Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was an English businessman and amateur sailor who died during a highly publicized around-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from the Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false coordinates, in an attempt to win without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance indicates that this attempt ended in insanity and suicide.
Crowhurst was born in 1932 in Ghaziabad , India. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked on the India railway. After India gained independence, his family moved back to England.
Due to family financial problems, Donald was forced to leave school early and join the Royal Air Force; he later received a commission as a flying pilot. Later he was asked to leave the RAF; later still, he joined the Army. After leaving the Army due to a disciplinary incident, he eventually started a business called Electron Utilisation LTD.
Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, designed and built a radio direction finder called the Navicator. This device allowed the user to take bearings on marine and aviation radio beacons with a hand-held device. While he did have some success selling his navigational equipment, his business began to fail. In an effort to gain publicity, he starting trying to gain sponsors to enter the 1969 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
The Golden Globe
The Golden Globe was not so much a race as a publicity campaign that the Sunday Times created around several already-planned voyages. Following Francis Chichester's successful circumnavigation with only a single stop, nearly a dozen rivals had declared their intentions to surpass Chichester by making a single-handed voyage with no stops. As they all had different departure dates, the Times declared that anyone leaving by October 31, 1968 would be eligible for one of two cash prizes: one for the fastest circumnavigation, the other for first to return.
Crowhust left on the last possible day. The other contestants were Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, Bernard Moitessier, Chay Blyth, John Ridgway, Bill King, Alex Carozzo, Lo´ck Fougeron, and Bill Howell.
Crowhurst's boat and preparations
The boat Crowhurst built for the trip, Teignmouth Electron, was a trimaran. At the time, this was an untested type of sailing boat for a voyage of such length. Trimarans, while able to sail quicker than monohulled sailboats, are unable to right themselves if completely capsized. To improve the safety of the boat, Crowhurst had added several innovative devices:
- an inflatable buoyancy bag on the top of the mast to prevent capsizing;
- detector plates in the outer hulls to detect immersion in water;
- self-releasing cleats to ease the sails in case of unexpected high winds;
- floodable hulls to aid in righting the ship.
However, Crowhurst had a very short time in which to build and equip his boat, while securing financing and sponsors for the race at the same time. In the end, all of his safety devices were left uncompleted; he planned to complete them while underway. Also, many of his spares and supplies were left behind in the confusion of the final preparations for leaving.
Departure and deception
Crowhurst left from Teignmouth, Devon, on the last day permitted by the rules: October 31, 1968. He encountered immediate problems with his boat and equipment, and in the first few weeks was making less than half of his planned speed. According to his logs, he gave himself only 50/50 odds of surviving the trip, assuming that he was able to complete some of the safety equipment before reaching the dangerous South Seas.
Since leaving, Crowhurst had been deliberately vague in his radio report of his location. Starting on December 6, 1968, he began reporting false positions and fabricating his log book; rather than continuing to the South Seas, he sailed around the Atlantic Ocean, and stopped once in South America (in violation of the rules) to make repairs to his ship. By early December, based on his false reports, he was being cheered worldwide as the likely winner of the race, though Francis Chichester publicly expressed doubts about the plausibility of Crowhurst's progress.
On April 22, 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to complete the race, leaving Crowhurst supposedly in the running against Tetley for second to finish, and possibly still able to beat Knox-Johnston's time (due to his later starting date). In reality, Tetley was far in the lead, having long ago passed within 150 miles of Crowhurst's hiding place; but believing himself to be in a hurry, Tetley pushed his failing boat (also a trimaran) to the breaking point, and had to abandon ship on May 30. The pressure on Crowhurst increased as he now had a real chance to win the race by deception, if he correctly timed his return; he had begun to make his way back as if he had rounded Cape Horn.
Mental breakdown and death
Crowhurst's behavior as recorded in his logs indicates a complex and conflicted psychological state. His commitment to faking the trip seemed incomplete and self-defeating, as he continued to keep a real log in addition to his false log, and reported unrealistically fast progress that was sure to arouse suspicion, while still spending many hours meticulously constructing false log entries—often more difficult to complete than real entries, due to the celestial navigation research required.
The last several weeks of his log entries, once he was facing a real possibility of winning the prize, showed increasing irrationality. In the end, his writings during the voyage—poems, quotations, real and fake log entries, and random thoughts—amounted to more than 25,000 words. The number 243 shows up often in these writings: he originally planned to finish the trip in 243 days, recorded a false distance of 243 nautical miles in one day's sailing, and appears to have ended his life on the 243rd day.
Robin Knox-Johnston donated his winnings to Donald Crowhurst's widow and children. Nigel Tetley was awarded a consolation prize and built a new trimaran, but committed suicide a year later.
The Teignmouth Electron was taken to the island of Cayman Brac, where it remains.
American author Robert Stone based his critically acclaimed 1992 novel Outerbridge Reach on the Crowhurst tragedy.
- Tomalin, Nicholas, and Ron Hall. (2003). The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst. Stodder & Haughton. ISBN 0071414290
- Nichols, Peter. (2001). A Voyage for Madmen. HarperCollins. ISBN 0060197641
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