2007 – Film “Deep Water” Reveals Tragedy of Donald Crowhurst

Documentary of  Crowhurst’s “Voyage to Oblivion” – copyright Peter J. Marsh

Boating has certainly changed since the 1960s; this was brought home to me when I watched “Deep Water,” an award-winning documentary that arrived in the northwest at the end of summer. Its subject was the 1968-69 Golden Globe race in which a motley crew of nine solo sailors competed for the title of “first single-hander non-stop around the world,” and more specifically Donald Crowhurst, the most infamous yachtsman the sport has ever produced.

This first-ever sailing race around the world was sponsored by the Sunday Times newspaper of London, which offered the considerable sum of £5,000 for the first sailor to return to England without stopping and another £5,000 to anyone who beat his time. However, it was endurance, not speed, which would be the key to winning either prize. Only three of the entrants had experience of long-distance sailing, and only two had boats that were suited to the task. Ridgeway and Blyth had gained fame by rowing the Atlantic, and set off optimistically in 30′ coastal cruisers offered to them by the builders. Neither man understood that his craft was better suited for a trip across the bay than rounding Cape Horn!

Italian Alex Carozzo dropped out in a few days after exhausting himself finishing his 66 footer, and Ridgeway, Blyth and Fougeron had to stop and make repairs in the south Atlantic. which meant automatic disqualification. Next to go was Bill King, a World War II submarine captain and the oldest entrant at 58. His 42′ Galway Blazer had been designed by Angus Primrose, (who had been involved with the design of Gypsy Moth IV) specifically for this course. It was a lightweight fin keeler with a turtle-back deck and two Chinese lugsails that was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was rolled over in the South Atlantic and came back up with one mast broken.

Wanted: Sailors with the Right Stuff

That left four men standing: three English and one French. Leading the pack was merchant navy officer Robin Knox-Johnston who had left in June in the 33′ teak ketch Suhaili. Steadily closing the gap was ocean-cruising veteran Bernard Moitessier in his bullet-proof steel 40 footer Joshua, third was naval officer Nigel Tetley in a standard 40′ plywood Piver trimaran. And fourth was Donald Crowhurst, the central subject of Deep Water, in a custom 40′ Piver rimaran. He was a novice sailor who is still remembered for the elaborate hoax he attempted to pull off, which ended in his sensational disappearance at sea.

The first three men certainly had what Tom Wolfe famously called “The Right Stuff”–that fearless ability to overcome any obstacle and push on regardless. They all technically completed a non-stop circumnavigation; all were profoundly changed by the experience. Despite the doubts voiced about Crowhurst’s bizarre radio reports, The Times included him in its weekly progress report  based on occasional radio messages, ship sightings and a fair bit of speculation.

I remember well the excitement that all this generated in England, and now look back on it as the original reality event: a seagoing “Survivor” competition that really was a matter of life and death. By mid-April 1969, with the race 10 months old, these four men were finally all on the same ocean, the Atlantic, and heading back north. It was clear that Bernard Moitessier, the most experienced sailor with the fastest boat, stood an excellent chance of being fastest and possibly even first home.

But while France was preparing to receive him as a hero, this Darwinian event took an unpredictable turn: Bernard showed up off Capetown, South Africa on March 18. He passed a message to a ship via slingshot ((he had refused a free radio transmitter from The Times) and sailed back out to sea! His message read: “Je continue sans escale vers les îles du Pacifique, parce que je suis heureux en mer, et peut-etre aussi pour sauver mon vie (I am continuing non-stop to the Pacific isles because I am happy at sea, and perhaps to save my soul.)

In his log, he wrote: “I have no desire to return to Europe with all its false Gods – make money, make money – to do what?…..I am going where you can tie up a boat where you want and the sun is free, and so is the air you breathe.” This was not a great surprise to his wife and his sailing friends, for Moitessier had always been something of a seafaring mystic, but it still resonates today as a stunning repudiation of the “win at all costs” ethic.

He eventually passed south of Australia and New Zealand a second time, swung north and reached Tahiti after eleven months at sea. He had covered 37,455 miles at an average speed of almost 4.8 knots. (Compared to Knox-Johnston’s average of 4 knots and Chichester’s in 1966-67 of 5.5 knots.)

British Triumph and Tribulation

From the British point of view, the threat of a French victory spoiling their event had been averted. (Moitessier obviously did not have enough of the right stuff and had shown the weakness in the Gallic character.) Like that other all-British “first,” the four-minute mile, there were only three men on the track, all stout fellows who would not fail the nation. Knox-Johnston should be the first man home, barring accidents, with Tetley and Crowhurst dueling for the fastest time prize. Or so everyone thought.

Actually, the outcome of the race was not that certain. Knox-Johnston had anchored for one night off the New Zealand shore on Day 194–probably a record slow voyage. He had to refuse help when he ran aground and take nothing from the people who came out to visit him, to comply with the race rules. Back at sea, his self-steering and radio broke down and he was officially listed as missing until he was sighted near the Azores after nearly 300 days at sea. Finally, after a marathon 313 days, Britain celebrated the return of another valiant singlehander.

With a lead of two months over Knox-Johnston’s time, all Tetley had to do was finish to claim the prize for fastest time…until Crowhurst resumed broadcasting after 11 weeks of radio silence. Now that there were several boats safely ahead of him, he had stepped back onto the course. In his official logbook, he now began detailing his actual position instead of his imaginary one. But his agent and the media wanted more: a “duel” to decide who would be the fastest around the world. (Only the irascible Chichester continued to voice his doubts.)

As he neared the Azores, Tetley felt the stress of having a real race on his hands and picked up the pace. But he also had leaking hatches that put a stress on the floats. it was more than his older boat could stand. The deck began to crack, then one of the bows broke off and his voyage was over. He radioed for help and abandoned ship after 245 days only 1,000 miles from the finish. He was picked up by a passing ship and cast as the gallant loser in this drama.

But his misfortune was equally disastrous for Crowhurst, who was now alone in the spotlight. He was told that a grand welcome was planned, the nation was waiting………his radio fell silent for the last time on June 30, and nothing more was ever heard from him. The discovery on July 10 of his boat drifting in the mid-Atlantic made the front page of every English paper.

Stranger than Fiction

When his log books were auctioned off by his mercenary agent, the awful truth was revealed: he didn’t dare go into the Southern Ocean but he couldn’t afford to quit, so he had wandered around in the south Atlantic for months while pretending to go around the world! His log revealed his awful predicament after the removal of Moitessier and Tetley from the race: instead of being a plucky finisher in fourth place, he had found himself in the unexpected role of new record holder and national hero.

Now, he would have to face the press and give a full account of his voyage. It was too much for his deteriorating mental state. The evidence was thoroughly documented in the bestseller The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, published 1970. Since then, the story has been condensed and re-told many times by lazy journalists who merely re-told  this unfortunate series of events.

So there was no guarantee that ABT Films would shed any new light on this tragic saga–until they made the amazing discovery in a BBC Plymouth archive of a box full of reels of film of Crowhurst’s last week on shore. It was shot in Teignmouth, the seaside resort that was sponsoring him.

This footage shows the confusion verging on chaos on his boat–or at least  seems to with the power of hindsight! As he departs hours before the October 31 deadline with the townspeople cheering from the quay, Crowhurst tries to look confident, and his docile typically-British wife Clare attempts to put on a cheerful face, and his children reluctantly climb down into the tender.

Minutes later, he finds his halyards are tangled, his headsails have been hanked on the wrong stays, and his masthead anti-capsize device flops out of its housing. He is towed back to the dock, re-rigs and sets off into the unknown. A few minutes of this material was broadcast at the time, but none of it had been seen since.

When the directors, Louise Osmond and Jerry Routhwell, approached the Crowhurst family and asked if they would take part in the film, his 73-year old widow and one of his sons finally agreed to break their long silence. “The interviews were long and intense, it was a painful and emotionally-draining process for them,” said Osmond. “They recognize the mistakes he made but they help to bring him back to life.”

Needless to say, the effect is riveting. In addition, Deep Water also includes film and audio tapes that Crowhurst recorded during his voyage, excerpts from the colorful movie shot by Moitessier and interviews with his wife Francoise, comments by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the BBC interviewer, and Crowhurst’s best friend. Thankfully, there are no latter-day experts giving their expert opinion: every one who appears had first-hand experience of the man or the race.

A Voyage For Madmen

The Sunday Times publicly announced the race on March 17, 1968 and assembled a panel of judges with Sir Francis Chichester as chairman. The other members were: Michel Richey, executive secretary of the Institute of Navigation; Alain Gliksman, editor of Neptune Nautisme and a respected French yachtsman; Denis Hamilton, chief executive of the Times; and Colonel Blondie Hasler.

To encourage as many entries as possible, The Times decided they could start from any port on the Channel in any kind of boat and there would be “no questions asked.” The only restriction was the final departure date, which was October 31 to ensure the fleet was round Cape Horn before winter set in. Within a matter of days, the first official entry arrived–from Donald Crowhurst.

While the OSTAR had a rigorous process of qualification and inspection, the Golden Globe was a race in name only. It had no affiliation to any yachting organization, since none wished to be involved with an event they viewed as a publicity stunt that would surely end in disaster. The “judges” had no power to turn down an entry. A few old salts did ask the obvious question: what was the point of going non-stop? The only answer was to quote the mountaineer George Mallory, who famously replied “Because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. (He died in the attempt.)

But if the idea was short on logic, it was long on adventure, and the entire British media ran with the idea that this would be Another British Triumph. It was a gold mine for journalists. Thirty-five years later, when Peter Nichols wrote his book about the race,” A Voyage For Madmen,” he too couldn’t resist more hyperbole!

“These were not yachtsmen or sportsmen. They were hard-case egomaniacs driven by complex desires and vainglory to attempt the extreme, life-threatening endeavour. Each had powerfully visualised what must be done and was consumed by the need to do it first.” Donald Crowhurst certainly didn’t look like one of Nichols’ maniacs. He was neither lean nor tanned, didn’t sport a beard and didn’t even have a boat when he sent his entry to the Times.

Nine sailors signed up, six of them British, and the press eagerly listed their resumees and rated their chances. Then there were the unknown continental sailors, two Frenchmen and an Italian. Could one of them steal the prize? (Bernard Moitessier was the top foreign challenger, and he was indeed a formidable opponent.) Crowhurst himself was a product of the Empire, raised in India, where his father had worked on the railways. A bright boy whose imagination had been fired by Kipling stories, his thirst for adventure was whetted by weekend river trips on a dhow.

When he was 14, his father died, and after their return to England, he supported his mother by working in a London electronics factory. He was conscripted into the RAF and selected for training as a radio officer, but was discharged when his excessive partying came to his superiors’ attention too many times. A brief stop in the army, and again he was let go. This habit of the bright young man unable to work in an organization followed him into civilian life. But he quickly settled down when he met his future wife Clare.

They had four children between 1959 and 1965. 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 radio direction-finder (RDF), which he called the Navicator. Though his business wasn’t doing well, he took out a big mortgage on a huge, whitewashed house set in extensive grounds in Bridgewater, Somerset. It cost £20,000, then a very large sum. He also bought a small trailerable boat and began learning to sail on the weekends.

The World’s First “High-Tech” Sailor

He was living above his means and looking for a way to publicize the Navicator when the Golden Globe race was announced. He could have supplied one to each competitor, and hoped for some endorsements, but that wouldn’t have nearly the impact of his own entry in the race in a boat loaded with electronic gadgets. (Forty years later, and the dream of “push-button sailing” has come a little closer, but it’s still not ready for Cape Horn!) Nonetheless, when he told his wife of his plans, she gave him her wholehearted support, never really believing that it would come to anything.

At first, he tried to charter the Gypsy Moth IV, then fated to be set in concrete at Greenwich alongside the clipper ship Cutty Sark. He lobbied Chichester, the yacht’s owner Lord Dulverton, and the Cutty Sark trustees, but they were not impressed. Chichester openly questioned his ability, which doubtless only increased his determination.

His scheme would have remained a pipe dream, if two supporting characters had not shown up to make it a reality, like one of Shakespeare’s tragic plots. 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 PR man for the resort town of Teignmouth, worked his way into the script. if Crowhurst would name his boat after the town, Hallworth said he could arrange interviews with media, and eventually a book deal.

Crowhurst was now surrounded by advisors who agreed with everything he said;  his bizarre dream was becoming a reality. None of the other eight entrants had much interest in pre-race publicity, and they were prepared to finance most of the cost of the adventure themselves, so they were more interested in testing their boats and making preparations than giving interviews.

Crowhurst didn’t even have a boat, but he had a slick agent! So his face was soon appearing in the newspapers, which cast him as the dark horse of the race, a self-taught easygoing sailor whose boat would reflect his genius for labor-saving inventions. Now he decided that instead of wanting the Gypsy Moth, he would become a multihull fan–without ever setting foot on one!

This made good copy, and the fact that he had almost no sailing experience wasn’t allowed to spoil the story. To match his new persona as a self-taught thoroughly-modern seafarer, his agent decided his boat would need a really modern name–Teignmouth Electron.

These were the glory days of the simple v-bottom trimaran, based on standard plans by Arthur Piver of Mill Valley, California. Cox Marine in Norfolk was cranking out plywood hulls as fast as they could. But they only delivered the bare hulls for Crowhurst’s boat on July 28–three months before the race deadline. The boatyard that had agreed to assemble the boat began a race against the clock. They hired a crew to work nights to add all the modifications that Crowhurst had specified, four cross-arms instead of two, chainplates that wrapped around the entire float, and provision for his inventions like the capsize -prevention system, electronic self-steering and sheet release that were never functional.

Any one with any sense could have seen the most obvious flaw in this plan: they were a year late! The boat should have been sailing in the spring to allow plenty of time for modifications! However, this construction method had been successful for trimaran pioneer Derek Kelsall in 1964. He had already cruised across the Atlantic in a Piver tri, so early in the year, he had taken delivery of three bare hulls for Piver’s 35′ Lodestar, supervised the fitting out in Kent, where he added a daggerboard, and entered the boat named Folatre in the ’64 OSTAR. He was leading Eric Tabarly after a week when he hit a whale and broke his rudder and board, forcing him to turn back. He re-fitted, resumed racing, and still made a fast crossing.

The 41′ by 22′ Teignmouth Electron was launched in early October. The only sea trial was the delivery along the south coast, and it soon turned into a nightmare. The cut-down rig wouldn’t move the boat in light airs, the center hull was just a bare shell, and the hatches in the floats leaked. The wind died, the skipper was violently seasick, and the four-day journey took two weeks. But the die was cast–the “weekend sailor” was about to jump in at the deep end.

The Camera Never Lies

It was at this point that the BBC team arrived on the scene. The BBC in Plymouth had decided this was a good subject for TV and had paid for the exclusive right to film Crowhurst. The youthful, slightly chubby 35-year old they caught on camera looks like the handyman type who would be a good neighbor. Always turned out in a clean white shirt and tie, he had the typical British habit of understatement and self-deprecation, but in his case you gradually realize that it was not an act. Carried along by delusions of fame and wealth, he had committed himself to a task far beyond his own limited sailing abilities and those of his unfinished boat.

The day before the deadline for departure, the cameras recorded his friends cramming the supplies and equipment below decks while the skipper watches with a strange detachment. The situation was so chaotic that the camera team joined in to help with the stowage! Somehow, the idea that Best, the scheming tycoon, had “forced” Crowhurst to sign away his house on this last day appears to have taken root, but there is no proof of this.

As far as I could ascertain, Best had first loaned him £1,000 to tide his business over, then, as the business went further into the red, he had loaned a larger sum with Crowhurst’s home as security. Finally, Best found himself agreeing to fund the boat and its equipment, against his better judgement. In order to protect his investment in the boat of around £10,000, he had insisted on a buy-back clause if the voyage was a failure. Best later said that this was just for tax purposes.

Whether or not Best meant to turn the family out of their house if the Electron failed to win the race, the threat would weigh heavily on Crowhurst, who must have already felt he was close to bankruptcy. He spent the last evening onshore in the Royal Hotel in Teignmouth, grinning through a strained last supper with his family and his unsuspecting backers. By now, Crowhurst’s impending failure should have been glaringly obvious to everyone.

And yet, nobody stopped him. Not the money-grubbing agent, not his wealthy sponsor; and to her lasting despair, not Clare. His widow recalls that he began crying in their room, and both of them lay awake for hours, but she saw him off stoically. With hindsight, Mrs Crowhurst realizes that this was her last opportunity to implore her husband to pull out.

“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.” With the cameras running again, and the entire town waving goodbye from the quay, he climbed aboard the Teignmouth Electron and said goodbye to his children, his pathetic attempt at bravado failing to disguise his fear.

His despair was deepened by an embarrassing false start: his masthead capsize-prevention bladder inflated and his main halyard jammed, forcing him to ask for a tow back to shore. In a plot worthy of a Greek tragedy, the Fates again forced the Hero to set sail away from safety and onto the wine-dark sea where he is beset by storms and the doubts that live in all of us.

With its conservative ketch rig, large wetted surface and overloaded condition, his boat was actually slower than a comparable monohull. Every deck fitting leaked, but worse than that, his floats had four separate compartments, all the hatches were leaking, and the hose for the bilge pump had been left on the dock, along with many important spare parts. The floats needed bailing out every few hours, which was feasible in reasonable weather, but would be impossible in the south.

Truth is the First Casualty

But even if he had been sailing Moitessier’s well-tested boat, Crowhurst would still have been way out of his depth.As early as November 15, he realized he would never complete the voyage. After plodding south at an excruciatingly slow pace for six weeks, he had only reached the Cap Verde Islands, and he began to lie about his progress. As we know, this one small deception set him on a path from which he could not return.

Unable to swallow his pride–and unwilling to risk facing a reckoning with Best — he now began to devise the greatest hoax in the history of sport. He started to keep two log books. In the false one, he figured the sextant shots he would have taken had he actually gone around the world. It was a complex task, but he had lots of time on his hands!

On December 8, he decided to award himself a day’s run of 243 miles–a singlehanded world record! His agent was happy, the papers ran the story, who could it harm? Weeks and then months began to slip by as he waited for the real racers to round the Horn and turn north. In January, he telegrammed Best to ask if he would be  forced to purchase the boat if he stopped, He received this re-assuring reply: “Decision yours STOP No unconditional purchase required good luck.”

But by then, Crowhurst was lost in a never-ending mental maze in a process of analyzing and listing his options, and facing reality was never really a consideration. When he found some of the plywood on a float was splitting, he decided to risk going ashore in Argentina to find material for a repair. He chose an isolated bay, Rio Salada south-east of Buenos Aires, and on Day 126 at the beginning of March, he rowed ashore and found a small Coast Guard outpost.

Since he was unable to speak a word of Spanish, the two men on duty found someone who spoke French, and learned that he needed plywood, sealer and screws, and that he did not want to officially enter the country because he was ‘in a regatta’. This short chapter in the saga springs to life in the movie because the film makers made the effort to travel to Argentina and film the location.

Miraculously, they also found the young man who helped Crowhurst, and he re-tells the story in Spanish. Although Crowhurst succeeded in patching the boat, the film notes that he sailed away without attempting to communicate with his friends or family, who had heard nothing from him for two months. He was already in a world of his own. By April, his business had collapsed and his wife found herself penniless and forced to apply for unemployment assistance.

Crowhurst’s Last Entry: “It is finished”

It appears he “re-entered” the race on May 1, and continued to believed his plan could work until he received a telegram from an excited Clare, explaining that he would surely win the fastest time prize, since the rest of the field had dropped out! Crowhurst was still competent enough to see the trap this represented. Now the world would want to hear about his long voyage with the kind of detail that even he could not make up on the spot.

Chichester and The Times would want to see his logs and the plot he had concocted to salvage his pride would lead to his most public humiliation. He became obsessed with repairing his broken transmitter. He abandoned what he derisively called “sailoriizing” and spent two weeks engrossed with the problem. Using a soldering iron and his spare radio, he managed to re-establish Morse Code contact with the UK in late June.

While his boat drifted in the middle of the North Atlantic, he began hearing the sirens’ song. His writing grew increasingly agitated as he considered his choices. Finally, he began writing with a manic urge to communicate his bizarre new-found religious ideas like this: “Nature does not allow God to Sin and Sins except One–That is the Sin of Concealment……It is the end of my game, the truth has been revealed.”

He put some 25,000 words down in this last testament, which he plainly intended to be discovered. His last, deranged log entry reveals a man who imagined himself to be engaged in some cosmic game. ‘It is finished, it is finished,’ he scrawled on July 1, 1969. ‘It is the mercy. It is the end of my game. The truth has been revealed.’

After 16,000 miles of sailing and drifting he could go no further. This was Day 243 of his voyage–eerily this number appeared many times in his writings. Ten days later, his abandoned yacht was found 600 miles west of the Azores by a Royal Mail ship. When the news broke, the BBC crew dutifully returned to Teignmouth and filmed the big “Welcome Home Donald” sign on the waterfront being taken down.

Mrs Crowhurst and her children managed to keep their house thanks to Knox-Johnston, who magnanimously donated his second £5,000 prize to them. Clare Crowhurst might easily have sunk into depression. Instead, she stoically set about raising her children–one of whom suffered recurring nightmares of his father’s ship sinking–by selling antiques on a market stall. She never could bring herself to tell her children the truth about their father’s death.

She and her family wept through the preview of Deep Water, and she still defends her husband’s character: “The man who went to sea would never have thought of cheating,” she says. “But who knows what somebody goes through when they are out and touch for so long?”

Co-director Rothwell agrees that his film is “A story about what happens when we are stripped of every reference point in our system of values.” Deep Water shows Crowhurst as a fundamentally decent man who made a grave error and was unable to work his back from the edge. There was plenty of heart searching when the truth was discovered, but not at the Teignmouth town council!

The chairman of the Publicity Committee estimated that the Crowhurst saga had generated over $1,000,000 of national coverage, and concluded: ‘”Despite the sad end… the voyage has bought more publicity than this committee has managed in fifty years. We have done this extremely cheaply, and I hope the town appreciates it!”

Deep Water, narrated by Tilda Swinton, won the Best Documentary Award at the 2006 Roma Film Festival. It is a film that lingers long in the memory–an honest record of one man’s failure that reminds all of us that we are only human. The directors previous film was “Touching the Void,” a dramatized version of the near-death experience of Joe Simpson while climbing in the Peruvian Andes.

Art Imitates Life

I followed the course of the Golden Globe race while in college in London, read Tomalin and Hall’s book and didn’t think much more about it until 1980. At a meeting of the Columbia Multihull Association, I watched Horse Latitudes, the dramatic Canadian film made in 1975 that stars well-known Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent. As the years passed, I noted a continuing morbid fascination with this story. More recently, I’ve begun to see it as a cult-like fascination with the ill-fated odyssey, which seems to have developed a life of its own. It seems as if journalists are fated to revive his ghost every few years and push him back out to sea like the Flying Dutchman.

I began this project after watching Deep Water feeling a certain sympathy for Crowhurst as a naïve but basically honest anti-hero who was manipulated by people who stood to benefit from his exploits. Over the years, Crowhurst’s motivation has been analyzed numerous times. My opinion changed while re-reading the 1970 book, which is exhaustive in its detail. It wasn’t the “cheating” that bothered me, indeed I found it pathetically comical, like people who run the first mile of the marathon then ride a taxi close to the finish.

And today, with all the Tour de France cyclists and Olympic sprinters who take performance-enhancing drugs, we see how far people will go to win. Nonetheless, I now see him as an obsessed self-absorbed man with limited talents who used his intellect to create an alter ego and manipulate his wife, friends and the media into believing it was real. (I have often quipped that boatbuilding is cheaper than therapy; in Crowhurst’s case this was definitely not true!)

Most telling to me is that Crowhurst sailed 8,000 miles to the Falkland Islands–a very credible voyage at that time. With that accomplishment, he could have landed there, refitted, returned with his recordings and his yarns and produced a marketable film for the BBC. But he never once had the guts to face the truth. When the chips were down, he chose to retreat to his fantasy world and ultimately to leave his wife and four young children heart-broken.

And of course, if he’d sailed home, he would have lived to see computing integrated into all kinds of marine electronics and might have been at the forefront of this movement. In today’s pop jargon, we might call him a self-made celebrity who began to believe his own PR and self-destructed. If that isn’t sympathetic enough for you, his voyage has inspired many artists to make more creative statements than I have presented.

Whatever you think of him , the fact that he has inspired such an amazing variety of works is testament to the power of his story. Although the web didn’t come into existence until 30 years after his death, it contains numerous references. Here is an incomplete list of artistic works inspired by him.

    • 1980–a Russian film about Crowhurst “Race of the Century”
    • 1981–a French film Les Quarantes Rugissants” or The roaring Forties with Julie Christie
    • 1992– a critically acclaimed novel “Outerbridge Reach” by Robert Stone
    • 1996-2000 Multi-media artist Tacita Dean’s four-year project on Crowhurst results in an installation in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, an art book of photos of Teignmouth Electron abandoned on Cayman Brac, and a video of seascapes “Disappearance at Sea” inspired by his death.
    • 1998–a short opera “Ravenshead” by Rinde Eckert
    • Crowhurst has also had chapters devoted to him in two sailing books: The Longest Race Race by Hal Roth and Race for Madmen, plus appearing in pop phenomena books like Bizzarism by Chris Mikul, Without a Trace by John Harris and Lost Souls by Geoff Powter, a clinical psychiatrist,
    • Theatrical treatments of the Crowhurst story include Donald Crowhurst and Brian Jones, The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, Daniel Pelican and Jet Lag.
  • He is the subject of at least three songs from minor rock bands.
  • To learn how the other Golden Globe sailors fared, click here.

Nigel Tetley–Beaten by a Phantom

Nigel Tetley arrived back in England with nothing more than a small bag containing his valuables and his exposed slide film. He was awarded a £1,000 consolation prize by the race organizers, but quickly found that his story was overshadowed. He had crossed his outward track in the South Atlantic in just 179 days, sailing a boat that he had lived on for several years. It was an amazing achievement that proved a first-generation plywood trimaran could survive the whole Southern Ocean, just as its Californian designer and promoter Arthur Piver had predicted.

But unfortunately, the enigmatic Crowhurst was sailing the same class of boat, so the media wanted to wait and see what he could do. Outwardly unperturbed, Tetley wrote a fine book called Trimaran Solo and gave lectures about his voyage. I heard him speak at the Amateur Yacht Research Society in London. He was modest about his numerous “firsts:” first person to circumnavigate the world solo in a trimaran, first multihull around Cape Horn etc. I remember him joking that his only sponsor was Music for Pleasure-a mail order classical company-but at least they had provided him with some appropriate Wagnerian music to play when he rounded Cape Horn!

Tetley, supported by his wife Eve, envisioned a new 50′ trimaran that would radically advance the development of long-distance sailing. He had it built in the latest material, foam/glass sandwich, by trimaran pioneer Derek Kelsall at his yard in Sandwich, Kent. It looked remarkably modern and was capable of halving the 313-day solo record. But he couldn’t find a sponsor to finance the fitting out. He may well have felt that this was due to his failure to finish the Golden Globe, or that Crowhurst had “poisoned the waters” for other sailors. Beaten by a dead man, he had missed the boat, and fame and fortune had not followed. This fine sailor and gentleman hung himself in a forest outside Dover early in 1972. His new tri was still moored on a muddy backwater when I went to work with Kelsall that fall.

The only American with any involvement in the Golden Globe was Arthur Piver, the trimaran pioneer from the Bay Area. His boats were phenomenally popular in the late 60s, and he had absolute confidence in their ability to survive. Unfortunately, he had already disappeared at sea. He was last seen in 1967 off the northern California coast while completing a 500-mile qualifying cruise for the 1968 OSTAR in a borrowed 24′ tri. In the winter of ’68, I visited Cox Marine, his British agent, and found his own yacht, the 33′ Stiletto, laid up where he had left it the previous year. D.H “Nobby” Clarke was Piver’s European agent and the man behind the early trimaran movement in England. He died in September 2007 at the age of 88.

Full Circle

The stories of Know-Johnson’s success and Crowhurst’s failure live on, but the rest of the English contingent all went on to achieve greater things. Chay Blyth sailed back to England in his small boat with his wife and wrote a book about his adventure. Just two years later, he showed that there are always new “firsts” to achieve by sailing around the world non-stop in the opposite direction–against the winds and currents in under 300 days. He led a British army crew around the world to line honors in the first Whitbread Race in 1973. In 1993, he founded the Challenge Business and built a fleet of yachts to provide paying berths in a “wrong-way” race very four years. (The company organized many more events before running out of funding and going bankrupt in 2005.)

John Ridgeway set up an outdoor training school in the Scottish Isles, and skippered the school’s 57′ ketch in the Whitbread Race in 1977. In 1983, he sailed the boat around the world again–non-stop with one crew in 203 days–a record that still stands. On his second attempt around the world, Bill King’s boat was struck by a whale and almost sank, but he patched the hole and reached Australia. He wouldn’t give up and in 1973 became the first Irishman to sail around the world alone. He took up hang-gliding at the age of 78 and is still active at age 96.

He sold Galway Blazer to Peter Crowther, a pub owner from Devon, who completed three OSTARs. In 1996, the boat dropped off a wave and began to take on water rapidly. Crowther got off a distress signal and was rescued from his dinghy by a passing ship. To mark the 40th anniversary of their great voyages, Gypsy Moth IV and Lively Lady were both restored and cruised around the world via the Panama Canal by young sailors.

Robin Knox-Johnston has had many sailing adventures since the Golden Globe. In the 1970s and 80s, he raced big yachts and multihulls around Britain and across the Atlantic. He was knighted for his services to sailing in 1996, after he co-skippered the 92′ catamaran Enza around the world in 74 days. In 1995 he founded Clipper Ventures, a business that runs round-the-world races for paying amateurs and recently acquired the Around Alone (formerly BOC race), now called the Five Oceans. Knox-Johnson entered the race himself last year at the age of 67 and sailed his Open 60 to third place. Suhaili is berthed at the National Maritime Museum’s dock in Falmouth.

Bernard Moitessier settled in Tahiti to write the book The Long Way about the race. To reach the Society Islands, his wife took a berth on a French yacht entered in the Los Angeles-Tahiti race, but when they were finally re-united, she found her husband a changed man. He spent many years in Polynesia where he built his own house, planted coconut trees, and had a child with a young woman who also arrived by yacht. He sailed alone to the Bay Area and lived in the U. S. for a time before heading south to Baja Mexico.

Iin 1982, Joshua was among the many anchored cruisers at Cabo San Lucas that were thrown onto the beach during a short-lived storm. Moitessier did not feel he had the strength to begin salvaging his faithful steel boat, so he gave it to a couple of young Americans. An appeal was launched in the Bay Area and a smaller boat was found for him to continue cruising. He died in 1994.His books are still popular today and his philosophy of low-impact sailing is becoming popular again. Fortunately, the significance of Joshua was appreciated. It was shipped back to France and now sails out of the La Rochelle Maritime Museum. (Sister ships of Joshua like Northern Lights and Aurore have made many long voyages, including to the Arctic and Antarctic.)

The Teignmouth Electron was hoisted on board the Royal Mail Ship Picardy and unloaded in the Caribbean. It was auctioned and bought by a Jamaican who used it to carry tourists. After ten years service, it was sold to a dive operator in the Caymans and worked for another decade before being damaged in a hurricane. It was hauled up on a beach in 1988 on Cayman Brac, where it has sat ever since, slowly disintegrating in the tropical sun.

The 1968-69 Golden Globe

Only Finisher

Robin Knox-Johnston (Suhaili 32ft) 14 Jun–Finished, Falmouth, 22 April 1969


John Ridgeway (English Rose 32 ft) 1 Jun–21 July, Recife

Chay Blyth (Dytiscus 30 ft) 8 Jun–15 Aug, Tristran da Cunha

Alex Caruzzo (Gancia Americana 66ft) 31 Oct–Became ill, mid-November, Lisbon

Bill King (Galway Blazer 42ft) 24 Aug–22 Nov Cape Town

Loick Fougeron (Captain Browne 30ft) 22 Aug–27 Nov, St Helena

Bernard Moitessier (Joshua 40ft) 22 Aug–Retired from the race, but continued non-stop to Tahiti.

Nigel Tetley (Music for Pleasure 40ft) 16 Sept–Foundered off the Azores May 1969


Donald Crowhurst (Teignmouth Electron 40ft) 31 Oct–lost at sea, July 1969

Books on the Race

” World of my Own” RKJ,
“Trimaran Solo” Nigel Tetley
“The strange last voyage of Donald Crowhurst” Tomalin & Hall,
“Capsize” Bill King
“Innocent Aboard” Chay & Maureen Blyth
“The Longest Race” Hal Roth
“A Voyage for Madmen” Peter Nichols,

About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Multihulls, Ocean Racing & Records, Opinion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 2007 – Film “Deep Water” Reveals Tragedy of Donald Crowhurst

  1. Paul G says:

    An excellent, thoughtful and insightful summary of a tricky, multi-layered tale. A new film on the Crowhurst tragedy is being made by James Marsh, Oscar-winning director of Man on a Wire documentary and the new film on Stephen Hawking, The theory of Everything. Colin Firth will play Crowhurst. Filming starts this Spring un the UK.


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