The Terrifying Race That Drove Its Entrants To Madness

By Alex Hanton on Wednesday, November 12, 2014
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“I am what I am and I see the nature of my offense . . . It is finished. It is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.” —Final page of Donald Crowhurst’s Journal

In A Nutshell

In 1968, the Sunday Times announced it would sponsor a race for the first person to sail solo nonstop around the world. It seemed like a great adventure. But alone for months in grueling conditions, many of the entrants started to lose their grip on sanity. Only one man would finish the race. Others would pay the ultimate price.

The Whole Bushel

In total, nine boats set off from England, but four were quickly forced to drop out after developing technical problems. The early leader was a notoriously tough British army sergeant named Chay Blythe. Although he and a partner had rowed across the Atlantic in 1966, Blythe had absolutely no experience with sailing. It didn’t bother him—when he set out to row across the Atlantic, he had never even been on a boat before. As soon as he lost sight of England, Blythe realized he was completely lost and had to sail aimlessly until he spotted France. When his boat was hit by a brutal storm, he had to frantically consult a sailing manual to find out what he should do. Despite this, Blythe made fantastic time, reaching the Cape of Good Hope before a damaged boat and faulty generator forced him to pull out.

That left four entrants: Donald Crowhurst, Nigel Tetley, Robin Knox-Johnson, and the legendary French yachtsman Bernard Moitessier. To the eager readers of the Sunday Times, it seemed like the race was neck and neck between Crowhurst and Tetley. The truth was much darker. Crowhurst, an endearingly optimistic engineer who saw victory in the race as the solution to his failing business, never made it past the Cape of Good Hope. His boat was wildly unsuited to the dangerous voyage. Crowhurst had cheerfully assured his supporters that he could invent improvements to make up for any lack of funds, but this turned out to be a pipe dream. The night before he set off, he broke down sobbing, telling his wife that the boat was a disaster. Misunderstanding the situation, she assured him that he would do well. It was only later that she realized he wanted her to tell him not to go. Unable to admit to his failure, but aware he would surely die if he didn’t, Crowhurst took a third option—he decided to cheat.

Crowhurst’s plan was to sail around in the calm South Atlantic for a few months while using his radio to report false positions. He would then rejoin the race in the final stretch back toward England. To fool the sailing world required an extraordinarily clever level of deception, which the talented Crowhurst successfully pulled off. But that still left months of total isolation in the South Atlantic, unable to even keep the radio turned on for fear of giving away his true position. His logbook descended into a crazed scrawl: “If creative abstraction is to act as a vehicle for the new entity, and to leave its hitherto stable state it lies within the power of creative abstraction to produce the phenomenon!!!!!!!!!” Alone with his guilt, Crowhurst was going mad.

Meanwhile, Nigel Tetley was the true leader of the race, but Crowhurst’s false positions created the impression that he had a small lead. Tetley was a genteel, happily married man, who had only previously sailed his trimaran around Britain, but the isolation was affecting him too and he couldn’t bear the thought of coming so close only to lose. Imagining himself in a tight race with Crowhurst, he drove himself on furiously. His boat was in desperate need of repairs, but Tetley couldn’t stop—he had to beat Crowhurst. Off the Azores, almost in the final stretch of the race, he sailed headlong into a storm and sank, being rescued by a passing steamer. Unable to raise money for a new boat, he committed suicide a few months later.

Moitessier was now the true leader, but he was also beginning to crack up. After rounding Cape Horn, he failed to turn north for England. Instead, he kept right on sailing for another three months until he washed up in Tahiti. His only explanation was a note which he fired onto the deck of a passing tanker with a slingshot. It explained he was abandoning the race “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.”

If only Crowhurst could have done the same. Descending into psychosis, he began referring to himself as the Son of God and attempted to write a new system of physics that would allow him to change reality. His logbook ranted about the nature of sin and evil, interspersed with strange cartoons. The chilling last entry notes “it is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.” Then the handwriting becomes strangely calm: “It is time for your move to begin . . . it has been a good game . . . . I will play the game when I choose I will resign game 11:20:40—there is no reason for harmful”

Those were the last words Donald Crowhurst ever wrote. His body was never found. His yacht simply drifted in the South Atlantic, covered in filth and strange electric wiring, until a mailboat stumbled on it.

The race was won by Robin Knox-Johnson, the slowest entrant but the only man to finish. It took him a little over 10 months alone at sea. The psychiatrist who evaluated him described him as “distressingly normal.”

Show Me The Proof

Voyage For Madmen, by Peter Nichols
The Race, by Tim Zimmerman
Strange And Dangerous Dreams, by Geoff Powter
The Guardian: Breaking The Waves