It’s Halloween. And by all accounts, ghouls love a good yacht: There’s no shortage of great boat-ghost stories:
There is the famous Italian ghost schooner Bell’amica that was found drifting off the coast of the Sardinia in 2006. All hands were missing, as was the GPS data, the nameplate and the flag of origin. The only human trace? An on-board phone that could call an owner. An owner that would never appear.
There’s The Sailing Mummy, one Manfred Fritz Bajorat, who was found dead and mummified at his boat’s navigation station in 2016. Was he radioing for help? Was it suicide or foul play? We will never know.
But for pure spook-factor in nautical ghost yarns, there’s no touching Donald Crowhurst and the tale of his ill-fated Teignmouth Electron. (Say, “tinmyth electron” and people will think you’ve actually been to the English seafaring town where this 41-foot, ocean-going trimaran was finished for sea duty in 1968.) Crowhurst was a struggling electronics maker, with — at best — weekend sailing skills. Yet, somehow he decided that the smart way to return his flagging company to profitability was to compete, and win, in the world’s first single-handed, non-stop, round-the-world race, The Golden Globe.
Crowhurst’s Golden Globe was similar to today’s Vendee Globe round-the-world race: You do sail south, alone, without stopping, and leave the great capes Hope, Leeuwin, and Horn to the left. All while trying to make it back to England in one piece. But the original Golden Globe boasted other, more blood curdling, features: There was shocking little corporate sponsorship compared to today’s Vendee. Several racers were on shoe-string budgets, some raced in their live-in boat homes. Safety rules were a concept. As were rescue radios, modern navigation equipment, and reliable autopilots — or, really any practical experience of sailing this far, in waters this remote, for nearly a year! Nobody had ever sailed around the world alone, non-stop, much less race. It was a race to Mars and back.
Peter Nichol’s must-read account is called A Voyage For Madmen. And that’s exactly what it was: Of the nine men and one kitten — Frenchman Loick Fourgeron did start the race with a cat — six gave up because equipment failure or exhaustion. The one racer, Bernard Moitessier who was on track to win the thing, simply refused to finish. Because he found winning somehow at odds with his deeper sense of self. (Ah, the French.) A full 312 days after the start, the one sailor left floating, Robin Knox-Johnston, who kept his leaking wood Suhaili afloat with cotton sheeting, tar, and copper tacks, bobbed across the finish line, the one and only only finisher. And therefore the winner.
But Crowhurst, poor Donald Crowhurst, was the sod that actually went mad.
Crowhurst’s Golden Globe race was the Friday the 13th, parts one through 13 for boating. Everything anyone could imagine going wrong went wrong for the poorly fitted Teignmouth Electron: Hatch seals didn’t seal. Pumps did not pump. Self-steering gear was an oxymoron. There were no spares. Crowhurst forgot all of them, at the dock! He could fix nothing, solve nothing, anticipate nothing. But he could not stop: Crowhurst had sold his story — and hence his soul — to financial backers who would accept nothing less then a glorious finish. So slowly, over the course of months, Crowhurst began carefully constructing a fake round-the-world itinerary (that was no mean feat of navigational libel, by the way). All the while, he sailed in slow circles into the South Atlantic, waiting for the fleet to catch back up, after it circumnavigated through the Southern Ocean.
After setting ashore briefly in Brazil, an act of racing treachery that yielded no more than some plywood and screws, Crowhurst pretended to race home, fooling a legitimate competitor named Nigel Tetley, racing in a similar trimaran. Tetley, who had slogged around the world tortuously in a slowly self-destructing live-board 41 footer, called Victress, suddenly saw his chances foiled by the newly appeared Crowhurst. Poor Tetley then drove his battered ship, so hard that it sank in a Atlantic storm, just a week’s sail from home and glory. Tetley would never recover. He would be discovered hung from a tree, dead, an apparent suicide, in 1972.
Legend has it that Tetley’s sinking broke Crowhurst, who by all accounts was a decent husband and father. His communications became more erratic, his logs more confused as they devolved down into a 25,000-word stream of rants, poems, and strange semi-bits of science. This was the final log entry: “IT IS THE MERCY.” (Capitals were Crowhurst’s.) And then, silence. This man’s race was over.
On July 10th, the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned. And the debate as to what happened and why rages to this day. Crowhurst is the central character of dozens of films, books, poetry, art and songs. The high-budget flick The Mercy is due out in 2017 — starring Colin Firth, no less. Established writer and nautical publisher Edward Renehan just finished his 2016 book, Desperate Voyage, which opens the vault of this haunted character to fresh light.
Renehan very kindly gave us a bit of his time. Here’s a summary of our conversation, edited for length and layout, on the spook factor and lessons learned from the tortured soul of Donald Crowhurst.
A ghost that haunts the sailing waters to this day.
We’re having a bit fun this Halloween with scary sailing stories. Before we go into details on your book, what’s the spookiest tale surrounding Donald Crowhurst?
There are three. In Teignmouth, where Crowhurst boat was finished, there’s a legend that he can be seen walking along the shore in a yellow slicker in the fog. It rained for weeks before he left. And that was the jacket he wore. There’s also the creepy story of how the later owners of the Teignmouth Electron would hear steps on the deck of the boat at night, when nobody was out there.
The spookiest story was how one of his sons, Simon Crowhurst, about 12 years old at the time, repeatedly had a nightmare about his father. Donald would stand, white as a ghost, in Simon’s bedroom doorway. Staring at him. Every night. Over and over, throughout the race.
There are dozens of books and movies about Crowhurst. What inspired you to find something fresh in the character?
British libel law is liberal. It’s easy to get hauled into court. So a lot of material could not be included in the books currently published about the race. But you cannot libel the dead. So now several characters have passed and we can talk about how Crowhurst’s backers, Rodney Hallworth and Stanley Best, really, really pushed Crowhurst to go. Both had all sorts of financial leverage over Crowhurst that could have destroyed him.
At the time, both Best and Hallworth denied forcing Crowhurst to enter. But I look into how that’s not true. How his family was aware of the pressure. And the scathing criticism from yard workers and other colleges about the rushed construction.
In many ways, from a distance you could say Crowhurst was bipolar. But he is much more understandable when you realize the pressure he was under.
We boat designers liked how your book dug into the design and construction flaws in his boat. We wondered, if you could have magically sent Crowhurst one single thing through time to his ship during the race, what would it have been?
What he needed was good, simple, soft rubber seals — the flexible ones that can shift as a boat’s shape changes. Hard rubber seals were installed in the hatches doors and pumps. They could not bend or flex as the boat moved under load. It was virtually impossible to keep water out. Crowhurst could have just screwed those soft seals in. That would have helped many issues with the rushed construction.
A big black roll of soft seal. That is all he needed.
You would be surprised how many otherwise successful people are similarly overwhelmed by the choices in building a boat. We find a bit of Crowhurst in all of us. Are you sympathetic to him?
A lot of the same strategic planning that goes into launching a business goes into making a long voyage, or any voyage. Crowhurst was a rather dismal business man. I think he entered the race with complete honesty and goodwill that against all objective reality, he believed he could compete. The tragedy here is the whole plan disintegrated as his boat disintegrated below him. He was a good man who was not good at mastering his own fate.
He’s Shakespearean in that sense.
Finally, if we gave you a Vendee Globe round-the-world race team to manage, what would be the single lesson from Crowhurst you would stress to the team?
First of all, someone like Crowhurst wouldn’t even qualify for today’s Vendee Globe. You have to show real experience to go now. I also think Donald would have been amazed at the electronics in a modern sailing boat. In a lot ways, he imagined what a modern boat would be.
But after that, it seems so obvious to be foolish: He needed the right fundamental vessel beneath him. Crowhurst had no chance. His boat was falling apart almost immediately. Conception must be followed by execution. Execution was the problem here.
If his ideas were executed correctly, he would have had a much better chance. You need the right boat.
Desperate Voyage: Donald Crowhurst, The London Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, and the Tragedy of Teignmouth Electron is available at Amazon, New Street Communications, and many other fine bookstores.