Afficianados of yacht racing are aware of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a solo circumnavigation contest. Merely finishing the race is a major achievement, and there is a significant amount of prize money attached, as well as professional recognition and honors. The 1968 Race welcomed a curious entry: Donald Crowhurst (1932 – 1969), whose misadventures nearly destroyed the viability of the contest. The story of Crowhurst makes an interesting parable on competition, personal character, the individual, and broader society.
Crowhurst was a businessowner whose overwhelming ambition was to compete in the Golden Globe Race, despite his having limited nautical skills and no deep-sea sailing experience. Quitting his business and mortgaging the familial home (out from under his wife and four children) to fund his goal, Crowhurst sailed from England on the last day of launch for the race. He was already behind, and as his son explained in a Guardian interview, he fell further and further behind, becoming increasingly desperate. Then, realizing that reporting of location to the race authorities was on an honor system, Crowhurst began sending false coordinates, leading the organizers to think that he was reasonably close to the lead and was somewhere in the Southern Ocean.
In reality he meandered around the Atlantic, waiting for the final days of the race, planning to slide in among the other yachts as they approached the finish. However, due to a series of accidents which eliminated other contestants, Crowhurst’s false coordinates placed him in the official lead, meaning that he could not slip in among the general finishers. Around this time, he disappeared, and another ship found his yacht, abandoned with two logbooks, detailing his real coordinates, and diaries chronicling his conflicted feelings about the hoax.
The Crowhurst family understandably refused to engage with the public on the subject until a son spoke with a Guardian journalist about the film The Mercy, a biopic of Crowhurst. However, in 1986, a Soviet film debuted “telling” his story. In this version, Crowhurst becomes a heroic, beaten-down everyman who is unable to function in the cruel capitalist system. Competition breaks him, and the society where this hero is supposed to compete is inhuman. The film’s message was that there was something wrong with a competitive society.
Despite the propaganda aspect, the Soviet film deserves credit for capturing the allegorical potential of this fantastic tale. Laying aside the lack of integrity evinced in Crowhurst’s handling of the situation, the story it is an excellent analogy for some of the problems facing modern society. There was the unskilled, untrained man attempting to compete with professionals who possessed decades of experience in the field, not to mention the skills fundamental to survival. Placed in a more general context, this story mirrors contemporary narratives about lower-skilled populations being left behind by society.
In Crowhurst’s case he was literally left behind by the competition. Entrants could leave the launch point on 1 June, but Crowhurst sailed nearly four months later. In all probability, he would never have caught up to the experienced sailors who were already under way. In fairness to Crowhurst, he spent those weeks struggling to find capital to support his racing bid. But this, too, reflects a common concern related to capitalism and society across history: How are those with fewer resources capable of competing with other who possess more, be it material wealth or abstract skills.
Moving from the macro to the micro, Crowhurst’s modus operandi in raising capital is informative. Other competitors in the Golden Globe Race, both before and after Crowhurst, have had backing ranging from private and personal to institutional; some have probably gone into debt in the process. The extent of Crowhurst’s financial fiasco is known only because it all emerged during the subsequent investigation into his disappearance. As previously stated, he obtained his capital from his business and a mortgage on his family’s home. It was entirely appropriate to use his business for backing – entrepreneurial endeavor requires taking gambles and if the attempt failed, he had the practical skills and history to find other employment. The poor choice lay in mortgaging the house, both from a financial view and from a psychological one since failure would result in direct consequences for his family. Based on his son’s testimony, there is little doubt that in his final days, Crowhurst felt the most guilt toward his family, on whose behalf he both justified and deplored his deception.
But, one might say, how else was he supposed to raise the monies necessary to enter the race? One response is that he should have postponed the attempt for several years while he trained and acquired the experience needed to appeal to institutional sponsors. Given that his lack of adequate capital meant that he set out underequipped and without specific upgrades to ensure seaworthiness, one can safely say that sacrificing his family’s security was in vain from the beginning. In other words, Crowhurst should not have entered the 1968 race to begin with. This is not the same as saying he should never ever have entered the competition. If he had patiently acquired skills and experience, he might well have made a strong contender in a later race.
The idea that an individual might not belong in a situation is common sense when applied to concrete activities, such as sailing. However, holding to the metaphor of the competition as a parable of modern society, one sees that opting out of the race is an impossibility. However, the manner in which a person sails is the result of individual decisions. Returning to Donald Crowhurst, he chose to embark undertrained and underequipped, a decision that cost him his life and reputation. At a more general level, a person who chooses to remain unskilled or who engages in irresponsible behavior has made a choice similar to Crowhurst’s and can only expect a comparable outcome.
Mary Lucia Darst
More about this author