A Sea of Lies
After 240 days at sea, Donald Crowhurst was sailing home in triumph – a novice who’d beaten the world’s best in the sport’s most gruelling race.But then his empty boat was found adrift in the Atlantic
Back in the late sixties, Donald Crowhurst, was the protagonist of the strangest, most disturbing story of its time, part adventure, part mystery, but mostly tragedy.
He was the yachtsman who fooled a credulous press and public into believing that, after a voyage of 240 days, he was sailing home to England in triumph, apparently the winner of the Sunday Times’s Golden Globe Race, the fastest nonstop single-handed round-the-world race.
Thousands prepared for his happy return.
Then Crowhurst vanished.
When his trimaran was found, ghosting through the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there were clues to its last voyage in three log books, but its lone captain was missing, and when the truth came out his fate was swamped by the larger story of his hoax.
In 1968 an amateur British sailor, Donald Crowhurst set off on the inaugural solo round-the-world yacht race. Incredibly, he appeared to be leading the race until the closing stages when he disappeared and was never seen again. On July 10, 1969, Crowhurst’s boat was found adrift in the Atlantic, ending a bizarre eight-month fake voyage around the world in a sailing race.
Donald Crowhurst, a 36-year-old businessman, went to sea in a leaky boat and died in the Atlantic 243 days later.
The former RAF pilot with a small, ailing electronics business called Electron Utilisation, Crowhurst was, at best, an enthusiastic weekend sailor. He was also married and a father of four children. So what convinced him he should go to sea for nine months is anyone’s guess. But not only was Crowhurst determined to enter the race, he was determined to win.
To understand Crowhurst’s peculiar obsession with competing in this gruelling race, one needs to know that in 1968, Britain was in the grip of sailing fever. The previous year, Sir Francis Chichester had achieved the then monumental feat of sailing around the world, on his own, punctuated only by a stop in Australia. In the era of the space race, when the possibilities of human endeavour seemed limitless, the world lapped up the heroism of Chichester’s achievement, and 250,000 people lined the south coast to cheer him home.
Crowhurst, inspired by his fascination with Chichester, immediately declared himself a competitor. “I think he felt a certain amount of jealousy—he wished it had been him, and he really thought he could do the next thing,” said Simon Crowhurst. His father had sailed the wildly varying tides and aggressive currents of the Bristol Channel, but he’d never attempted anything on the open ocean.
Like Chichester, Crowhurst had served in the Royal Air Force, though he was kicked out because of some bit of mischief. He joined the British Army, where another disciplinary incident got him booted. He studied electronics engineering, raced cars and, after marrying Clare, started a small company, Electron Utilisation, to manufacture the Navicator, a sailing navigation device he designed to work on radio signals. Crowhurst would get so absorbed tinkering in his workshop behind the house that his children would have to go out and wave from the doorway so he’d come in and eat dinner.
Simon adored his father. He didn’t understand the grown-up jokes, but he knew his dad was funny because he was always making people laugh. Crowhurst read to his children in goofy voices and drew futuristic aircraft and spaceships for them. He loved building things: circuit boards, model boats, elaborate landscapes where Simon’s plastic dinosaurs could live. Simon would grow up to pursue a career in geology, tracing his lifelong interest back to those model volcanoes. One of his lingering memories is leaping over muddy creeks with his father on their way to Pot of Gold, the 20-foot sloop Donald sailed near their home in Bridgwater in southern England.
The Sunday Times, which had reaped the rewards of sponsoring Chichester’s journey, was looking for a way to continue tapping into the appetite for maritime derring-do. The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race was born. Using the clipper route, from Britain, through the Atlantic and round the Cape of Good Hope; through the Indian and Pacific Oceans; round Cape Horn and back to Britain, the competition was billed as a test for the world’s greatest yachtsmen.
But, to encourage entrants, no evidence of sailing experience was required, and competitors were allowed to set off any time before 31 October. A trophy for the first man to complete the course, and a separate prize of £5,000 for the fastest time, would be awarded. Out of the nine men who set off in 1968, only one, Knox-Johnston, finished.
Crowhurst’s bid to win the Golden Globe always looked precarious. In the months before the race, the businessman had become convinced that by coupling a new, triple-hulled boat design with his own technological innovations (a self-righting mechanism in case of capsize, for instance), he could win. With the financial support of a local businessman, Stanley Best, Crowhurst bought and developed his vessel. But Best’s money came with a proviso: if Crowhurst failed to finish the race, he would have to pay for the boat himself.
Crowhurst was born in 1932 in Ghaziabad, British India. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked on the Indian railways. Crowhurst was raised as a girl until the age of 7, given his mother’s desire for a daughter rather than a son. A fiercely bright boy whose imagination had been fired by Kipling stories, his thirst for adventure was whetted by weekend river trips on a dhow.
After India gained its independence, his family moved back to England. The family’s retirement savings were invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which later burned down during rioting after the Partition of India.
Crowhurst’s father died in 1948. Due to family financial problems, he was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield.
At 23, however, when he fell for Clare, the family’s finances were more settled, and he was about to take up a place at Cambridge University.
They met at a party in their home town of Reading, and Clare recalls: ‘It was love at first sight. I thought he was a lot older than me, although the age gap was only two years, and he was incredibly interesting and charming.’
Crowhurst, in the vernacular of the day, had been ‘a bit of a lad’.
Drummed out of the RAF after being caught in a compromising position with a senior officer’s daughter, he was then ‘asked to leave’ the Army for crashing an uninsured car.
In Clare, however, whom he admired for her sharp wit, independent spirit and Irish good looks, he had found the woman he wanted to settle down with. In October 1957, just six months after their romance began, they were married.
Their first son, John was born in 1959, followed by Simon, in 1960. Then came Roger, and then Rachel.
In his spare time, Crowhurst was forever inventing new electronic gadgets, and he set up a small factory in Somerset. There, he developed a sleep-inducing machine, and a new navigational device, which he called the Navicator.
Though his business was ailing, Crowhurst took out a big mortgage on a huge, whitewashed house set in extensive grounds in Bridgwater, Somerset. It cost £7,000, then a considerable sum. He also bought a small sloop to swan around the coast in at weekends.
To those outside his elite dinner party circle, these accoutrements were evidence that Crowhurst was a social climber. In his wife’s eyes, however, her husband simply wanted the best for his family. To achieve this, he would somehow have to boost sales of his inventions.
He was active in his local community as a member of the Liberal Party and was elected to Bridgwater Borough Council.
Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, designed and built a radio direction finder called the Navicator, a handheld device that allowed the user to take bearings on marine and aviation radio beacons. While he did have some success selling his navigational equipment, his business began to fail. In an effort to gain publicity, he started trying to gain sponsors to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
Crowhurst saw his chance to attract publicity. What better way to showcase the wonders of the Navicator than by proving its worth on the first solo round-the-world race?
When he told his wife of his plans, she gave him her wholehearted support. ‘I suppose I never really believed that it would come to anything,’ she said, smiling wryly.
With the news that a dark horse had entered the running, Crowhurst’s madcap scheme snowballed. First Stanley Best, a wealthy retired businessman, offered £8,000 to fund the project. Then Rodney Hallworth, a slick reporter who had quit Fleet Street to set up the Devon News Agency and act as Teignmouth’s PR man, muscled in on the act.
Hallworth offered to broker lucrative news, film and publishing deals if Crowhurst named his boat after the resort. A deal was done, and soon the entire country was reading about the ‘plucky, old-fashioned English adventurer’ and his derring-do.
Once committed to the race, Crowhurst mortgaged both his business and home against Best’s continued financial support, placing himself in a grave financial situation.
Crowhurst would either return home in triumph, his meagre finances fattened by the prize money and his business saved by the publicity, or he would lose everything—even the home his children were living in.
He decided to race a trimaran, a new craft thought to move faster than single-hull yachts. But the speed had a cost: Trimarans were difficult to right if they capsized.
The boat Crowhurst built for the trip, Teignmouth Electron, was a 40-foot (12 m) trimaran designed by Californian Arthur Piver. At the time, this was an unproven type of sailing boat for a voyage of such length. Trimarans have the potential to sail much more quickly than monohulled sailboats, but early designs in particular could be very slow if overloaded, and had considerable difficulty sailing close to the wind. Trimarans are popular with many sailors for their stability; however, if capsized (for example by a rogue wave), they are virtually impossible to right, in contrast to monohulls, and without external assistance this would typically be a fatal disaster for the boat’s crew.
To improve the safety of the boat, Crowhurst had planned to add an inflatable buoyancy bag on the top of the mast to prevent capsizing; the bag would be activated by water sensors on the hull designed to detect an impending capsize. This innovation would hold the boat horizontal, and a clever arrangement of pumps would allow him to flood the uppermost outer hull, which would (in conjunction with wave action) pull the boat upright. His scheme was to prove these devices by sailing round the world with them, then go into business manufacturing the system.
However, Crowhurst had a very short time in which to build and equip his boat while securing financing and sponsors for the race. In the end, all of his safety devices were left uncompleted; he planned to complete them while underway. Also, many of his spares and supplies were left behind in the confusion of the final preparations. On top of it all, Crowhurst had never sailed on a trimaran before taking delivery of his boat several weeks before the beginning of the race.
On Sunday 13 October experienced sailor Lieutenant Commander Peter Eden volunteered to accompany Crowhurst on his last leg from Cowes to Teignmouth. Crowhurst had fallen into the water several times while in Cowes, and as he and Eden climbed aboard Teignmouth Electron, he once again ended up in the water after slipping on the outboard bracket on the stern of the rubber dinghy. Eden’s description of his two days with Crowhurst provides the most expert independent assessment available for both boat and sailor before the start of the race. He recalls that the trimaran sailed immensely swiftly, but could get no closer to the wind than 60 degrees. The speed often reached 12 knots, but the vibrations encountered caused the screws on the Hasler Self Steering gear to come loose. Eden said, “We had to keep leaning over the counter to do up the screws. It was a tricky and time consuming business. I told Crowhurst he should get the fixings welded if he wanted it to survive a longer trip!” Eden also commented that the Haslar worked superbly and the boat was “certainly nippy.”
Eden reported that Crowhurst’s sailing techniques were good, “But I felt his navigation was a mite slapdash. I prefer, even in the channel, to know exactly where I am. He didn’t take too much bother with it, merely jotting down figures on few sheets of paper from time to time.” After struggling against westerlies and having to tack out into the Channel twice they arrived at 2.30 pm on 15 October, where an enthusiastic BBC film crew started filming Eden in the belief he was Crowhurst. There were sixteen days to get ready before the race’s deadline on Halloween.
He wept in his wife’s arms the night before the race. ‘That last night together was frightful,’ recalls Clare Crowhurst, who lives with two of her children in the faded little South Devon holiday resort of Seaton. ‘We were both in a terrible state. I had never seen Donald crying before, except when his friend was killed in an air crash, but he was really weeping. I held him in my arms and comforted him. Neither of us slept at all.
‘To Donald, taking care of the family meant everything, and he was desperately worried because that day Stanley Best [the sharp local businessmen acting as his sponsor] had him sign a last-minute agreement stating that the house would be mortgaged if the boat was lost, or he gave up the race.’
With hindsight, Mrs Crowhurst realises that this was her last opportunity to implore her husband to pull out. Indeed, unable to take the decision himself, she guesses he may have wanted her to make up his mind for him.
Instead, she bravely reassured him that they were young and healthy enough to recover from any financial setback.
‘I still feel so incredibly guilty about it,’ she says. ‘I think if I had just said “This is barmy! Stop it!” he would have listened. But I was scared that in five years’ time, he’d have regretted not going, and I would have stopped him fulfilling his dream.’
But, fearing financial ruin, he refused to back out. The following day, with much of his safety equipment scattered in the boat or mistakenly left on shore, the “visibly unnerved” Crowhurst set out on a journey he feared he couldn’t complete.
When it was devised in 1968, the Golden Globe race was the ultimate test of daring. The trophy would go to the first man to circumnavigate the earth non-stop using the old tea-clipper route between Britain and Australia. It runs south through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, east across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, round Cape Horn, and northwards back home — a distance of some 27,000 miles.
Since the start would be staggered, with competitors setting off many weeks apart, there would be a separate £5,000 prize for the fastest time. The final departure date was October 31.
Given the sophisticated equipment available to today’s sailors, circling the world has become relatively safe and speedy. Setting her new solo world record last year, Ellen MacArthur zoomed around in little more than 71 days.
Forty years ago the task was infinitely slower and more risky. Navigational methods were little advanced from the days of Captain Cook, relying on sextants and the position of stars.
The only communication was by crackling, time-delayed radio messages and Morse code. So competitors would be cut off from the rest of the world, in the most frightening, alien environment for up to ten months.
By the time Crowhurst set off—on the last possible date of entry—eight competitors had left up to five months ahead of him. Among them were a Frenchman, Bernard Moitessier, who viewed the voyage as a spiritual quest; a naval officer named Nigel Tetley, also sailing a trimaran; and Robin Knox-Johnston, a young merchant navy officer sailing a tiny wooden scrap of a boat. The race route wound south through the Atlantic, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, south of Australia. It then crossed the Pacific and looped past South America’s Cape Horn before hitting the home stretch north through the Atlantic. Crowhurst had calculated that he could complete the race in as few as 130 days, faster than any of the others, and even make up enough time to return home first.
On the morning of October 31, however, as he clambered aboard the Teignmouth Electron, he was visibly unnerved. His despair was deepened by an embarrassing false start: his sails jammed, and he had to be towed back to shore.
By now, Crowhurst’s impending doom should have been patently obvious to everyone. And yet, nobody stopped him. Not the money-grubbing Hallworth; not Stanley Best; and to her lasting despair, not his wife Clare, who saw him off stoically, in her green patterned headscarf and mac.
Harsh reality destroyed those expectations immediately, Crowhurst realised he would never complete the voyage. His boat was a heap of leaky lumber, the slowest in the race. “Racked by the growing awareness that I must soon decide whether or not I can go on,” he wrote in his logbook early on. “What a bloody awful decision–to chuck it in at this stage!” But in his calls and telegrams, Crowhurst never admitted how bad things were.
The race was a constant source of excitement and confusion for his children. Reporters showed up periodically, and the voyage was frequently the subject of chatter at school. Simon and his siblings told friends their father would be home when the daffodils returned in the spring, because that’s what Clare told them, and Simon talked about how his father would avoid the sharks that were sure to be out there, but whales didn’t usually smash into boats. At home, a world map was hung on the playroom wall, and each time the competitors radioed in their coordinates, Clare plotted their location on the map with pins. The other sailors were oceans ahead of her husband.
Crowhurst began sending his PR agent, Hallworth, vague, chirpy cables, never specifying where he was, just where he was headed. He had apparently found a way to save face: He simply began inventing the voyage he wished for. Hallworth was oblivious, spinning those fuzzy updates with even more optimism for the press. Then Crowhurst sent a telegram claiming he’d covered 243 miles in one day—a solo sailing record. Overnight, he was transformed from faltering footnote to the lead news item. Crowhurst also started maintaining two sets of navigational coordinates: one accurate and the other a meticulously constructed fake journey. In January, he meandered around Rio de Janeiro while claiming to be close to rounding the Cape of Good Hope. It would soon become obvious his radio signals were off, so he cabled Hallworth saying he was having problems with his generator flooding and would send messages when possible. Then he disappeared into the wind for nearly three months.
Crowhurst’s family had adjusted to not hearing from him for long periods, but as the weeks stretched on, dread crept in. The map on the playroom wall grew more haunting by the day, the pin representing Crowhurst frozen implacably in place. “We hadn’t realized quite how serious the situation was because everyone had just gone quiet,” Simon recalls. “We were asking from time to time, and when you realized nothing had been heard, there’s a tacit assumption that you don’t talk about it anymore.” As Simon remembers it, the map was one day quietly removed from the wall; Clare still insists it stayed where it was.
By early April, the three other competitors remaining—the rest had been forced out by illness, accidents or boat problems—were in the home stretch. (When Moitessier, the eccentric Frenchman, passed Cape Horn, he couldn’t bring himself to return to civilization, so he sailed off around the globe again.) Knox-Johnston was in the lead, with Tetley hot on his heels. Finally, Crowhurst resurfaced. He sent Hallworth a telegram suggesting he was about to round Cape Horn—a major milestone, had it been true—and asking cheekily for a race update. “WHATS NEW OCEANBASHINGWISE,” Crowhurst inquired.
The full depth of Clare’s fear for her husband only became obvious to her children when it gave way to euphoric relief with the news of his telegram. They had a party in the garden, celebrating with ice cream, cookies and jellies. Simon knows it might not be an accurate recollection, but in his childhood memory, the sun was shining. “It was as if he’d come back from the dead and was just moving inexorably back home,” he recalls.
On board the Teignmouth Electron, even as Crowhurst turned north from the coast of Brazil and headed for home in earnest, things were not so bright. Throughout the journey, he had made audio recordings and composed bawdy limericks and romantic descriptions of life at sea, all of them showing off a charming and cheeky public persona. But now, Crowhurst’s writing revealed loneliness, depression and a retreat from reality. He scrawled mathematical formulas purported to represent universal life truths, along with rambling meditations on his childhood, his understanding of God and human dishonesty. He fixated on Einstein’s theory of relativity and argued furiously with the dead physicist in his notes. The loneliness appeared to be consuming Crowhurst, as did the strain of maintaining his deception.
Hallworth sent a cable urging his client on: “YOURE ONLY TWO WEEKS BEHIND TETLEY / PHOTO FINISH WILL MAKE GREAT NEWS.” On April 22, Knox-Johnston arrived home to great fanfare and claimed the Golden Globe trophy. But since his trip had been leisurely, England’s breathless attention shifted to Crowhurst and Tetley (who had departed six weeks earlier than Crowhurst) to see who would complete the fastest journey. In early May, Hallworth sent another galvanizing cable: “TEIGNMOUTH AGOG AT YOUR WONDERS / WHOLE TOWN PLANNING HUGE WELCOME.” In response, Crowhurst sent a telegram warning it was impossible for him to beat Tetley.
When he heard about Crowhurst materializing out of nowhere, Tetley pushed his badly damaged boat to the limit. Off Portugal, he battled too hard through a storm, and one of his three floats snapped off and slammed into the centre hull. Tetley scrambled into a life raft, then watched his boat sink beneath the waves—a near tragedy Crowhurst learned about in a cable from Clare. Now he was the only remaining sailor in the race.
A few weeks later, the power supply partially failed on Crowhurst’s radio transmitter, making it impossible for him to send messages. He spent his time obsessively trying to repair the device, desperate to speak to Clare. On June 22, Crowhurst got the transmitter functioning well enough that he could send Morse code messages, but he was still unable to make direct calls. He let his boat drift aimlessly through the mysterious Sargasso Sea, historically rumoured to swallow up ships in the thick carpet of seaweed on its surface. He began writing a rambling, 25,000-word meditation on free will, physics, perception, the nature of God and the possibility of freeing the soul from the body.
Another cable arrived from Hallworth, crowing that 100,000 people would welcome him back to Teignmouth. With just weeks until her husband’s expected return, Clare told a newspaper about the giddiness that had overtaken her family. “Now most of the bad things are lost in the tremendous anticipation of seeing him again,” she said. “It’s almost like the atmosphere you get when you have a child. We just can’t wipe the smiles off our faces.” A radio operator relayed a message to Crowhurst that his family was excited to meet him near the Scilly Isles before he reached the crowds. Crowhurst sent back word that they should not come, insisting the operator confirm receipt. Clare was hurt, but decided he must have wanted to spare them all seasickness.
Crowhurst’s writing grew more anguished and abstract. Finally, on the morning of July 1, he offered a long, elliptical confession of what he’d done, then concluded with:
“It is finished
It is finished
IT IS THE MERCY.”
Nine days later, a Royal Mail ship discovered the Teignmouth Electron adrift in the Atlantic. The logbooks and notes that contained all the evidence of Crowhurst’s forgery, along with the fraying of his mind, were sitting in the cabin. Crowhurst was gone.
Crowhurst’s behaviour as recorded in his logs indicates a complex and conflicted psychological state. His commitment to fabricating the voyage reports seems incomplete and self-defeating, as he reported unrealistically fast progress that was sure to arouse suspicion. By contrast, he spent many hours meticulously constructing false log entries, often more difficult to complete than real entries due to the celestial navigation research required.
The last several weeks of his log entries, once he was facing the real possibility of winning the prize, showed increasing irrationality. In the end, his writings during the voyage – poems, quotations, real and false log entries, and random thoughts – amounted to more than 25,000 words. The log books include an attempt to construct a philosophical reinterpretation of the human condition that would provide an escape from his impossible situation. It appeared the final straw was the impossibility of a noble way out after Tetley sank, meaning he would win the prize and hence his logs would be subject to scrutiny.
His last log entry was on 1 July 1969; it is assumed that he then jumped overboard and drowned. The state of the boat gave no indication that it had been overrun by a rogue wave or that any accident had occurred which might have caused Crowhurst to fall overboard. He may have taken with him a single deceptive log book and the ship’s clock. Three log books – two navigational logs and a radio log – and a large mass of other papers were left on his boat; these communicated his philosophical ideas and revealed his actual navigational course during the voyage. Although his biographers, Tomalin and Hall, discounted the possibility that some sort of food poisoning contributed to his mental deterioration, they acknowledged that there is insufficient evidence to rule it, or several other hypotheses, out.
As Simon remembers it, two stone-faced nuns appeared in the family’s driveway that evening and asked to speak to Clare. Later, Clare took the children upstairs to Roger’s room, sat them down on the bed and told them their father’s boat had been found, but he wasn’t on it. Then she began to cry. Confused and desperate to comfort their mother, the children reassured Clare that surely their father would be found. “One moment you’re expecting him to come back, and the next the boat’s found and he’s not on it,” Simon recalls. “It just knocked everyone flat.”
The Sunday Times started a relief fund for the family, and Knox-Johnston donated his £5,000 prize. Simon and his family still believed so strongly in Crowhurst’s resourcefulness that they held out hope he might have climbed aboard a lifeboat or some other craft. They didn’t yet know what his notes revealed about his journey and state of mind. The captain of the mail ship had turned the logbooks over to Hallworth, who in turn passed them on to the Sunday Times. The paper had won the auction for exclusive rights to what was still thought to be Crowhurst’s heroic around-the-world story. Once they understood the reality of Crowhurst’s voyage, the Times editors decided they had to run with the story, but first, they showed it to Clare.
The sad, bizarre tale took over the front pages of all the English papers. But it would be years before Simon understood what the logbooks revealed and how the rest of the world saw this would-be hero he knew so intimately. “I did feel always as if I’d just stepped off a ship and [was] trying to find [my] land legs again,” Simon says. “The very things you took for granted were not quite solid, and you needed to reappraise things.”
His body was never found, but for three years afterwards, Clare Crowhurst refused to believe he was dead. Her hopes were cruelly fuelled by hoaxers. One swore to have spotted Crowhurst in Scotland. Another forged a message he had supposedly floated in a bottle.
Almost certainly, he took his life, the theory propounded by Hallworth, who made a small fortune by selling the salvaged books. His widow, however, prefers to believe he accidentally fell overboard in his state of confusion. ‘He didn’t believe in suicide,’ she says.
All Simon will say is that when someone who is mentally ill dies, he thinks it’s really the illness that’s killed them.
Clare knows her husband will forever be cast as a foolish and ultimately dishonourable man – but she will defend his reputation for as long as she draws breath.
‘The man who went to sea would never have thought of cheating,’ she says. ‘But who knows what somebody goes through when they can’t reach out and touch someone, and receive human warmth?
‘Whatever happened to my husband out there at sea, I believe that Donald really made an effort to do something extraordinary. To me he will always be a hero.’