I started reading The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst last night, a book I bought ages ago in a second-hand bookshop, mainly because it was co-authored by Nicholas Tomalin, one of the best journalists of the late twentieth century, a man killed tragically early while reporting from Golan in 1973, and one who deserves immortality if only for his observation "The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability".
To be lazy, and quote Wikipedia's introduction:
Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from the Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions, in an attempt to appear to complete a circumnavigation without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance indicates that this attempt ended in insanity and suicide.What a story lies behind that brief description. Crowhurst set sail knowing he had no chance of success; he spent the night before departure lying in his wife's arms, weeping. She now thinks he was trying to get permission from her to abandon the voyage, at the time she thought he wanted encouragement.
Cropwhurst sailed in a trimaran, very fast, hopeless with a contrary wind, and impossible to right if it capsized. His strange mixture of genius, ambition and unpreparedness might be best symbolised by a device he invented to prevent the boat capsizing completely if overturned by a wave. A large inflatable bag was attached to the top of the main mast, connected by a wiring loom to a computer of his own design, in the cabin. This computer would sense that the vessel had gone over, the inflatable bag would float and hold the trimaran on its side, the computer would then adjust the buoyancy of the lower float until it sank enough for a wave to nudge the yacht back upright. Except that when he sailed, the bag was uninflatable, the wiring loom in place but unconnected at either end, and the computer was a storage compartment full of boxes of electronic components, all entirely unassembled.
The story of this man, who set out with no intention to deceive but descended into insanity and suicide, has been the subject of a dozen books, songs, films and plays. Why? I can offer three suggestions.
It's just a gripping story, there's an inevitability of doom from the very start, one that Crowhurst himself seems to have been aware of. Whatever his faults might have been, they didn't include cowardice. He set sail in a boat he knew was likely to kill him, one way or another. Whatever his deceits, they were unplanned and incremental, rooted in self-deceit, one leading to another, until he sat in his cabin, unhinged by Lear-like despair and isolation, surrounded by trailing wires and useless gadgets: the rubble of his life.
The story gives in miniature what could be a jaundiced view of the lives of many people, hopes and ambitions that descend into failure and self-deceit, though normally all of these elements exist on a far tinier scale than they did for Crowhurst.
And there's a little of Crowhurst in us all. Most of us learn to suppress and control the small inner child who sees an astronaut and wants to become one. Crowhurst never did.
Crowhurst left behind a wife, Clare, and four young children. In the introduction to the book, the authors say that while there is no hero in the story, there is a heroine, Clare Crowhurst. What must it have been like for her, discovering the truth about her husband's doom in the depth of her bereavement, faced with the prospect of raising four children alone?
Yet while "hero" might be too strong a word, there is, in this story, at the end, at the least a very fine man. Robin Knox Johnstone, who won the race Crowhurst was competing in and by doing so became the first man to sail single-handed around the world without stopping, donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst:
“I never expected to win that money so it just made sense to donate it to a family who really needed it,” Knox-Johnston says from Fremantle. “I found out soon after what Donald had done. I was one of only half a dozen people who knew the truth but I didn’t feel bitter or betrayed, just terribly sad.”