Saturday, March 02, 2024

Donald Crowhurst: The strange voyage of a Liberal councillor

The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race - in which the nine competitors sailed around the world single handed and non stop - took place in 1968-9. It thus belongs, like the Post Office Tower and hovercraft rides at village fetes, to an era when Britain felt positive about its future.

If the race is remembered today, it's not for its winner and sole finisher Robin Knox-Johnston but because of  Donald Crowhurst. 

The last time I mentioned Crowhurst, a reader told me he had been a Liberal councillor. And this cutting from the Western Daily Press (12 March 1969) shows she was right.

Further rooting in the British Newspaper Archive reveals that he sat for Central ward of Bridgwater Borough Council in Somerset.

Donald Crowhurst was an inventor whose inventions did not sell and had a wife and four young children. Though he had next to no experience as a yachtsman, Crowhurst was attracted by the race's £5000 prize money and the publicity that it would bring the electronic navigation aides that he sold.

He designed his own yacht and left Teignmouth on the last possible day, and such was the confusion that he left some of his supplies on the quayside.

Realising that his craft would not survive the rougher seas ahead, he never left the Atlantic. He could not withdraw from the race because he had accepted funding from a local businessman with the condition that he would  forfeit his house if he did not complete the race.

So he sailed in circles in the South Atlantic, and at point putting in to port to make repairs against the rules of the race, and radio in false reports of his progress around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Pacific. 

His plan was to wait until the other competitors had rounded Cape Horn and were sailing north up the Atlantic, and then to slip back into the race behind them. He reasoned that, as long as he did not win the race, no one would look at his logbooks too closely.

But the other competitors kept dropping out, until only Crowhurst and Knox-Johnston were left. Because of the speed of Crowhurst's invented progress across the Pacific, if he returned to Britain he was bound to be declared the winner and then exposed as a fraud.

Crowhurst's yacht was found drifting in the Atlantic without him on board. His logbooks suggested that he had decided to take his own life "while the balance of his mind was disturbed," as verdicts used to say.

I was reminded of this sad story by the British Scandal podcast, which is currently covering it, and this evening I watched the documentary Deep Water on YouTube. You can see the trailer for it above.

It does its best to make Crowhurst a hero, but I see him more as a victim - an impecunious child of Empire raised on tales of British heroism.

The real victims were his wife and friends, who were left wishing they had dissuaded him from what was obviously a doomed enterprise. And they were his wife and children, who not only lost him but were left to cope with his transition from national hero to fraud.


David Raw said...

A tragedy.

Apparently the winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, donated his £ 5,000 prize money to the Crowhust family. A noble and generous thing to do.

Jonathan Calder said...

Yes, I should have mentioned that. He's the true hero in all of this.

I didn't realise until I heard the podcast that Crowhurst had signed over the family home and not told his wife he had done so. His business premises burnt down while he was at sea and turned out not to be insured.

Bill Revans said...

I remember reading the minutes of the Bridgwater Divisional Liberal Association clearly unsure of what to do when a serving councillor goes missing in a round the world boat race and seeking HQ guidance. The ward was Bridgwater Central btw

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you, Bill. My original source says it was Central ward: I'll change it in the post.

Do you remember what guidance they received?