Book Review: The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin & Ron Hall

Topic & Content

Published in 1970, not long after the events of this book, this is a reconstruction of the life, voyage, and fate of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. This race saw nine sailors attempt to be the first person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe non-stop. While only one person successfully completed the race (Robin Knox-Johnson), the rest dropped out at various times. In the case of Donald Crowhurst, he put his entire business and home on the line; banking on his winning the prize money for the fastest circumnavigation. Thus facing the prospect of financial ruin if he failed, his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was found mysteriously adrift in the north Atlantic with Crowhurst nowhere in sight. Subsequent investigations quickly determined that he attempted to fake his circumnavigation in the race and most likely committed suicide.

The book is organized as follows:

  • One: The Bravest Boy of Them All
  • Two: The Great Race
  • Three: The Revolutionary Boat
  • Four: The Maiden Voyage
  • Five: Teignmouth
  • Six: The Last Letter
  • Seven: The First Two Weeks at Sea
  • Eight: Two Conflicting Testimonies
  • Nine: The Fraudulent Record
  • Ten: The Plan
  • Eleven: Christmas
  • Twelve: Silence and Loneliness
  • Thirteen: The Secret Landing
  • Fourteen: “Heading Digger Ramrez”
  • Fifteen: Midnight Oil
  • Sixteen: Win or Lose?
  • Seventeen: The Inescapable Triumph
  • Eighteen: Into the Dark Tunnel
  • Nineteen: The Cosmic Mind
  • Twenty: The Great Beauty of Truth
  • Epilogue: And the World Said…
  • Appendix 1: Donald Crowhurst’s Navigation
  • Appendix 2: The Design of the Teignmouth Electron
  • Appendix 3: Teignmouth Electron

This is yet another book that I read several years ago while learning about the infamous 1968 Golden Globe Race. Whereas Peter Nichols’ A Voyage for Madmen is a much broader look at the events of the race, this book is far more contemporaneous (the authors covered the race as it occurred) and obviously more focused on Crowhurst. The story of Donald Crowhurst’s voyage would later be turned into a film, The Mercy (2018), starring Colin Firth as Crowhurst and Rachael Weisz as his wife, Clare. (Review to come.)

A full-sized replica of the Teignmouth Electron was built for the film, The Mercy.

Thesis

The authors argue that Donald Crowhurst, despite his trying to deceive others, was neither a hero nor a villain. Instead, he was a man of courage and intelligence who acted the way he did due to extreme circumstances.

Donald Crowhurst.

Author’s Background

Nicholas Tomalin worked for the New Statesman as an editor and as a columnist for the Daily Express, Sunday Times, and the Evening Standard. Apart from this book, he’s also known for his article “The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong” about the activities of General James Hollingsworth in the Vietnam War. Tomalin was killed on 17 October 1973 in the Golan Heights while covering the Arab-Israeli War.

Ron Hall was the co-founder and editor of the Sunday Times‘ “Insight” and was the joint managing editor of the Sunday Times in 1969.

Critical Observations

Positives

Obviously, this book is a far more detailed account of a single voyage in the Golden Globe race. Basing their information on the recovered boat, logbooks, and received messages, the authors take you step-by-step through Crowhurst’s journey. It should be noted that this book is “mostly” a reconstruction of the events since we don’t know precisely what happened given that Crowhurst was never found. Ergo, the authors had to make some educated guesses.

Crowhurst prior to departure. Various features of his boat weren’t even finished when he set off. He even had to fix the rigging as he got underway.

Crowhurst was a very intelligent man, especially when compared to the population of the rural area he lived in. However, in the opinion of the authors, he didn’t have the higher education to discipline his intellect (he failed to get into Cambridge). As a result, he was perhaps too smart for the locals, but there was nobody around him to test his intellect against. Furthermore, he concealed his failures with other challenges, and as Stanley Best noted, he was a terrible businessman. His company, Electron Utilisation Ltd., was failing and he made a lot of poor financial decisions. Ultimately, Crowhurst ended up staking everything (including his home) on him winning the race despite the fact that he was going up against several sailors with considerably more experience at open ocean sailing than him. Although one of the entrants, Chay Blyth, had virtually no sailing experience. Reflecting back on the events in 1995, Robin Knox-Johnson noted that Crowhurst, being a weekend sailor, would’ve been considered experienced for the time in 1968. However, in today’s world (or at least the world of the mid-1990s), Crowhurst’s limited experience wouldn’t even qualify him for the Velux 5 Oceans Race (formerly known as the BOC Challenge). Knox-Johnson also noted that we shouldn’t judge Crowhurst too harshly (as many initially did when his fraudulent voyage was exposed) because the sea is unforgiving and tests people to their very limit regardless of their circumstances. He’s right and subsequent evaluations have put Crowhurst in a far more sympathetic light.

If there’s anything to be gleaned from this story, it’s that there’s probably a little bit of Crowhurst in all of us. We all have dreams of achieving fame, fortune, and glory. Some people, like Crowhurst, attempt to capitalize on those dreams while the rest of us sit on the couch and keep dreaming. Crowhurst’s problem was that he let his ambition get ahead of him and backed himself into a corner from which he saw no escape. Crowhurst also had the flaw of letting his ambition overrule his inexperience, and he tested that in the unforgiving laboratory of the sea. The results turned out to be fatal. Still, we can commend Crowhurst for actually attempting to make his dreams a reality. After all, he did sail a fairly impressive 16,000+ miles solo on the open ocean and some have opined that he could have made the circumnavigation had his boat been fully equipped.

Clare Crowhurst pours Donald a glass at the launching of the Teignmouth Electron (in the background).
The remains of the Teignmouth Electron on Cayman Brac, circa the early 2000s. The elements and various people have slowly stripped the boat of materials over the years.

Negatives

This isn’t really a negative, but it’s important to note that this book, while published only a year after the events and pretty much contemporaneous, is still a secondary source since it’s a reconstruction that analyzes and evaluates the events as the authors believed them to have occurred. To their credit, they are clear as to when they are speculating because after a certain point it’s uncertain as to what Crowhurst did and what his state of mind was. The only evidence left was the logbooks and the boat. The chronometer and fourth logbook were missing, and many theories have been posited as to what the missing log contained. Still, it’s clear that Crowhurst deliberately left behind evidence of both his real and faked voyages.

My only real negative with this book is that the last couple of chapters, barring the epilogue, are hard to read, both literally and figuratively. These chapters examine Crowhurst’s deteriorating mental state, and it’s pretty clear that he was becoming very unhinged because his log entries during this time are filled with some 25,000+ words of odd ramblings and musings which become more and more nonsensical as they go on (thankfully, the book only provides readers with a small sample of the writings). These writings literally make no sense and the grammatical structure breaks down as it goes on. Crowhurst’s delusional writings come across like some teenagers’ poorly written angsty philosophical scribblings. Furthermore, the authors’ attempts to analyze and interpret this gibberish brings the narrative to a grinding halt. Still, I commend them for doing their best to remain objective, but man does the writing get cumbersome near the end.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

There have been a number of theories as to what happened to Crowhurst and what his mental state was near the end, but I won’t go into them here. In the end, we can only speculate, but the evidence strongly supports the notion that he ultimately took his own life. As it stands, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst is probably one of the best in-depth examinations of the man. When I originally read this book, I was very critical of Crowhurst for his fraud. On the surface, he seemed to be an arrogant man who didn’t listen to the advice of more sound-minded people, and in the end, he paid for it with his life. However, like many others, my opinion of him has gradually softened over time. Unlike other cheaters in sports who attempted to cover up and deny their duplicitous behavior, I now view Crowhurst’s death and situation as tragic, and the result of a variety of factors rather than solely due to arrogance. While the commercialization of yacht racing has become more common nowadays, we shouldn’t view sailing as a game or a sport because you can’t prescribe rules to mother nature, it’s every person against the sea and wise sailors know to respect it. As the authors write, Crowhurst was neither a hero nor a villain. He was a very intelligent, but also a very flawed man who became overly ambitious and found himself in an impossible situation in a cruel environment that far outreached his experience.

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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