Nobody escapes being wounded.
The amazing story of the Sunday Times sailing race
Fifty-four years ago, the British newspaper, The Sunday Times, offered £5,000 (about $95,000 today) to an amateur sailor who could sail solo circumnavigate the world the fastest. There were no qualification requirements, anyone could enter the race. There were very few rules, you could use any vessel and report your progress as you saw fit. Nine men joined the race, one of whom had never sailed. Just one man finished, 312 days and 27,000 miles later.
Donald Crowhurst was a tinkerer all his life, constantly coming up with ideas, gadgets, and experiments. He came came up with his own boat modifications and was convinced that his innovations would speed him on to win the prize. One problem: he was flat broke, and couldn’t finance the race, so he struck a deal with a businessman who agreed to cover the cost of the race under two conditions: they had to drum up publicity, and if he didn’t finish the race, he’d owe all the money back.
On October 31st, 1968, Crowhurst sailed his boat, the Teignmouth Electron out of the harbor and into the race. The boa was packed with gizmos and gimmicks, most of them incomplete, that it was barely seaworthy for a short sail near home, let alone a solo trip around the globe and its captain knew it. The night before he sailed, he broke down in tears in front of his wife confessing that he would fail in the attempt.
Two weeks into the race, when the sailor had covered less than half his intended distance, the funky little watercraft sprung a leak. “This bloody boat is just falling to pieces due to lack of attention to engineering detail,” Crowhurst wrote in his diary. In the calm waters of the South Atlantic, the small leak posed little threat and could be bailed with a bucket, but continuing on to the treacherous Southern Ocean would spell disaster and death.
Crowhurst was at a crossroads of two bad decisions: continue the race and die at sea, or return home and face bankruptcy and public humiliation. He chose a third option: cheat.
He immediately began sailing around in circles in the South Atlantic, drifting in circles in the warm air and calm water. Every so often, he’d send fake coordinates back to England, closely monitoring his progress against the other participants in the race, and manipulating his progress so as to come in third place.
He did this for months and months. By the middle of June, he hoped to quietly sail back to England, and convince anyone who was still paying attention that he finished the race even though he never left the hemisphere. He’d receive no prize money, but no humiliation either.
As he departed his circumambulationatory maneuvers and headed for England, his plan was playing out perfectly. A solid third place finish was in his grasp, and the media began mentioning his name less and less on the radio, but then the boat in second place sank and because he had miscalculated his opponent’s progress, he was positioned to be the first place finisher. Captain Crowhurst was going to win the race.
The BBC prepared a crew to meet the man now being described as the world’s greatest amateur sailor. They interviewed men in business who said they were very interested in looking at Crowhurst’s inventions, possibly commercializing them and making him a very wealthy man. The glare of the spotlight was heating up.
On June 29th, Crowhurst wrote in his diary:
“I have no need to prolong the game … It has been a good game that must be ended … It is the end of my game. The truth has been revealed. It is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.”
Soon after he sent his last fake coordinates to his team, and turned his radio off for good. He removed his life vest, untethered his safety cord and stepped into the wine-dark sea to find release.
The Electron was found 11 days later, adrift in the Atlantic. There was no major damage, no sign of an accident – and no sign of Crowhurst.
Left behind were his diary and two log books: one real, one fake.
When you live two lives, neither one can survive the impact of exposure and death is the only mercy.
“People fail in direct proportion to their willingness to accept socially acceptable excuses for failure.”
— W. Steven Brown
In a marked contrast to the sad story of Crowhurst and the Electron, Bernard Moitessier entered the race as an experienced and committed sailor. He loved sailing, and hated the idea that it would be commercialized by the contest. He just liked sailing and wanted other people to love it as he did.
As he reached the midpoint of his journey, he’d had enough of the game and with so much time left alone in his thoughts he wrote in his diary:
“I really feel sick at the thought of getting back to Europe, back to the snakepit … I am really fed up with false gods, always lying in wait, spider-like, eating our liver, sucking our marrow. I charge the modern world – that’s the Monster, trampling the soul of men … returning to England feels like returning to nowhere.”
But life on the sea in his boat, Joshua, was a different story. He later recalled: “There were so many beautiful days on this beautiful boat that it really made time change dimensions … I was just feeling totally alive. And that was just fantastic.”
As he rounded Cape Horn, he made a decision that would change his life forever, noting in his journal about communicating his decision to his family. “I do not know how to explain to them my need to be at peace, to continue toward the pacific. They will not understand. I know I’m right, I feel it deeply. I know exactly where I am going, even if I do not know.”
On March 18th, he threw a plastic can onto the deck of a passing commercial ship, whose captain caught it on the fly. Inside was a note addressed to the editor of the Sunday Times’ editor, reading: “Dear Robert, today is March 18th. I am continuing non-stop toward the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps to save my soul.”
He immediately swung the tiller off his path to England, pointed the nose to Tahiti and wrote in his log: “Now it is a story between Joshua and me, between me and the sky; a story just for us, a great story that does not concern the others any more … To have the time, to have the choice, not knowing what you are heading for and just going there anyway, without a care, without asking any more questions.”
Reaching Tahiti in June, he built a house on the beach, planted a garden and wrote a book starting with the line, “You can’t understand how happy I am.”
Ironically, Tahiti was so far out of the way that making landfall there required backtracking over extra miles so that he ended up sailing over 37,000 miles, a world record for the longest ever nonstop solo sailing voyage.
Moitessier never knew it, and when he learned about it, he didn’t care. The journey wasn’t plotted on a map, it happened in his soul.
“I have been one acquainted with the night.”
— Robert Frost
The race has no qualifications, anyone can enter. There are very few rules, you make your own way. Lots of people enter, none of whom have experience and there can be more than one winner.
These two stories teach us more about ourselves than about the individuals in the starring role. One ended up dead, the other found himself happier than ever. Both outcomes came from decisions made alone and at sea, but neither had anything to do with sailing.
The two captains are astounding examples of how the quality of your life is shaped by whom you want to impress. Their stories are extreme, but what they dealt with was just a magnified version of what ordinary people face all the time, and likely something you’re facing right now.
Where will you point your ship?