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Desperation and Deception on the Open Sea

In 1968 Donald Crowhurst entered the non-stop Golden Globe race around the world, a single-handed sailboat race with the winners being the first to arrive and the one recording the fastest time.

Nine men started the race. Five gave up. One finished. One grew dismayed with the idea of fame and fortune and kept on sailing ending in Tahiti. One sank on the homeward stretch. And one lied, sailed around in circles off the coast of Brazil and tried to deceive the world – this man was Crowhurst.

I’m not sure if Crowhurst intended to deceive the world, but He did and I think it might have become his plan early on in the race. It all started bad when the Champagne bottle did not burst when launching and just minutes into the race(under the watchful eye of the world) he ran into problems and had to be towed back in for some repairs. The rest of the race did not go well and ended in tragedy.

There was a clear downward spiral – here is the short version – a recipe for deceit and tragedy:

  • He coveted what Chichester got – to be noticed and knighted.Chichester being Knighted
  • Crowhurst was a struggling businessman, had a family to feed, and not doing well financially.
  • He was a weekend sailor – no experience in global sailing or difficult waters.
  • He had many doubts and fears about the race but felt pressured to press on (by his PR guy and his own deep-seated need to succeed).
  • The fastest time was awarded 5000 pounds in winnings (clearly his primary goal – not being the first to arrive – he was the last to start)
  • Crowhurst started late in the sailing season – the last of the nine solo sailors to enter the race.
  • He goes only half as fast as he expected to go – early on and senses defeat and despair (recorded in his log book).
  • He has leakage problems early on in the Atlantic – the calmest of all waters he would sail compared to the Southern Ocean.
  • He radios in a 243 mile day. His first deception to the world. He has a unique infatuation with this number.
  • He lies (via radio) about progress made in the race on multiple occasions.
  • He turns towards Brazil and waits for a few months while the rest of the men sail around the world. He slips in behind them.
  • While sailing in circles off the coast of Brazil, He has a significant leak, lands the boat and repairs it (against the rules), and continues sailing.
  • He stops all radio contact for many months to hide true position.
  • Creates a second log book to represent a trip around the globe.

Here’s where things get tragic. As he reenters the race, there are only two men ahead of him: Johnston, who arrives in England as the first place finisher, and Tetley, who sails with great determination to avoid being caught and passed by Crowhurst. Tetley sails his boat so hard that it sinks and he is rescued in the Atlantic in the final stretch of the race – only 1100 miles from home.

Crowhurst most likely thought he could come in second and avoid all scrutiny, but now that he was the only man still sailing and on track for the fastest time, I believe he knew that examination would come and certain shame and ridicule would follow.

So what does he do? The only logical thing for a man who has lied, cheated, and will soon be labeled as such. He does the logical thing for a man who was a failure: He let his boat drift while writing a 25,000 word essay on the meaninglessness of life and the non-existence of God and then drowned himself, leaving a wife and children to figure out what happened. His boat was discovered unharmed and adrift on July 10, 1969. It is believed that he killed himself on the 243rd day of the race. Johnston gave the 5000 pounds to Crowhurst’s widow as a gesture of kindness.

There are a few lessons to be learned:

  • Fame and fortune drive men to do foolish and evil things.
  • The offspring of desperation and deception are more of the same.
  • Deception and lies ruin other people’s lives too – not just the evil doer.
  • Opportunities to repent when not taken only send a man into a more dreadful tailspin.

Proverbs 30:7-9

“Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:

8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD ?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

More Info: The Documentary, The Book, Wikipedia Article, Sunday Times Article (UK)

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