Who among us has not been tempted from time to time to exploit a felicitous misunderstanding and take full credit for a piece of good work we did not accomplish? Or bask in the reflected glow of a compliment we did not really intend? Most of the time such temptations are fairly quickly removed by the sudden appearance of the true facts: the creator of the good work shows up, or the complimentee perceives your real meaning. At that point, most of us give a cough of embarrassed deprecation and admit the truth. Thanks anyway.
But a man named Donald Crowhurst was one who didn't. He let a false impression get out of hand—indeed, he fostered it—until it consumed him. In the end, recognizing the futility of maintaining the deceit, he seems to have chucked himself into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to escape the embarrassing consequences.
Crowhurst's deceit would seem, on the face of it, rather easily disproved. As a competitor in the London Sunday Times round-the-world yacht race in 1968, he duped most of the world into thinking he had circumnavigated the globe and was in contention for victory. The fact was that he had never left the Atlantic. Considering how crowded the Atlantic is these days, it is astonishing that someone didn't bump into him one afternoon and ask, "What the hell are you doing here?" But no one did.
The open sea is vast, and if you avoid the main shipping lanes you can lose yourself on it for years and not see another ship. In that regard, Crowhurst knew what he was doing. His aborted voyage took him along lanes seldom traveled by other ships and, whether by instinct or calculation, he understood precisely how far he could go in withholding information as to precise locations, weather reports and sea conditions from his own backers and race officials. Only one man perceived the flaws in Crowhurst's dispatches and urged caution. Not surprisingly, the man was Sir Francis Chichester, who had been there and knew.
What gets into a man like Crowhurst? Or what had already got into him that caused the compass of his mind to deviate? Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, a pair of British writers, have managed in their new book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (Stein and Day, $7.95), to find many of the answers in the copious scrawls of the three log books that survived aboard Crowhurst's abandoned trimaran, Teignmouth Electron.
The three logs are veritable casebooks of a man slipping into madness. From the earliest jottings, describing his difficulties with the untested vessel and his recurrent brooding over the wisdom of his voyage, to the last ones, where his obsession with fate, God and death overcame him, Crowhurst's own records provided Authors Tomalin and Hall with rarely discovered insights into a literary subject.
Not the least of their problems with the logs was the reconstruction of Crowhurst's actual (as opposed to bogus) voyage. For, although he held back nothing of a personal nature that one can tell, he was an egregiously bad sailor and navigator, and his log on this score is highly unreliable. This failing seems to have started all the trouble in the first place.
During the first few weeks of his trip, Crowhurst encountered colossal difficulties—leaking hulls, a flooded generator, communications failure. While he grappled with these, his "sailorizing," as Chichester called it, suffered. His progress fell to less than 50 miles a day (he had predicted more than 200), and so, to put the best possible face on matters, he let his dispatches become increasingly obscure. "Heading Azores," he wired when he had barely reached Portugal, and then, two days later: "...going on toward Madeira," which would have meant a change of heading of almost 90°. Nobody noticed.
By such increments he got himself deeper and deeper into his deception until he had London believing he was rounding the tip of South Africa and having radio problems (a device to set up the ensuing months of silence while he supposedly crossed the Indian and South Pacific Oceans).
During his radio blackout he put in for repairs at an Argentine backwater port, then stalled for a period of better than a month, avoiding other sea traffic and getting ready for his reappearance, allegedly rounding Cape Horn and heading for home. When he came back on the air, London was ecstatic. His progress across the South Seas had been fantastic, and the race leader, Commander Nigel Tetley, pushed his vessel a little harder—bringing on the final irony.
Finishing second was, at this point, just fine with Crowhurst, who at all costs wanted to avoid the close scrutiny that victory would bring. But then, nearing the coast of Spain, Tetley's vessel broke up. Crowhurst suddenly had no serious opposition, and he began his final emotional collapse. At this point the journal becomes a visit to Inferno ("Cannot see any 'purpose' in game.... It is finished—it is finished"), until he describes the moment he will die: "I choose I will resign the game 11 20 40. There is no reason for harmful." His last words.
Messrs. Tomalin and Hall have not produced a literary masterpiece but an adventure story of remarkable depth—as deep, let us say, as a man's madness.