Descent into madness
Donald Crowhurst perpetuated one of the greatest frauds in sports history in a race to be the first person to circumnavigate nonstop, until it all caught up with him. Now the story is making it to the big screen in The Mercy.
After failing to persuade the Cutty Sark Committee to lend him Chichester’s Gipsy Moth IV for the voyage, he decided a trimaran would be the ideal craft, despite having never sailed on one before. To get the funding to build his dream boat, he achieved perhaps the greatest coup of his life. With Electron Utilisation going down the pan, his backer Stanley Best wanted his loan repaid, but Crowhurst managed to persuade him the best way to get his money back would be to fund the construction of the new boat. The crux of his argument was that he would use the trimaran as a test bed for his new inventions, and the publicity gained from entering the race would catapult the company to success. The sting in the tail was that the loan was guaranteed by Electron Utilisation, which meant that, if the venture failed, the company would go bankrupt.
To understand how he managed this turnaround you have to go back in time. Photos of Crowhurst make him look geekish and uncool to the modern eye. With his sticky-out ears, high forehead, curly hair, tie and V-neck sweater, he appears the epitome of the eccentric inventor. Even his name was that of a cartoon character. But all the contemporary accounts describe him as a charismatic, vibrant personality, the sort of person who lights up a room when they walk in, as well as extremely clever. In fact, his cleverness was his problem. He had the gift of the gab and, once persuaded of something, could talk anyone into believing him.
“This is important,” said his wife Clare. “Donald had this definite talent. He would say the most amazing things, but then no matter how crazy they seemed, he would be clever and ingenious enough to make them come true. Always. This is a most important point about his character.”
Crowhurst got the money for his boat, which was built by Cox Marine in Essex and fitted out by JL Eastwood in Norfolk. It’s a measure of how far behind he was that by the time the Cox yard started building the hulls towards the end of June, three of Crowhurst’s rivals— Ridgway, Blyth and Knox-Johnston —had already set off on their round-the-world attempts. In the event, complications meant the launch date was delayed and even when Crowhurst finally set off on October 31—just a few hours before the Sunday Times deadline expired—his boat was barely complete. None of the clever inventions he had devised for the boat were connected, including the all-important buoyancy bag at the top of the mast which was supposed to inflate if the trimaran capsized. His revolutionary “computer,” which was suppose to monitor the performance of the boat and set off various safety devices, was no more than a bunch of unconnected wires. Worse still, he had to borrow yet more money from Best to finish the boat, and had mortgaged his home to guarantee the loan.
Crowhurst made a desultory figure scrambling about the deck of his trimaran as he set off on his great adventure, only to turn around within a few minutes to untangle his jib and staysail halyards which were snagged at the top of the mast. It was just the start of his troubles. After two days at sea, while still within sight of Cornwall, the screws started falling off his self-steering and, not having any spares on board, he had to cannibalise other parts of the machine to replace them. A few days later, halfway across the Bay of Biscay, he discovered the forward compartment of one of the hulls had filled up with water from a leaking hatch. Soon, other compartments began to leak and, as he’d been unable to get the correct piping for the bilge pumps, his only option was to bail them out with a bucket. Then, two weeks after leaving Teignmouth, his generator broke down, after being soaked with water from another leaking hatch.
“This bloody boat is just falling to pieces due to lack of attention to engineering detail!” he wrote in his log. A few days later he made a long list of jobs that needed doing and concluded his chances of survival if he carried on were at best 50/50. He began to think about abandoning the race. But Crowhurst was in a triple bind. If he dropped out at this stage, not only would his reputation be destroyed but his business would go bankrupt (thanks to his loan agreement with Best) and, perhaps worse of all, he and his family would lose their home (which was also mortgaged to Best). For all these reasons, giving up was not an option.