bookcover of the stange last voage of Donald Crowhurst

It is a story about a mechanical engineer in the late 1960’s who dreams of participating in the first Golden Globe sailing around the world competition. The husband of Clare and the father of 4 children was an ambitious man who wanted desperately to prove himself to the world that he was worthy, intelligent and a jack of all trades. The announcement in the Sunday Times of the Golden Globe sailing competition on March 17th, 1968 was the opportunity to show the world what he was made of. There were going to be 2 prices, one for the first one returning (a trophy with your name on it) and one for the fastest time (5.000 pounds). He already read all the books he could get his hands on about navigation and sailing. But there was not much time to find funding and to build a boat. With tall tales about his seamanship (in fact, he was a reasonable weekend sailor) he won the trust of an investor and by mortgaging his house, his business, and even the winnings of the race in the fastest time. In the end, he found enough money and an adventurous boat-builder to go ahead with the build.

The window of starting the race was July until 31st of October 1968. From the go-ahead in March to 31st of October, it was a race against time to finish the revolutionary trimaran. Donald drove the boatbuilder crazy with all the alterations he wanted. There were several tests with the plywood boat, but the tests did not show a fast ship, on the contrary, it was slow. The mechanical engineer wanted all kinds of gadgets (of his own making) on board to make the sailing easy, efficient and fast. All the wiring was ready, but not the gadgets…. There were problems with the boat and in the back of his head, Donald knew it, but he could not stop his entree, he was too far in debt and could not live with the shame of quitting.

There was a grand send-off of the last competitor to start the race on the 31st of October with the media and saying goodbye to his wife and children. He left a lot of gear, tools and spare parts on the quayside, including the Christmas present of his wife and children, in order to keep the boat light and hopefully, fast. 

While sailing he could follow the progress of the other competitors via the radio, the problems were painfully obvious, the Teignmouth Electron was very slow. Dangerously slow, slow enough to kiss the prize money of the fastest time goodbye. 

Donald had 4 logbooks on board next to some ‘light reading’ like Mathematical books and Einstein’s relativity theory. In his logbook 1, you can read how he struggles with his bearly finished boat and how he tries to fix things without any spare parts or appropriate tools. There is water seeping in from all sides, he didn’t get electricity because the generator fails, the sails are cut incorrectly and his perishable foods are in danger of becoming mouldy. Reasons enough to throw in the towel, but not Donald. He has money. disappointment and embarrassment on his mind. He describes honestly all kinds of scenarios in his first two weeks of log-entries.

After the first two weeks, he becomes less honest in his log entries. He uses one of the logbooks as a radio log to write down radio messages and practice sessions in morse code. When he finally gets his generator going, he does not radio through his exact location but only his general destination, which is 200 nautical miles further than his actual location. For the people at home in England, the Teignmouth Electron seems to be sailing fast! That is exciting news for the newspapers, all eyes are on Donald Crowhurst, the dark horse of the race!

Donald starts making calculations of both the honest speeds and the speeds he wished for and distances he would travel and on which dates he would reach crucial points.

But he is not sure if his failing boat will ever come as far as the cape. From the 5th of December onwards, he fakes the speeds he travels with and the distances he covers. Faking a speed record is a very different thing from faking an entire round-the-world voyage. Donald decides to work on a new logbook – Logbook 2. This logbook shows his real progress, in logbook 1 he continues the fake entries. He also takes regular weeks of radio silence. He never radios his true position but leaves a fake breadcrumb trail past Cape Horn and Australia. 

In real fact, Donald never leaves the Atlantic Ocean and avoids the shipping lanes in order not to be spotted by other ships who could radio in his position. Nobody spots him anywhere, he is like a phantom ship on the ocean. Donald has time on his hands and he uses it to do some creative writing and poetry in Log 1. Some melancholic stories/poems, some funny, some showing his tormented side. He is lonely and the silence is doing odd things to him. 

Towards the end of January, the boat was in a bad state. He decides to go ashore in Argentina to patch up his boat and thereby taking the risk of being disqualified and discovered as a fraud. In Rio Salado, Donald was registered by the coastguard and in a nice linguistic confusion as Mr Charles Alfred but the passport number was written correctly. The landing was registered by Donald in log 2 but not in log 1.

Donald decides to sail to the Falkland Islands, in his mind, he’s fretting about the landing in Argentina. Would the coastguard keep it as a secret? And what would he do when it was discovered? It was early March, for an ‘accurate’ deception Donald had to wait until the real competitors of the race came around Cape Horn. This would happen 6 weeks later…How did Crowhurst fill the time? No one really knows, he might have entertained himself by scribbling in logbook 4. This logbook was never found so we don’t know. He contacted England with the message that he had passed the tiny island of Diego Ramirez on the 28th of March. In England, they calculated that Crowhurst rounded the Horn on the 11th of April. This was big news, and for most critics, suspiciously fast. Donald was heading back to England in his battered boat and with his lie. He scribbles in logbook 2 and makes tapes for the BBC where you can hear him getting drunk by drinking rum and other spirits. He is reading the book of Einstein and is integrating his own life and religion in this mathematical theory. It all becomes a bit mixed up. He refers to Einstein as ‘The Master’ and the equation E=mc2 as a cosmic revelation, like ‘God is love’.

At the beginning of May, he restarted serious sailing with the other competitors and ceased the deception of his position. He radios two optimistic messages to England but states that he still would have to win the race in a photo finish with Tetley. Donald also tries to talk to his wife Clare but that seems to be difficult. In the messages to and from England, it looks like Donald is OK when Tetley wins the race for the fastest time, that would not draw a spotlight on his deception. But on May 21st Tetley’s boat sinks after a storm near the Azores. This was quite a blow for Crowhurst, now he would win the race for the fastest time and he had to hand over his logbooks to be examined by the race committee for any cheating. The triumph of winning the race seems inescapable.

Donald is in the doldrums now, it is hot and there is hardly any wind. The boat keeps on having problems, food is getting low and the tea has gone mouldy. And as an ultimate disaster, his transmitter fails completely. He still can receive morse code telegrams but is unable to send any. His only link to the outside world, he is more alone than ever before.

In the messages sent to him, he gets congratulated on his speed and upcoming winning of the race

Ideal conditions for some funny stuff happening in the mind. On June 23rd, Donald ceased to be a rational being. On this day he entered his last navigational notes in his logbook. He gave up sailing the boat.

From the 24th of June, Crowhurst used logbook 2 for all kinds of epic thoughts. He wrote down 25.000 words. In the beginning, he was quite sane but in the end, he was totally out of touch with reality. He got back to Einstein’s relativity theory. In Crowhurst’s mind, Einstein offered him the perfect way to cope with his nightmare. If Einstein was faced with a mathematical impasse he merely ‘stipulated of his own free will’ that the impasse should disappear. Donald wanted to escape this cabin and his situation, so he would make it disappear out of his own free will. 

He is combining all kinds of information together and mixes it up into a theory where he can leave his body, and make himself divine, whenever he wants! He would become God! 

Donald loses all track of time, he becomes more paranoid and disorganised in his writings. In the end, he writes that the game was good but must be ended. And that is the last thing he wrote.

He left all 3 logbooks where they could easily be found, except logbook 4, that one is missing. 

The Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned by a ship called Picardy on July 10th.

Charlotte Gannet

Leave a Comment