Book Review: A Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols

Topic & Content

Published in 2002, this is a broad account of the (infamous) 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe yacht race which saw nine sailors attempt to become the first to single-handedly circumnavigate the world non-stop. (Solo circumnavigations had been done before, such as with Joshua Slocum or Sir Francis Chichester, but they’ve always involved at least one stop at a port somewhere.)

The nine men involved were Robin Knox-Johnson, Bernard Moitessier, Bill King, Nigel Tetley, Loik Fougeron, Chay Blyth, John Ridgway, Donald Crowhurst, and Alex Carozzo. Seven of these men dropped out at various points (Moitessier, fed up with the commercialization of racing, kept sailing and circled the globe one and a half times). One man, Crowhurst, facing financial ruin, tried to fake his voyage and never left the Atlantic. His boat was found adrift and he is presumed to have committed suicide. The only one to successfully finish the race was Knox-Johnson who become the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world non-stop.

I read this book several years ago (along with The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst) after learning about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the fate of Crowhurst and the discovery of his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, adrift in the Atlantic. Wanting to know more about the Golden Globe race itself, I sought out this book. Having recently watched the 2017 film, The Mercy, with actor Colin Firth portraying Crowhurst, I wanted to go back and refamiliarize myself with these events, in addition to writing some articles on them. To that end, this will stand as my formal review of this book.

The book is organized into 31 short chapters, followed by an epilogue; all within about 289 pages.

Thesis

Perhaps the closest thing that I could find to a defined thesis in this book is that the 1968 Golden Globe race occurred in a different era, far from our current experience at sea with the highly commercialized yacht races. (Indeed, it inspired future circumnavigation races, such as the Vendee Globe, and the Golden Globe race itself has even been repeated in 2018 and 2022.) The story of the 1968 race has a romantic feel to it and features a cast of characters that are a combination of both heroic and tragic. At the time, nothing like it had been attempted on such a scale (barring solo circumnavigations).

Author’s Background

Prior to becoming a writer, Peter Nichols spent ten years as a professional yacht captain. Additionally, he authored the memoir, Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, as well as the novel, Voyage to the North Star. For a time, he also taught creative writing at Georgetown University.

Critical Observations

Positives

I find myself drawn to the 1968 Golden Globe race with an almost morbid curiosity. The seemingly slap-dash nature of its conception, the poor organization, the multitude of unique personalities (not to mention experience levels), and the tragic suicide of Donald Crowhurst combine to create a very compelling story.

An important caveat is warranted here. I’m not super interested in yacht racing, recreational or otherwise (My real area of interest is in WWII naval history). Additionally, my own experience on the water has been mostly aboard vessels with motors and propellers. That said, I have had a tiny bit of experience sailing aboard a catamaran on inland waters. Based on that alone, I quickly concluded that sailing (under wind power) is a vastly different experience from motoring around on a boat or ship. Sailing is a unique experience I’d like to repeat at some point in time (with a crew), perhaps only because I gained some hopelessly romantic notions of old-school sailing from that experience alone. The reality is that there’s nothing really romantic about being a sailor. It’s hours of boredom, a lot of wind and water, and the vague notion that you’re hopefully making slow progress in the right direction. After all, why spend weeks crossing an ocean when you can fly over it on an airliner in a matter of hours? Because it’s romantic.

The writing in the book is very good, but there’s nothing really groundbreaking about it. Nichols gets the information across in a very accessible manner and the reader doesn’t need to be familiar with sailing terminology to understand what’s going on. There’s a decent selection of photos in the center of the book to provide a visual of some of the contestants and their boats, and there are a handful of maps scattered throughout the book to show the course that several of them took on their journey.

One particularly positive note is that Nichols does a great job of portraying the solo, non-stop circumnavigation of these yachtsmen as something of a bygone era. Although bear in mind that this isn’t ancient history and many of the people involved, such as Knox-Johnson, are still alive. Still, these were the days before GPS satellites, computerized voyage management systems, and sleek carbon fiber racing hulls. In many ways, the techniques these sailors used to navigate weren’t much different from those that preceded them hundreds of years prior. They relied on charts, a chronometer, a compass, a sextant, and radio direction finders to navigate the oceans. Some, like Moitessier, eschewed electronic devices entirely (including radios). Another way Nichols contrasts this race is with the then-ongoing Apollo lunar missions. Both were journeys that were pushing untested boundaries. In fact, Knox-Johnson would complete his circumnavigation in April 1969, and only 3 months later, Neil Armstrong, aboard Apollo 11, would be the first person to set foot on the Moon. In a way, the Golden Globe race was Britain’s chance at still proving it could set records in human endeavors. While the Vietnam War raged in SE Asia, and Apollo 11 and Armstrong captivated audiences in America, Knox-Johnson returned to England to become a national hero.

Ultimately, the feeling one gets about this race is that it had a fairly rushed conception and execution. Half of the hijinks that went down in this race, such as the unstable psychological makeup and inexperience of some of these men, as well as Crowhurst’s fraudulent position reports, would never fly in today’s world. And that’s just for starters. However, it’s important to remember that this race occurred in a different era, far removed from the heavy sporting commercialization and 24/7 news feeds we’re used to today. It seemed to be a simpler time.

Negatives

I don’t have too many negatives to say about this book apart from the fact that I wish it had more maps, more details, and more footnotes or endnotes. Nichols does occasionally insert footnotes, but they contain only commentary and aren’t citations related to the source material.

Since the book is meant for the popular history market, it’s a bit lacking when it comes to details. The book isn’t necessarily vague, but I found myself really wanting to know more about some of the technical aspects of sailing, the boats themselves, and the men who sailed them. The positions of the sailors are only occasionally mentioned (very rarely are their actual coordinates given) and the narrative isn’t heavily focused on following them day-by-day through their respective voyages. Obviously, this is also due to technical limitations of the time period since the race organizers didn’t (or couldn’t) track the boats in real-time; instead relying on them to send position reports via radio, morse code, or messages relayed from passing ships. As such, the story is broadly centered on how the race went, in general.

Perhaps a final critique is that the book could benefit from being longer, but that also relates to the aforementioned lack of details. At less than 300 pages long, it seems like much more could be said for the race, the sailors, and their boats.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Overall, Peter Nichols does a very good job of informing the reader of the 1968 Golden Globe race, while at the same time providing context that it occurred in a very different time before the proliferation of a lot of technology and commercialization into yacht racing. The crazy execution of the race and the myriad assortment of personalities involved truly meant that it was a voyage for madmen.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (Very good. Worth your time.)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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