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.
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.
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.
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.
More from Blown Periphery – here.