When Planning to Sail Around the World, Don’t

11 Dec

Exciting developments on Sorry Television! After three years (!!!) of fighting the good fight solo, I’ve invited some friends to submit guest posts, so that you fine people have something to read on those weeks when I get so distracted by reality television caught up in work that I run out of time to write reviews and/or finish books. Today’s guest post comes from John Peabody, and it’s about boats. (If you knew John, you’d understand why I expected nothing less.) Also there is a person in this book named Captain Richard Box. ….Captain. Dick. Box. Enjoy! 

9780071414296_p0_v1_s260x420The ocean covers 140 million square miles, 70 percent of the Earth and is made up of about 352 quintillion (352,670,000,000,000,000,000) gallons of water. In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, a businessman and amateur sailor loaded with a heavy dose of British can-do spirit and an oversize ego, set out to take this on by himself. He wanted to be the first person to sail solo around the world without stopping. Spoiler alert: He didn’t make it.

Long before the invention of GPS. or modern safety equipment, Crowhurst joined the Golden Globe Race (not, unfortunately, a footrace among persons vying for Golden Globes.) The first of it’s kind, the race entailed master sailors leaving from England and making it back in roughly 220 days, if at all. Success would mean a lot of time alone at sea and failure meant probably dying there (or I suppose some kind of 60’s-era Cast Away situation).

Crowhurst’s story is masterfully told in The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a work that inspired multiple plays and the documentary Deep Ocean. Rumors of a feature film starring Colin Firth and Kate Winslet are now circulating online.

While under-qualified for his journey, Crowhurst was seriously committed — stubbornly so. Even while construction of his boat the Teignmouth Electron (fantastic name) went over budget, missed deadlines and revealed unsafe design flaws, he only grew more passionate about his trip. Only for a moment did Crowhurst consider not leaving his wife and family behind (this, btw, is a conversation I like imagining). 

Chasing a dream to solo-circumnavigate the globe, and armed with electronics he designed and hoped to promote after completing his successful journey, Crowhurst embarked on a quest that, in hindsight, seemed doomed from the start. He leaves England, headed south for the coast of Africa, and calculates his speed. His trimaran  [fancy word for sailboat] which he designed himself, isn’t coming close to the speeds he had predicted; worse, it sails terribly. His autopilot system isn’t working, his sails are poorly cut and his own inventions — like a self-inflating airbag on the top of the mast meant to right his ship in emergency — don’t work either. His boat begins to take on water.

(Of course, Crowhurst might have known all of this had he completed any sea trials beforehand.)

Crowhurst can’t seem to level with his financial backer and wife back home though (“No, honey it’s going great. Rushing water? No, that’s just…the..waves.”) Over shortwave radio he repeatedly gives vague details of his voyage, exaggerating his speeds and positive outlook. But he eventually realizes his boat is in no shape for the intense conditions that await on the other side of the Cape of Good Hope so he hangs a right instead, and heads east towards South America to hide from ship traffic and bide his time as his competitors continue west.

Crowhurst was actually able to fool race officials about his location. Not only was GPS not invented yet, but he had hired a PR man to pump positive stories to the press.

His main tactic, though, was radio silence. While his fellow competitors face grueling conditions in the Southern Ocean, Crowhurst zigzags around the Atlantic, occasionally getting drunk on his stash of booze, reading Einstein essays and eating flying fish. But the good times don’t last—in fact they get very strange and dark.

Much like Heart of Darkness and The Shining, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst details a man consumed by his own madness and isolation. Unlike Colonel Kurtz or Jack Torrance, though, Crowhurst isn’t a fictional character. He’s in a real race, with money on the line, his own PR guy feeding glowing stories to local newspapers, a family, and some sort of glory waiting for him back home.

After months of bobbing around the Atlantic, Crowhurst sets a course back to England to “complete” his circumnavigation. He tried to time his return to place a modest third or fourth, a lie he can live with. But unforeseen events (one sailor drops out and one is forced to abandon ship) mean the lead opens up. It appears Crowhurst could actually win the Golden Globe (insert best actor joke). This, he can’t live with.

While no one will never know exactly what happened to Crowhurst at sea, Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall do an amazing job of recreating his voyage, right down to the moment the Teignmouth Electron was found eerily adrift in the Atlantic, sans captain. By examining his logbooks and communications with shore, and interviewing his wife, the writers piece together a very dark portrait of a man hobbled by his own hubris and ego.

Journalists interested in learning how to weave master narratives, those interested in seafaring and adventure, and anyone curious about the dark unwinding of the human mind should check out this book. While it would be easy to completely write off Crowhurst as unprepared and totally hubristic, it must be noted that sailing solo for hundreds of days is absolutely an impressive feat. Crowhurst left a wife and children behind and, it seems unwittingly, an amazing yarn. Perhaps that on its own is something to be proud of.

TITLE: The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst
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AUTHOR: Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall
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PAGES: 304 (paperback)
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ALSO WROTE: n/a
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SORTA LIKE: Heart of Darkness meets The Shining + boats
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FIRST LINE: “Captain Richard Box, master of the Royal Mail Vessel Picardy, bound from London to the Caribbean, was roused early from his bunk in mid-Atlantic.”

2 Responses to “When Planning to Sail Around the World, Don’t”

  1. beetle22 December 11, 2013 at 10:10 am #

    This is a superb book review; thank you so much!! Will definitely be looking into this one!!

  2. canadianhayes December 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

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    Thanks!!! http://www.canadianhayes.com
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