Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Lost at sea. A friend told me the story of yachtsman and would-be circumnavigator Donald Crowhurst's last voyage and I can't get it out of my mind.

I'd never heard of it, but it seems to be quite well known. Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall wrote a book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and it was also recently covered in a Channel Four programme, Force of Nature. Here's a quote from the C4 website:

Crowhurst had decided to cheat. Knowing that his boat would never survive the rough Southern Ocean, he had contrived to sail across the Atlantic to the coast of South America where he would lay low and wait for the other eight competitors to catch up. Meticulously, he kept two log books, one recording his actual journey and the other his fabricated one. He spent hours each day carrying out complex mathematical calculations to maintain the deception.

He ceased all radio communications for 111 days and waited until he was sure the other competitors had cleared Cape Horn. In mid-April 1969 he learnt that Robin Knox-Johnston had completed the race, earning himself first prize – the Golden Globe trophy. But the second prize of £5000 was still up for grabs.

Crowhurst knew that he couldn't afford to win even the second prize because this would expose his log books to the scrutiny of the judges and the world's press and he would be found out.

By now, Nigel Tetley was the only other competitor besides Crowhurst in the running for second place. When Tetley learned that Crowhurst was just three days behind him, Tetley pulled out all the stops to ensure he won the second prize. But on 21 May, to Crowhurst's horror, he heard that Tetley had pushed his boat too far and had sunk. Crowhurst's strategy had been blown apart, he was now in the lead.

After spending months in solitude working on his log books, Crowhurst's sanity gave way as he faced the certain prospect of being found out and disgraced. He stopped racing and spent 150 hours in a writing frenzy, poring out his soul in a 25,000-word revelation of angry gibberish. By the time he finished he'd lost all touch with reality. 'I am what I am. I see the nature of my offence. It is finished. It is finished,' he wrote. Then, taking his ship's clock, he stepped into the Atlantic and disappeared.

As the sidebar says, it couldn't happen now. Modern GPS technology ensures that no competitor nowadays could sustain such a fraud, and, one hopes, that no competitor is likely to crouch in the hundred-plus days of awful isolation that drove Crowhurst to suicide.

Ironically, Crowhurst himself invented an early hand-held navigational aid called the Navigator. It allowed the user to take bearings on radio beacons.

The 1968 Golden Globe race seems to have been ill-starred; this account says that Tetley, the competitor who came second, never got over the breakup of his boat and himself committed suicide shortly afterwards. Yet another competitor, Bernard Moitessier, gave up the lead position and the race itself so that he could sail on to Tahiti where "you can tie up a boat where you want and the sun is free, and so is the air you breathe and the sea where you swim and you can roast yourself on a coral reef."

The same sun still shines and the air is still free. But these days you'd roast yourself on the coral reef while knowing your position to the inch ... and having it known.