90 years after Donald Crowhurst was born, Dick Durham, who interviewed his eldest son Simon, looks back over his tragic last voyage.
There’s not much left of Teignmouth Electron’s hull, just a few sun-bleached and delaminating sections of plywood, a rudder blade frozen to its stock with rust, and some ragged shreds of fibreglass blowing in the breeze. Her bones lay under some pine trees up from the beach of Cayman Brac in the Caribbean Sea. So much for the boat, but the body of her skipper, Donald Crowhurst, has never been recovered.
It all began in 1968 as competitors for the Sunday Times Golden Globe Solo Round the World Race started to set off from various UK ports to try and make the fastest circumnavigation and win the £5,000 prize for doing so.
Donald Crowhurst was one of them, a 35-year-old father of four, who ran a cottage electronics business and was a weekend yachtsman. He mortgaged his company to a caravan salesman to fund his challenge and set off in a ketch-rigged, 41ft Victress-design trimaran made of half-inch-thick plywood sheathed in fibreglass.
The omens were not good even before he started the race in October that year, with just nine hours before the deadline for the start…
- Crowhurst’s wife Clare failed to break the bottle of champagne against Teignmouth Electron’s hull during her launch on the Norfolk Broads.
- The trimaran’s starboard hull was holed on river bank pilings before she even got to the sea.
- Crowhurst was seasick during the trimaran’s maiden voyage across the Thames Estuary.
- Crowhurst burned his left hand badly on the red-hot outboard exhaust.
- In the Dover Strait, Crowhurst battled for three days against headwinds and was disappointed she would point no higher than 60 degrees.
- One of his crew, Peter Beard, asked Crowhurst what he would do if he failed to get a fair wind in the Atlantic. “One could always shuttle around in the South Atlantic for a few months. There are places out of the shipping lanes where no one would ever spot a boat like this,” he replied.
- Crowhurst lost his footing and fell overboard three times while moored in Cowes.
- The left hull was dripping water while in Teignmouth preparing for the race.
- The foresail track lifted from the deck; a rubber seal around the cockpit hatch came away from its seating, and threads were stripped on the wing nuts of one deck hatch.
- Crowhurst’s bag of spares, including rigging screws, nuts, replacement plywood and a bilge inlet pump, was left ashore.
After just under two months at sea, Crowhurst was besieged by failing systems: the Hasler steering gear had lost fixing screws; the log fouled the rudder; the Marconi Kestrel radio failed to work; the port hull filled with seawater; the mizzen halyard was lost up the mast after the connecting shackle dropped off; the Onan electricity generator was flooded from the leaking cockpit hatch; the aft collision bulkhead was leaking; the main hull bilge pump was missing; the chronometer started to malfunction.
Crowhurst was reduced to hand baling all three hulls, all of which were leaking. He considered filling them with empty Tupperware boxes! His Hasler servo blade snapped in a gale. While Crowhurst was trying to repair his Marconi radio transmitter by converting his short-range Shannon radio-telephone transmitter to do the job, he sat on a hot soldering iron, burning his buttocks.
However, most serious of all, Crowhurst had found a split in the starboard float and the materials required to repair had been left on the dockside back in Devon, in the panic to get away before the deadline ran out. She would never survive the rigours of the Southern Ocean, therefore Crowhurst changed course. He sailed westwards and on March 8, 1969, landed at a tiny village in the River Salado near Buenos Aires in Argentina. There he obtained the materials he needed, made his repairs, and set sail again, heading down towards the Falkland Islands.
By now Crowhurst was keeping two logs: the real voyage of Teignmouth Electron, and a faked one, which would detail a bogus passage across the Southern Ocean, around Cape Horn and back to where he was, in reality, waiting so that he could continue in the race back northward again.
His plan now was simply to survive, to get home. As tail-end Charlie, he was in a position in which few would take any interest and therefore not scrutinise his log.
The problem with that was there were only three competitors left in the race, one of which was another Victress trimaran sailed by Lieutenant-Commander Nigel Tetley, RN, whose boat was also leaking badly, but who now pressed on worried that Crowhurst might beat him to the winning line. He tried too hard, and with only 1,200 miles to go in the 30,000-mile voyage, his boat broke up, and Tetley took to his life-raft.
Now Crowhurst was faced with ‘the inescapable triumph,’ as Tomalin and Hall acidly described it. As Crowhurst could not suddenly drop back for two months and let the slow monohull of Robin Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili ‘over-take’ him, he was going to be the winner. He knew he would be exposed, so he jumped overboard, embracing his chronometer.
Eric Loss, who sailed with the Pangaea Exploration charter yacht, visited Teignmouth Electron recently. He reported: “She was shattered, the central hull crushed amidships into a pile of plywood and fibreglass, the floats in slightly better shape, but still peeled open to the elements. Even her name was missing – some souvenir hunter had sliced the “Teignmouth” out of the port side of the bow, and the “Electron” off starboard. It was a shock to see. Someone had spray-painted the words “Dream Boat” on the transom in place of a name – oddly fitting, given her history, but cruel nonetheless. Donald Crowhurst’s dream turned to ashes back in 1969, and now this, his dreamboat, was rotting away. This is how all our dreams end, eventually, the wreck seemed to say. We sat for a while, listening to the surf on the sand, the wind through the trees, the intermittent flap of a piece of the hull when the breeze caught it, then left, silently.”
The anniversary of this race is marked regularly with articles in the yachting press, and I was involved in writing some of them, too. For the last one, I interviewed Crowhurst’s eldest son, Simon, a research technician at Cambridge University.
He well recalls the scramble to leave on time to start the race and the fact that so many spares, tools and vital parts of Teignmouth Electron were left on the quayside. Simon has considered flying out to take a look at the bones of the trimaran, but so far has resisted, making do instead with staring at her remains on Google Earth. He told me that the ‘real hero’ of that ill-fated contest is Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, not then a wealthy man, who presented the prize money, now worth more than £60,000, to the grieving widow, Clare Crowhurst.
Another of the original competitors, Sir Chay Blyth, who dropped out by the time his totally unsuitable bilge-keeler had reached South Africa – a remarkable voyage in itself – said the tragedy was that the late 1960s was still at the time of the ‘stiff upper lip,’ in the UK. “If it had been today,” he told me not long ago, “Crowhurst could have returned and sold his story to a Sunday newspaper and cleared his debts.”
I’ve never been comfortable with the easy condemnation of the saloon bar sailors who slate Crowhurst as ‘a cheat, a fraud.’ The man found himself in an unenviable situation in a boat that may well have drowned him had he continued. Yet if he turned back, he faced financial ruin.
Even though Crowhurst made his strange comment to Peter Beard during the Teignmouth Electron’s maiden voyage, it is my opinion that he had considered this plan should the yacht not prove up to the task of sailing the southern ocean. Certainly at this point, the writing was on the wall as her launch was far from perfect. I do not however think he went into the race with a deliberate plan to camp out in the southern Atlantic.
All in all, the poor devil sailed a heck of a lot further than many of his detractors ever did or would, in a boat that was a very poor tool. He left his log of lies behind to reveal his deception and then took the ‘honourable’ way out.
For that, he has my everlasting sympathy, and I salute him.
Check out this months’ Mariners Library which includes some essential reading and viewing on Crowhurst and the 68 Golden Globe Race.