The Tragedy of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron – The Golden Globe Race of 1968

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Being brought up in the 1960s my life as a child was uncomplicated.  I had few worries then, but as I’ve got  older the few that there were, have rather crowded into my conscious memory and now my biggest worry is; why  wasn’t I worried?  Is there something wrong with me?

Cuba, Russia, America.  Thermonuclear war.  Endless Labour Governments.  IMF, National bankruptcy.  Vietnam,  ceaseless newsreel footage of helicopters, wide-eyed, bewildered young men, wearing helmets that were too big.   Burning B52s tumbling, lazily out of a solid overcast above Haiphong.  Naked children running out of a napalm  cloud.  Retarded bombs falling slowly away from under F 101 Voodoos, framed by the jungle racing past below.   The Six Day war, burning Russian aircraft on Cairo West’s dispersals, nicely packed close and lined up. Bad  music then. Good music now.  The Swinging Sixties rather passed me by.  My sixties consisted of damp Duffel  coats, flannel shorts, warm milk, Clarke Shoes and grey, woollen socks in the coldest winter of 1963.  Of  woollen mittens dangling from the sleeves of my duffel coat, that mum had thoughtfully stitched onto a ribbon,  so I wouldn’t lose them.   But the 60s were I believe, the best decade for children to grow up in.  Supercar.   The Mercury Space Programme.  Fireball XL5.  The Gemini Space Programme.  The TSR2.  Sooty and Sweep, sorry,  just joking.  The Apollo Space Programme.  Stingray.  First manned flight round the moon.  Thunderbirds.   First men on the moon.  Captain Scarlet.

One of my enduring memories of the 1960s was the obsession that Britain had with round the world, single- handed yacht racing.  This insanity for yacht racing was certainly pioneered many years before the 1960s, but  there were no cameras then and no Blue Peter Presenters in Arran sweaters, with endearing sheepdogs.   “Blondie” Hasler and Francis Chichester conceived the idea of a single-handed race across the Atlantic Ocean  in 1960, on a half-crown bet. Chichester won the race in 40 days.  Hasler came second in 48 days.

In 1966, Chichester went on to mount a circumnavigation of the world in a custom-made yacht, Gipsy Moth IV. He  followed the clipper route from Plymouth to Sydney, Australia where he stopped over for 48 days, then he  returned to Plymouth in 274 days overall.  Chichester was 65 when he arrived back in Plymouth.  He entered  Plymouth Sound in a tiny cockleshell that had been given an obvious and severe kicking by the Southern Ocean.   This showed that tiny boats, which were within the expenses and means of the determined, could sail round the  planet.  Chichester had set the precedent and the Sunday Times, sensing a good revenue stream, sponsored the  Golden Globe Round the World Yacht Race for 1968.

Robin Knox-Johnston, a 28-year-old merchant marine officer realised that as far as staying on the planet went,  the first solo, round-the-world circumnavigation was “about all that’s left to do now.”  He was determined  that the first person to successfully complete this feat would be British and he would be the first to do it.     Several other sailors were interested. Bill King, a former Royal Navy submarine commander, built a 42 foot  junk-rigged schooner, Galway Blazer II, designed for heavy conditions.  He was able to secure sponsorship from  the Express newspapers.  John Ridgway and Chay Blyth, a British Army captain and sergeant, had rowed a 20 foot  boat across the Atlantic Ocean in 1966.  They independently decided to attempt the non-stop sail, but despite  their rowing achievement they were hampered by a lack of sailing experience.  They both made arrangements to  get boats, but ended up with entirely unsuitable vessels, 30 foot boats designed for cruising protected waters  and too lightly built for Southern Ocean conditions.  One of the most serious sailors considering a non-stop  circumnavigation in late 1967 was the French sailor and author Bernard Moitessier.  Moitessier had a custom- built 39 foot steel ketch.

By 1968 news of the competition was spreading, but the Sunday Times wanted to sponsor the sailor most likely  to succeed.  The paper hit upon the idea of a sponsored race, which would cover all the sailors setting off  that year. To circumvent the possibility of a non-entrant completing his voyage first and scooping the story,  they made entry automatic: anyone sailing single-handed around the world that year would be considered to be  in the race.

The race was announced on 17 March 1968, by which time King, Ridgway, Howell (who later dropped out), Knox- Johnston, Nigel Tetley and Moitessier were competitors.  Chichester, despite expressing strong misgivings  about the preparedness of some of the interested parties, agreed to chair the panel of judges.  Four days  later, British electronics engineer Donald Crowhurst announced his intention to take part.  Crowhurst was the  manufacturer of a modestly successful radio navigation aid for sailors, who impressed many people with his  apparent knowledge of sailing.  With his electronics business failing, he saw a successful adventure, and the  attendant publicity, as the solution to his financial problems.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The amateur sailor had designed and built a radio detection finder that could take bearings off marine radio  beacons.  He never sold enough and his business started to fail.  He hoped that by entering the Golden Globe  race he would gain valuable publicity for his failing enterprise.  He had mortgaged both the business and home  to compete and he was in a dire financial situation.  His boat the Teignmouth Electron was a 40-foot trimaran  designed by a Californian, Arthur Piver.  Potentially the boat could have been fast, but the type was unproved  and although very stable, trimarans then, could not sail close to the wind and if capsized, would be  impossible to right.  Crowhurst added an inflatable buoyancy bag on top of the mast and in the event of a  capsize, it would hold the boat horizontal while pumps flooded the uppermost hull, pulling the boat upright.   On successful completion of the race, he hoped to manufacture the system.

Crowhurst was juggling priorities, trying to finish his boat whilst trying to secure financial sponsors for  the race.  This was uncompleted and he hoped that all the safety devices would be completed whilst underway.   He left important spares and provisions behind and admitted that he had never sailed a trimaran before.   Lieutenant-Commander Peter Eden who was an experienced sailor, volunteered to accompany Crowhurst on the last  leg from Cowes to Teignmouth.  Eden’s two days with Crowhurst provides an expert and impartial assessment of  the boat and her sailor.  He noted that the trimaran moved swiftly at 12 knots, but the boat could not get  closer than 60 degrees windward.  He also assessed that Crowhurst’s sailing techniques were good but felt that  his navigation was somewhat slapdash.

The Teignmouth Electron sailed from Teignmouth on the last permitted day to start the race, 31st October 1968. Immediately Crowhurst hit problems. He lacked open ocean sailing experience and he was making less than half his planned speed. The tri-hulled boat was a difficult handful to sail and he could never finish the safety  features before he entered the dangerous Southern Ocean.  If he quit the race he would face financial ruin and  humiliation.  If he continued he would face almost certain death in an unseaworthy boat.  In a hopeless  situation he shut down his radio and planned to loiter in the South Atlantic for the months that the other  boats transited the Southern Ocean.  He would falsify his navigation logs and slip back in as the last-place  finisher, assuming that his logs would not receive the same scrutiny as the race winner.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Crowhurst’s radio reports were deliberately ambiguous in reporting his position.  He stopped once in South  America to make repairs to his boat, in violation of the race rules.  Disastrously, by December he was being  cheered on as the likely race winner, although Francis Chichester was publically casting doubt on the reports  and the plausibility of his progress.

In February 1969, Moitessier decided to Drop out of the race and sail towards Tahiti and after all who can  blame him; he was French.  On 22nd April, Knox-Johnson finished the race.  This left Crowhurst supposedly in  the running to beat Tetley.  Tetley passed within 150 nautical miles of the Teignmouth Electron’s hiding  place.  Tetley was pushing his failing boat the Victress in a desperate attempt to beat Crowhurst.  He had to  abandon his boat on 30th May when his mast and stanchion failed and the boat sank from under him.  Crowhurst  was now certain to win the “elapsed time” race.  As he was supposed to have made the fastest circumnavigation,  Crowhurst’s logs would have been intensely scrutinised.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

No one will ever know what went on in Donald Crowhurst’s mind, when he realised that his elaborate deception had been blown wide open.  He recorded that he knew that his deception would be discovered, yet he spent hours intricately falsifying his logs. His random musings, observations and poems amounted to more than 25,000 words.

The Teignmouth Electron was found adrift and abandoned on 10 July 1969 by the RMV Picardy, at latitude 33 degrees 11 minutes North and longitude 40 degrees 26 minutes West.  News of Crowhurst’s disappearance led to  an air and sea search in the vicinity of the boat and its last estimated course.  Examination of his recovered  logbooks and papers revealed the attempt at deception, his mental breakdown and possible suicide.  Prior to  the deception being revealed, Robin Knox-Johnston donated his £5,000 winnings for fastest circumnavigation to  Donald Crowhurst’s widow and children.  Nigel Tetley was awarded a consolation prize and built a new trimaran.

Tetley went missing on 2 February 1972.  His body was found three days later, hanging from a tree in woods  near Dover.   Three weeks later, at the coroner’s inquest, it was revealed that the body had been discovered  clothed in lingerie and the hands were bound behind the back.  The opinion offered by a pathologist suggested  masochistic sexual activity.  The coroner, noting there was no evidence that Tetley had deliberately taken his  life, recorded an open verdict.

The Teignmouth Electron was taken to Florida and ended up as a diving support boat.  She was badly damaged by  Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and she sits rotting to this day in Cayman Brac.  In lonely moments I think about  Donald Crowhurst and what may have gone on in his tortured mind, alone on his boat.  Today he would have been  lionised by Sky News and the BBC.  They would run a feature on how loneliness in the new scourge of the  elderly yachtsperson, lots of book deals and maybe a fitness DVD.  “Pilates for aging lone round-the-world  sailors.”

But he was too much a man of his time for that.  Whatever he was or wasn’t, whether  a cheat or a victim, I  feel a wave of despair as I think of him finishing his last cigarette, looking at the sunset and stepping off  the transom into the ocean.  Rest in peace, Donald Crowhurst wherever you are.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal


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