into madness and it’s a chilling account.
At the end Crowhurst stepped off the transom of his tri in the deluded belief that he could walk on water and of course he drowned. The boat was found drifting in circles by a passing ship and a search party discovered the two log books. Using the logs the two authors pieced together the story of Crowhurst’s deception, self delusion and eventual madness. It’s gripping reading and perhaps a lesson for us all especially those who plan a similar voyage in 2018. Perhaps the biggest lesson in all of this is the stupidity that comes with succumbing to peer pressure. We are all guilty, especially me, and it often comes at a price.
On a final note later this summer there will be a full feature movie about all of this starring Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst and Rachel Weisz as his wife. It’s a bit strange but Firth and Crowhurst actually look very much alike.
Title thanks to the best Black Sabbath song ever.