Sunday, June 03, 2007

It Is The Mercy

In 1967, Englishman Francis Chichester sailed solo round the world in Gypsy Moth IV. He was not the first man to accomplish the feat, but his was the fastest such voyage yet recorded; and unlike others, who had stopped at several ports along the way for provisions and repairs, Chichester made only one stop en route, in Australia. His feat caught the imagination of the world; nowhere more than in England, still reeling under the blow of World War II, aware that its glory days as a world leader were behind it, and searching for a new hero. Chichester and his voyage caught the public imagination in England, and he joined a small, select group of men which included Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, and Roger Bannister, all of whom had been crowned as heroes by the British people. When Chichester arrived in England the event was broadcast live on British television (amid speculation that after so long at sea his legs might give out when he went ashore; they didn't), he was greeted by 250,000 people lining the shore at Plymouth Hoe, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was lionised throughout the country and the world.

It was perhaps inevitable that others would try to emulate Chichester's accomplishment, although it was clearly not enough now merely (!) to sail single-handed around the world; the voyage must be done faster, and without any stops at all. The sailing fraternity was not slow to take up this challenge, and almost immediately several men began making plans to attempt the feat. The Sunday Times newspaper, which had sponsored Chichester's voyage, sensed the commercial possibilities inherent in the quest; but how to exploit them? Difficulties at once emerged. The nature of the men planning to take part meant that each was anxious to be 'the first', and potential competitors were busily planning their voyages and would be off as soon as they were ready. There was no question of participants hanging around to wait for others so that they could all set off with the boom of a starter's gun, so how to decide a winner? There was also the problem of persuading people to actually take part in an official race; what if someone declined to take part and simply set off on his own? After some deliberation, the ST got round these obstacles by announcing that there would be a five month window during which competitors could depart—from 1 June to 31 October 1968—and that anyone at all who decided to sail around the world solo without stopping, and who departed during this time period, would be part of the competition, whether they wanted to be or not. Participants were not allowed to put into any port, or receive any assistance from another boat or person. There would also be two prizes: the Golden Globe itself would go to the first person to complete the venture, while a prize of £5000 would go to the competitor who finished the race in the shortest period of time.

The rules, such as they were, meant that since anyone who departed during the stipulated time was taking part in the race, the Sunday Times had no control over who was part of the event, and could not, therefore, insist on assessing participants before they left for such basics as seamanship or mental stability; nor could the paper ensure that the participants' vessels were suited to the voyage, or that they were properly outfitted or supplied. Thus it was that Donald Crowhurst, whose knowledge, and practical experience, of sailing was minimal, whose boat was poorly designed (by himself) and built, and whose supplies were woefully lacking, was able to take part in the most gruelling sea race yet devised.

Hours before the 31 October deadline, Crowhurst set sail in his trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. To say he was woefully unprepared would be an understatement. The ship-building process had been fraught, to say the least, and the boat was not properly finished; the trial run had been little short of a disaster; Crowhurst's much-vaunted (and self-designed) computerised running system was a jumble of wires that led nowhere; all was confusion aboard the boat; and vast quantities of supplies, including a bag of gifts from his wife, remained on the dock when Crowhurst finally sailed. The situation was so obviously desperate that a BBC-TV crew, there to film Crowhurst's departure, was quietly told by the man in charge—who sensed a tragedy in the making—to stop filming and help with the loading of the boat instead.

When Crowhurst set sail he was, like the other eight competitors, heading into the unknown. It is almost impossible, in these days of Global Positioning, instant messaging, faxes, computers, and the Internet, to appreciate what these men were facing. Their radio communication with anyone at all would be sporadic at best; they could go weeks without being able to send or receive a message. They would be calculating their position using chronometers and sextants, putting them closer to Cook, Ross, and Franklin then to sailors today, a mere generation later. The Sunday Times, which had not been able to vet competitors or their ships, was able to enforce the rule about no contact, so on the rare occasions when the men were close enough to another ship to retrieve a bundle of letters or newspapers from home, they were unable to receive even these small comforts. These men were, in essence, even more isolated and alone than Apollo astronauts, in a voyage that could last anywhere up to a year.

It takes a certain amount of mental stability and toughness to endure this sort of isolation; and it quickly became apparent to several of the competitors that this element would be the most difficult to endure. In the end, of the nine men who set out, only one completed the voyage successfully; and given the title of the book which heads this entry, it's not giving anything away to say that Donald Crowhurst was not that man. On 10 July 1969, the Royal Mail Vessel Picardy discovered the Teignmouth Electron floating, abandoned, in the mid-Atlantic, about 1800 miles from England. The vessel was quickly identified as that of Donald Crowhurst, taking part in the Golden Globe race, who at that point was supposed to be heading home in triumph, having completed the most gruelling portion of his trip; his sporadic radio accounts, while somewhat vague as to his precise location, had indicated that the novice sailor was defying the odds and looked set to become a hero when he returned to England. There was no sign of Crowhurst on the boat, however; the last logbook entry was dated 1 July, and while the boat was in some disarray, there was nothing to indicate a disaster. It was surmised that he had been swept overboard by some freak accident—perhaps a rogue wave—and after searching the area the Picardy departed for England, with the Teignmouth Electron hoisted on board.

It was a sobering end to what had been shaping up as a miraculous voyage, and Crowhurst looked set to be memorialised as a hero. However, when the Picardy arrived in England and the logbooks were examined, a very different, and deeply unsettling, story emerged. I will not spoil that story by going into further detail here. Suffice it to say that the account of it—immortalised by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, first published in 1970 and recently reprinted (with a new introduction by Jonathan Raban) by McGraw Hill as part of its 'Sailor's Classics' series—is one of the most harrowing, and terrifying, books I have ever read. Tomalin and Hall's reconstruction of the events strikes me as flawless; it is almost as if one or both were there, on board, watching as Crowhurst descended into madness, a process which takes place before our eyes in the course of the book. By the time the story comes to its inevitable—but no less horrifying for that—conclusion, you will be drained, and hoping that this is the closest to true madness that you ever come. Near the end of his final entry, Crowhurst writes chillingly:

I will only resign this game
if you will agree that [on]
the next occasion that this
game is played it will be played
according to the
rules that are devised by
my great god who has
revealed at last to his son
not only the exact nature
of the reason for games but
has also revealed the truth of
the way of the ending of the
next game that

It is finished—

It is finished


Like the narrator in 'Bartleby the Scrivener', when I consider these words I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Those whom the gods destroy, they first drive mad, indeed.

The background of the Golden Globe race, and accounts of the other participants, are touched on in Tomalin and Hall's book, but it is, as the title suggests, mainly concerned with Crowhurst. Those who would like to find out more about the race as a whole, and the other competitors, are encouraged to seek out Peter Nichols's A Voyage For Madmen (Harper-Collins, 2001), which fills in many of the background details about the Golden Globe and the other competitors. Even without Crowhurst's presence, the race would have made for an electrifying account, and Nichols, who in addition to being a writer is a skilled sailor, has the literary and sea-going talents to ensure that his book is a page-turner from start to finish. The nine men who took part were very different in terms of temperament, seamanship, and motivation, and Nichols does a skilful job in assessing each one, and trying to find out why they did what they did. This is, as Nichols himself admits, an almost impossible question to answer; even those driven to attempt feats which most of us would consider life-threatening, foolhardy, and well-nigh impossible, in approximately equal measures, usually have no satisfactory answer, unless it's along the lines of George Mallory's response, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest: 'Because it's there.'

Both The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst and A Voyage for Madmen are highly recommended, in and of themselves and as complementary volumes. I'd even go so far as to say that these accounts of exploits on the high seas would make perfect summertime reading; unless, of course, you are planning a sea voyage of your own, in which case you might want to save them until you return home.


Anonymous said...

Okay, so I posted to the wrong blog entry...


Todd T said...

Thanks for this fine piece of writing. I will have to read the book about Crowhurst. Astonishing that his wife did not see what must have plainly been tantamount to suicide, and stop him somehow. Unless she did see it, and decided either to support it or to surrender. Another reason to read the book, to find out.

Barbara Roden said...

Glad you liked it, Todd. Without spoiling things too much (because you should read Tomalin and Hall's book; it's superb), Claire Crowhurst did try to stop her husband early on, but he was the type of man who, once set on a course, is hard to dissuade. One of the most poignant moments in the whole story comes years later, when Claire realises that there was a point when her husband was basically asking her to give him a way out; but because of the man he was - one always looking for, and overcoming, challenges, never backing down - she did not understand this until it was too late.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. Have been fascinated by the Crowhurst story ever since I saw Deep Water on the television a few years ago.