Donald Crowhurst (1932–1969) was a British businessman and amateur sailor who died while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. Crowhurst had entered the race in hopes of winning a cash prize from the Sunday Times to aid his failing business. Instead, he encountered difficulty early in the voyage, and secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions, in an attempt to appear to complete a circumnavigation without actually circling the world. Evidence found after his disappearance indicates that this attempt ended in insanity and suicide.
Crowhurst was born in 1932 in Ghaziabad, British India. His mother was a school teacher and his father worked on the Indian railways. After India gained its independence, his family moved back to England. The family's retirement savings were invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which later burned down during rioting after the Partition of India.
Crowhurst's father died in 1948. Due to family financial problems, he was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He later received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave the Royal Air Force. He later joined the British Army. After leaving the Army due to a disciplinary incident, he eventually moved to Bridgwater and started a business called Electron Utilisation Ltd. He was active in his local community as a member of the Liberal Party and in 1967 was elected to represent the Central Ward of Bridgwater Town Council.
Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, designed and built a radio direction finder called the Navicator. This device allowed the user to take bearings on marine and aviation radio beacons with a handheld device. While he did have some success selling his navigational equipment, his business began to fail. In an effort to gain publicity, he started trying to gain sponsors to enter the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. His main sponsor was English entrepreneur Stanley Best, who had invested heavily in Crowhurst's failing business. Once committed to the race, Crowhurst leveraged both his business and home against Best's continued financial support, placing himself in a grave financial situation.
The Golden Globe Race was inspired by Francis Chichester's successful single-handed round-the-world voyage, stopping in Sydney. The considerable publicity to which his achievement gave rise led a number of sailors to plan the next logical step — a non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world sail.
The Sunday Times had sponsored Chichester, with highly profitable results, and was interested in being involved with the first non-stop circumnavigation; but they had the problem of not knowing which sailor to sponsor. They solved this by declaring the Golden Globe Race, a single-handed round-the-world race, open to all comers, with automatic entry. This was in contrast to other races of the time, for which entrants were required to demonstrate their single-handed sailing ability prior to entry. Entrants were required to start between June 1 and October 31 1968, in order to pass through the Southern Ocean in summer. The prizes offered were the Golden Globe trophy for the first single-handed circumnavigation, and a £5,000 cash prize for the fastest. This was a considerable sum then, equivalent to £58,100 in 2005.
The other contestants were Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, Bernard Moitessier, Chay Blyth, John Ridgway, William King, Alex Carozzo, and Loïck Fougeron. "Tahiti" Bill Howell, a noted multihull sailor and competitor in the 1964 and 1968 OSTAR races, originally signed up as an entrant but did not actually race.
The boat Crowhurst built for the trip, Teignmouth Electron, was a 40-foot (12 m) trimaran designed by Californian Arthur Piver. At the time, this was an unproven type of sailing boat for a voyage of such length. Trimarans have the potential to sail much more quickly than monohulled sailboats, but early designs in particular could be very slow if overloaded, and had considerable difficulty sailing close to the wind. Trimarans are popular with many sailors for their stability; however, if capsized (for example by a rogue wave), they are virtually impossible to right, in contrast to monohulls, and this would typically be a fatal disaster for the boat's crew.
To improve the safety of the boat, Crowhurst had planned to add an inflatable buoyancy bag on the top of the mast to prevent capsizing; the bag would be activated by water sensors on the hull designed to detect an impending capsize. This innovation would hold the boat horizontal, and a clever arrangement of pumps would allow him to flood the uppermost outer hull, which would (in conjunction with wave action) pull the boat upright. His scheme was to prove these devices by sailing round the world with them, then go into business manufacturing the system.
However, Crowhurst had a very short time in which to build and equip his boat while securing financing and sponsors for the race. In the end, all of his safety devices were left uncompleted; he planned to complete them while underway. Also, many of his spares and supplies were left behind in the confusion of the final preparations. On top of it all, Crowhurst had never sailed on a trimaran before taking delivery of his boat several weeks before the beginning of the race.
Crowhurst left from Teignmouth, Devon, on the last day permitted by the rules: 31 October 1968. He encountered immediate problems with his boat and equipment, and in the first few weeks was making less than half of his planned speed. According to his logs, he gave himself only 50/50 odds of surviving the trip, assuming that he was able to complete some of the safety equipment before reaching the dangerous Southern Ocean. Crowhurst was thus faced with the choice of either quitting the race and facing financial ruin and humiliation, or continuing to an almost certain death in his unsafe boat. Over the course of November and December 1968, the hopelessness of his situation pushed him into an elaborate deception. He planned to loiter in the South Atlantic for several months while the other boats sailed the Southern Ocean, falsify his navigation logs, then slip back in for the return leg to England. As last place finisher, he assumed his false logs would not receive the scrutiny of the winner.
Since leaving, Crowhurst had been deliberately ambiguous in his radio report of his location. Starting on 6 December 1968, he continued reporting further vague but false positions and possibly fabricating a log book; rather than continuing to the Southern Ocean, he sailed erratically in the southern Atlantic Ocean, and stopped once in South America (in violation of the rules) to make repairs to his boat. A great deal of the voyage was spent in radio silence, while his supposed position was inferred by extrapolation based on his earlier reports. By early December, based on his false reports, he was being cheered worldwide as the likely winner of the race, though Francis Chichester publicly expressed doubts about the plausibility of Crowhurst's progress.
After rounding the tip of South America in early February, Moitessier had made a dramatic decision in March to drop out of the race and recircle the globe. On 22 April 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to complete the race, leaving Crowhurst supposedly in the running against Tetley for second to finish, and possibly still able to beat Knox-Johnston's time (due to his later starting date). In reality, Tetley was far in the lead, having long ago passed within 150 nautical miles (278 km) of Crowhurst's hiding place; but believing himself to be running neck-and neck with Crowhurst, Tetley pushed his failing boat (also a 40-foot (12 m) Piver trimaran) to the breaking point, and had to abandon ship on 30 May. The pressure on Crowhurst had therefore increased, since he now looked certain to win the "elapsed time" race. If he appeared to have completed the fastest circumnavigation, his log books would be closely examined by experienced sailors, including Chichester, and the deception in all probability would be exposed. It is also likely that he felt guilty about wrecking Tetley's genuine circumnavigation so near its completion. He had by this time begun to make his way back as if he had rounded Cape Horn.
Crowhurst ended radio transmissions on 29 June. The last log book entry is dated 1 July. Teignmouth Electron was found adrift, unoccupied, on 10 July.
Crowhurst's behavior as recorded in his logs indicates a complex and conflicted psychological state. His commitment to faking the trip seemed incomplete and self-defeating, as he reported unrealistically fast progress that was sure to arouse suspicion. By contrast, he spent many hours meticulously constructing false log entries, often more difficult to complete than real entries, due to the celestial navigation research required.
The last several weeks of his log entries, once he was facing a real possibility of winning the prize, showed increasing irrationality. In the end, his writings during the voyage - poems, quotations, real and fake log entries, and random thoughts - amounted to more than 25,000 words. The log books include an attempt to construct a philosophical reinterpretation of the human condition that would provide an escape from his impossible situation. The number 243 shows up several times in these writings: he originally planned to finish the trip in 243 days, recorded a false distance of 243 nautical miles (450 km) in one day's sailing (which if valid would have been a record day's run at the time), and may have ended his life on the 243rd day (1 July) of his voyage.
His last log entry was on 1 July 1969; it is assumed that he then jumped overboard and drowned. The state of the boat gave no indication that it had been overrun by a rogue wave, or that any accident had occurred which might have caused Crowhurst to fall overboard. He may have taken with him a single deceptive log book and the ship's clock. Three log books (two navigational logs and a radio log) and a large mass of other papers were left on his boat in order to communicate his philosophical ideas and to reveal his actual navigational course during the voyage.
Although his biographers, Tomalin and Hall, discounted the possibility that some sort of food poisoning contributed to his mental deterioration, they acknowledged that there is insufficient evidence to rule it out.
Teignmouth Electron was found adrift and abandoned on July 10, 1969 by the RMV Picardy (latitude 33 degrees 11 minutes North & longitude 40 degrees 28 minutes West). News of Crowhurst's disappearance led to an air and sea search in the vicinity of the boat and its last estimated course. Examination of his recovered logbooks and papers revealed the attempt at deception, his mental breakdown, and eventual suicide. This was reported in the press at the end of July, creating a media sensation.
Robin Knox-Johnston donated his winnings for fastest circumnavigation (£5,000) to Donald Crowhurst's widow and children. Nigel Tetley was awarded a consolation prize and built a new trimaran, but committed suicide (for unknown reasons) in 1972.
Teignmouth Electron was later taken to Jamaica and was sold multiple times, most recently in 2007, to American artist Michael Jones McKean. The boat still lies in the dunes on the southwest shore of Cayman Brac.