Many years ago, I joined a mail order book club and one of my very first purchases was a book called Without Trace: The Last Voyages of Eight Ships by John Harris. I’ve always been fascinated by the unexplained and unsolved mysteries and, as nautical nations; Great Britain and the USA have long histories of mysteries of the sea. Without Trace told stories that I’d already heard of – such as that of the Mary Celeste – but also many that were new to me – HMS Erebus and Terror, USS Maine, USS Cyclops, SS Waratah and the Joyita. Most fascinating of all to me though was the story of the trimaran Teignmouth Electron and its skipper Donald Crowhurst, who set out in 1969 on an around-the-world yacht race and vanished, never to be seen again.
The story of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron haunted me for years, lingering in the back of my mind until just recently I spotted the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall on Amazon and decided that I would like to delve deeper into the story. There have been several books written about Teignmouth Electron, but Strange Last Voyage was the first, published just a year after the incident and co-authored by Donald Crowhurst’s literary agent. When the book arrived, it had a sticker on the front stating: ‘Now filmed as The Mercy’. Wait, they made a film about this? I had no idea! Since the DVD was only £2.50 to buy on Amazon, I decided to send away for that too. Thus began my voyage of discovery.
Donald Charles Alfred Crowhurst was a British businessman and electronics engineer whose firm Electron Utilisation marketed a navigation device for yachtsmen called the Navicator, with a limited degree of success. Crowhurst was a keen amateur sailor, so when he read about a 1968 Sunday Times contest for the first and fastest non-stop circumnavigation of the globe, he leapt at the opportunity. Ambitious and self-promoting, Crowhurst longed for the kind of international adulation that had been heaped upon Sir Francis Chichester, whose pioneering round-the-world yacht voyage had been broken by a substantial stop-over in Australia. Electron Utilisation was not doing terribly well, but Donald Crowhurst was charismatic and persistent and eventually managed to brook several sponsorship deals to finance his race entry.
Construction of the Teignmouth Electron was plagued with disaster. Crowhurst decided upon a trimaran, even though he’d never piloted a three-hulled vessel in his life and although the design was sound – some might say revolutionary – the construction was endlessly delayed when vital materials and equipment failed to materialise on time. The ‘race’ was a time trial, so competitors could set off any time they wished, but there was a cut-off date of 31st October 1968 and as that deadline rapidly approached, the Teignmouth Electron was still not ready. In the end, Crowhurst started his voyage on the very last day in a vessel about whose condition he was not entirely satisfied. Among other shortcomings, the yacht lacked the necessary piping for vital pumping equipment, so any leaks in the three hulls had to be dealt with by a laborious manual method.
The Teignmouth Electron lost vital time early in its voyage, as Donald Crowhurst struggled to make preparations that should have been completed before the ship set sail. Once everything was in order (or at least, in acceptable order) the ship briefly made good time down the North Atlantic, but as the days wore on, a catalogue of mechanical failures beset the Teignmouth Electron and Crowhurst began to fall unassailably behind in the race. Crucially, he made the decision to start filing vague, misleading and eventually downright false reports of his position, giving the impression to those hack home that he was racing ahead in terms of time. At first, Crowhurst intended these lies as mere obfuscation and believed that he could catch up and possibly even still win the race, but as time wore on, the lies became compounded and he found there was no honest way out.
The intended route of the Sunday Times Golden Globe race was through the mid-Atlantic, round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, through the southern Indian Ocean past Australia and New Zealand, through the South Pacific, around Cape Horn and up the South American coast, north into the Atlantic and back to Britain. Crowhurst’s wavering route found him diverting from the course of the race in the centre of the Atlantic and by the time he’d reached the Equator, he was completely off-course and headed towards Brazil. He hugged the coast of South America, attempting to deal with the many problems on board, whilst still sending radio signals of false locations and making radio calls, when and where possible, to his sponsors in England and his wife and children. The fate of his family lay particularly heavy on his mind, as he’d made an unwise sponsorship deal whereby they could lose the family home if he forfeited the race.
Haunted by the fact that his deception was spiralling out of control, Crowhurst ceased all radio contact for three months in early 1969. Off the coast of Argentina, the Teignmouth Electron sprung a catastrophic leak, which Crowhurst was unable to repair without materials, so put ashore in the small Argentinean port of Rio Salado. Despite not being able to speak a word of Spanish, he was able to negotiate a deal for some wooden sheets that he could use to patch up the hole and once repairs were completed, he set off back up the South American coast. He had now explicitly broken the rules of the race by putting ashore and even if, by some miracle, he was able to get back on course and make up for lost time, he knew that he was certain to be disqualified if someone in Rio Salado reported his visit.
All the while, Crowhurst had been keeping two sets of charts – one recording the false route and one recording the actual route. Because he’d never actually left the Atlantic, he could theoretically head back to England, giving the impression that he’d been all the way round Africa and Australasia, and win the time trial, but because there was a £5000.00 cash prize involved, the charts of the winning entrant would be scrupulously examined and his deception would be immediately discovered. However, no-one would be interested in the charts of the second or third place entrant, so he chose to loiter in the Atlantic until he heard new over the radio that one of his competitors had won the race in a faster time, then he would coast home as a runner-up and enjoy a consoling pat on the back, free from accusations of cheating.
But the fates conspired against Donald Crowhurst; one by one, his competitors were forced to withdraw from the race for a variety of reasons and the Teignmouth Electron found itself the only viable contestant. If Crowhurst carried on to Britain, no matter how slowly, he would be hailed a champion… and very shortly afterward, a fraud. It was the final straw in his already fragile mental state. He had created a web of lies from which he could not escape without being branded a liar and bringing shame on his wife and children. The accumulated guilt, the sense of failure and the crushing isolation became too much for Donald Crowhurst and he suffered a complete mental breakdown as his boat drifted aimlessly into the eerily calm, weed-clustered area of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea.
Cutting off all radio contact once again, Donald Crowhurst spent his days writing copious notes in his log books; long, rambling theses on the nature of existence. Combining elements of physics, religion and pure fantasy, Crowhurst cast himself as a ‘Cosmic Being’ who, having reached a point of total enlightenment, will be able to move on beyond his physical form. Partly messianic, partly self-pitying, they paint a picture of a man desperate for escape and having reached the decision that the only way to do so is to rise above his tortured life. He simultaneously berates himself for his deception, but makes excuses for it by implying that it was necessary to move him forward to God-like ineffability. “Nature does not allow God to sin any sins, except one,” he wrote in his log; “the sin of concealment.”
As time went on, all alone at sea, Donald Crowhurst’s mental state deteriorated further. His early logs, though nonsensical, were at least eloquent; but they became monosyllabic as his collapse continues. He becomes obsessed with religious themes and the idea that life is a game played between God and the devil, then later still he becomes obsessed with time and the final entries in his log read like a countdown, with each new entry time-coded within minutes of each other. One of his final entries on 1st July 1969 reads: “It is finished. It is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.” There are a couple more entries after that, but they’re almost gibberish and they end mid-sentence at the bottom of the page where there is no more space.
The Teignmouth Electron was discovered in the mid-Atlantic nine days later by the Royal Mail Vessel Picardy, adrift and unmanned.
Donald Crowhurst’s body was never found. There were all kinds of theories that he left on a dinghy to escape financial ruin or swam the 700 miles (!) to North America, but the only hard evidence are the log books and they have been examined by psychiatrists who state that they clearly suggest a man in an advanced state of mental turmoil with suicidal tendencies. The Teignmouth Electron was not damaged or water-logged and a soldering iron perched precariously on the edge of a tin can suggested that it had been becalmed for some time. It’s a tragic story of a man whose ambitions were bigger than his capabilities, who dug himself a hole to avoid being seen as a failure and wasn’t able to dig himself out again. One can only imagine how it must have felt for him; all alone in the middle of the most isolated place on Earth, with nowhere to turn and no way out.
The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall gave me a much deeper insight into the story of Donald Crowhurst than I’d read in Without Trace. It’s an easily read book without too much technical stuff that has the veracity of having been written by two people who were there at the time, following the story. It also has a sense of immediacy, having been first published the year after the incident occurred. There are a few nice photos, made all the more haunting by having been printed in stark black and white and some easily understood maps and charts. Most eerie of all, there are some photographs of the last pages of Donald Crowhurst’s log, written in a hasty scrawl – and occasional BLOCK CAPS – that becomes more and more desperate as he reaches the end of his journey.
By contrast, the 2018 film The Mercy starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz spins the tale as a tragic love story between Donald Crowhurst and his wife Clare. Crowhurst here is presented as more of a romantic fool than the rather arrogant, temperamental character who comes across in the book. As the date approaches for the Teignmouth Electron to launch, he looks like a man marching to the gallows and spends his time desperately trying to get out of the race. It has a fairly small cast – but then I suppose at least 50% of the film is Donald Crowhurst out on his yacht – with David Thewlis and Ken Stott really standing out. It’s a good film, if rather sedately paced, but I wouldn’t make it your first port of call if you want to find out more about Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron, because it does take the odd liberty with the truth.
Well, after all that I have to say that I’m more fascinated with the story of Donald Crowhurst than I was all those years ago. I still think of it as a mystery, even though we can be fairly sure what happened, because I like mysteries and I suspect that if we suddenly found out exactly what occurred, some of my interest would wane. It’s made me want to revisit Without Trace: The Last Voyages of Eight Ships and maybe see if there are some books about the other lost ships that I read about all those years ago. There’s got to be a good one about the Mary Celeste, hasn’t there? Some of them are more mysterious than the story of Donald Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron, though I’m certain that none of them are as moving or as tragic.
‘Without Trace: The Last Voyages of Eight Ships by John Harris’ is out of print.
‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’ is published in the UK in paperback by Hodder.
‘The Mercy’ is available on DVD/Blu-Ray from StudioCanal or to stream on Amazon Prime.