|Issue No 39||12 November 1999|
Bizarrism - Strange Lives, Cults, Celebrated Lunacy
By Chris Mikul
The strange story of Donald Crowhurst or how to cheat and become a God.
In 1968, in the wake of Francis Chichester's single-handed circumnavigation of the world in Gypsy Moth IV the previous year, the Sunday Times organised a non-stop, round-the-world yacht race. One of the first to announce his participation was Donald Crowhurst, the 36-year old owner of a small electronics firm based in Somerset. Crowhurst had spent some time in the air force and navy, but had been asked to leave both because of reckless behaviour. He had turned to electronics after setting up a company to market the navigational aids and other devices which he had invented. Although patchily educated, Crowhurst was intelligent and his inventions generally sound, but his company had fallen heavily into debt. This was one of the main reasons for someone who had previously only sailed for a hobby suddenly announcing he would be attempting to circumnavigate the globe - the publicity would ensure the sale of his inventions and the success of his business.
The other reason was that Crowhurst firmly believed himself to be destined for greatness, and he craved the sort of instant fame which Chichester had won. As this was to be the first non-stop circumnavigation (Chichester had made one stop on his trip) the adulation would likely be even greater.
The rules of the race were simple. Any yacht which set out from any port in the world between June 1 and October 31 could be a part of the contest, and as the yachts would be starting at different times there were to be two prizes - one for the yacht which completed the voyage first, and another for the fastest time made. Crowhurst was convinced he could win both.
As the contest was announced in March, Crowhurst only had seven months to design, build and test a yacht. This was an impossibly short time, but he was used to achieving the difficult tasks he set himself. The craft he chose to have built was a three-hulled vessel - a trimaran. This was a risky choice. A trimaran is an extremely stable craft, but once capsized it stays capsized. Crowhurst had invented a gadget to solve this problem however, a rubber bag situated at the top of the mast which would inflate automatically in the event of a capsize, thus bringing the vessel upright again. This was only one of the devices Crowhurst planned to use in his boat.
Crowhurst's boat builders managed to finish the trimaran in a very short time. She was named the Teignmouth Electron after the port of Teignmouth from which Crowhurst would sail. There was little time to test her though, and the design faults which cropped up had to be fixed hurriedly and inadequately. As the deadline for the race approached, Crowhurst, his friends and sponsors worked frantically to gather the stores and equipment needed. There was simply not enough time. When Crowhurst said goodbye to his wife, Clare, and four children on 31 October, the last possible day, his boat was about as badly equipped as it could possibly be.
Things began to go wrong almost immediately. Screws began to work themselves loose and someone had forgotten to put the spare ones on board. His steering gear broke down. One of the floats on either side of the central hull began to fill with water. His generator flooded too, and somehow it had been neglected to load the hose needed for the pump. The boat was a mass of wiring, intended to hook up Crowhurst's many electronic gadgets to a central computer, but had had not had the time to build either the computer or the gadgets. Event the device to bring the boat up should she capsize had not been completed.
Two weeks into his voyage, Crowhurst made a list of all the things wrong with his boat, evaluated their seriousness, and came to the conclusion that there was no way he could complete a round-the-world voyage. Returning home however would not only be humiliating, it would mean the bankruptcy of his firm, which was contracted to buy the trimaran from his chief sponsor in the event of his quitting the race. He considered the possibility of saving face by carrying on to somewhere like Australia, but the chance of doing even this were minimal.
It was now, faced with these unpleasant alternatives, that Crowhurst hit upon a plan. Instead of continuing his voyage - down through the Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope, past Australia, round Cape Horn and back up through the Atlantic to England again - he would simply remain in the Atlantic, out of the way of shipping lanes and hopefully unnoticed, and pretend he had sailed around the world. It was simple in theory, but would be enormously difficult to carry out in practice. He would have to make radio transmissions of false positions, fake the navigational record of his supposed voyage, even write a Chichester-like account of it. Crowhurst thought he could accomplish all this. There was no way he could win in this manner, for winning would mean his logbooks coming under close scrutiny and their inconsistencies being discovered. He could however make it appear that he had completed the voyage.
So Crowhurst spent the next few months sailing aimlessly around the Atlantic, listening carefully to the world weather reports so that he could record the conditions he would have been experiencing had he continued around the globe. After a while it would have become apparent that his radio signals were coming from the wrong part of the world, so he ceased communication, giving a broken generator as his excuse. In his spare time he studied the few books he had brought with him. One of them, a book on relativity, began to increasingly obsess him.
Crowhurst broke radio silence on 9 April, when his false itinerary had him about to round Cape Horn and re-enter the Atlantic. He learnt there were two other yachtsmen still in the race. One of these was straggling but the other, Nigel Tetley, was ahead of him. Until Crowhurst resumed contact it had been assumed that Tetley would win the prize for being the first home. Now they predicted a close finish. Crowhurst had only to follow in Tetley's wake, let him win, then sail home with honour but without too many people interested in the details of his voyage.
His elaborate plans would probably have succeeded had not something unforeseen occurred. In an effort to beat the times he believed Crowhurst to be making, Tetley began to sail more recklessly. On 21 May, while attempting to pass through a storm, Tetley's yacht capsized and he was out of the race. Corwhurst had only to reach England to win. He would be the first man to circumnavigate the world without stopping. They began to prepare the hero's welcome.
As Crowhurst entered the Sargasso Sea he began to receive telegrams giving him details of this welcome - the boatloads of spectators, the helicopters filled with TV cameras and so on. His radio transmitter had really broken now, so that he could no longer speak to anyone. He had entangled himself in a situation from which there seemed no escape.
It is fortunate then that at this point Crowhurst had a revelation of such cosmic significance that it would inevitably change not only his own future but the future of all mankind. It was an idea that had been growing during the previous months, but only now did he realise the true importance of it. Its germ had come from a passage in the Einstein book in which the latter, while theorising about the travel of light, assumes a certain condition to be so. While he does this purely for the sake of argument, Crowhurst took it to mean that Einstein had changed the nature of the physical world by thought. He had therefore achieved what Crowhurst believed to be the next stage of human evolution - the freeing of the mind from the limitations of the body. And if Einstein could do this anybody could, it simply required an effort of will. Here was an idea so overwhelming that it rendered the problems Crowhurst was facing irrelevant. He could change his situation just by thinking about it. By becoming a god.
Crowhurst immediately banished mundane matters like navigation from his mind. He spent the next few days writing a philosophical essay in one of his logbooks, which eventually came to 25,000 words. It must have struck him as odd that the meaning of life had come to, of all people, a yachtsman engaged in a round-the-world race. Still, it had to come to someone, and now it was his duty to pass it on to mankind. He would leave it for them to find, along with the record of his true voyage, for in his new position as a god he mustn't hide anything. In his words, "Nature does not allow God to sin any sins except one - that's the sin of concealment." On 1 July, having put into words the most important discovery in history, he left his body by jumping into the sea.
So now you too can share the revelation of Donald Crowhurst. You too can be a god. All it takes is a little recklessness. Be wild! Go all the way. Go overboard!
'Bizarrism - Strange Lives, Cults, Celebrated Lunacy' by Chris Mikul (Pluto Press, $24.95)
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