Temptation on the High Seas


This morning, I discovered the harrowing story of Donald Crowhurst, who set out to circumnavigate the world in late 1968 as part of a race sponsored by the Sunday Times. The novelty of this event is that was non-stop. Landing, even to repair the boat, would incur disqualification.

The sea is a big place, and I have felt the sense of total isolation single-handing a small dinghy for only a couple of hours within sight of the coast. The sea is so immense, and the sailor and his boat are so tiny and insignificant. The longer you are at sea in total isolation, the more strange things happen to the mind and the soul. I thought of Jesus during the forty days in the desert, without food and alone. The devil is very real – just as in the hermitages of Carthusian monasteries.

Here is the documentary Deep Water, which you can see on You Tube.

Many things were wrong from the start. Crowhurst was not an experienced sailor and had not learned to sail the high seas. He was an amateur weekend sailor, even if he knew how to use a sextant and calculate his position (no GPS in those days!). The boat was flimsy and not well-designed for the hellish conditions of the Roaring Forties or even the South Atlantic, which was as far as he got. His self-steering gear fell apart from the vibration of his cavitating rudder and his forward hatch was not watertight. He mortgaged his house and his business on making a success of the race to an sharp businessman who financed his boat. The deal was “I’ll give you the money up front, but finish the race or pay”!

When he set off, he was faced with humiliation and bankruptcy if he turned back, suicide if he continued. There was a “third option” – stop in the South Atlantic, go into radio silence for the time it took for the other competitors to make their way round the Roaring Forties and Cape Horn and find themselves again off the coast of Brazil. There, Crowhurst would fiddle his log and start sending radio messages again. He had the incredibly difficult task of making the fake log credible with exact global positions and numbers of miles covered each day together with the weather conditions, currents and everything else. There was no way he would get away with it. He thought of coming in as a runner-up, and his log would not be too closely scrutinised by the race judges. But the one who was going to be the winner foundered in the mid Atlantic and his boat sunk, but was fortunately rescued. Crowhurst was now set to be the winner – but a fraud.

As he found himself locked into increasingly diabolical dilemmas and after nine months at sea apart from an illicit repair stopover in Brazil, his mind went crazy and the log entries were increasingly bizarre with their weird pseudo-philosophy. Finally, as the evidence would suggest, he jumped overboard and drowned. His life raft was unused. The boat was found by a cargo ship in the middle of the Atlantic, apparently not knocked over by a rogue wave and the cabin was still still more or less dry. His body was never found.

The language of the last log entries is too garbled to be worth reproducing, and shows that his mind was gone. It rather reminds me of the insane Nietzsche in his atheism and nihilism. I wonder if Crowhurst had read Also sprach Zarathustra (which may be found in the previous link in German or English translation) and the legend of the Übermensch. Truly, a man who goes to sea alone will face his demons as did Nietzsche in the mountains of Switzerland. Solitude is a vocation – you find God or demonic insanity! I can tell you from experience of less extreme solitude.

See the documentary and meditate on the Three Temptations, an excellent preparation for Lent and our spiritual purification and purging through prayer, fasting – and solitude as well as good done to others. The short times I spend at sea in my little dinghy, just far enough from the coast not to hear the noise of the land, are excellent times for prayer and meditation. The longest times I have spent alone at sea were about six hours to cross the Seine Estuary both ways or go round the Ile d’Aix and the Fort Boyard. I long for the end of winter, and perhaps I might be able to sail in February or March – with my good neoprene wetsuit as the sea will be cold! At this time of year, it is difficult to find air temperatures over 10°C, fine weather, winds of 10 to 12 knots and not too much of a swell…

One has to know where the limits are, and to “come clean” when we know that these limits are exceeded. I too have my dreams, but I know I will never sail round the world as I don’t have the experience or the boat for it. Perhaps one day, a trip around the British Isles “port hopping” or spending nights at anchor in a more modest vessel – perhaps. I don’t have only myself to think about!

One must never mortgage one’s soul to the devil for idle dreams, but we have to remain in reality, within our real possibilities and capabilities. This for me seems to be the essential message of this tragic man who was caught in Satan’s net and was led to the heart of darkness and a web of deceit. Whatever happened at his final moment, we can only pray for this tragic man’s soul and the family he left behind.

See the documentary. It is well worth an hour and a half of your time. You could also read Donald Crowhurst and his Sea of Lies.

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22 Responses to Temptation on the High Seas

  1. CG says:

    A pertinent quote from one of St Gregory Palamas’ homilies: “Humility is the acknowledgement of reality.”

  2. Stephen K says:

    A truly tragic and poignant documentary.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Reading the newspaper article stirred a long-forgotten memory in me. Firstly, I remember Chichester’s visit to Sydney on his round-the-world voyage. My father was an avid yachtsman and skipper of a friend’s boat and went sailing every weekend around Sydney harbour and up and down the coast. He’d come back sometimes after pretty rough seas and weather looking pretty rough himself. So Chichester’s solo voyage was an event for him and consequently the family! There was a copy of “The Lonely Sea and the Sky” for many years on our bookshelves. But secondly, the Donald Crowhurst name came back to me, without linking the name to the events about which I knew next to nothing, just some sense of controversy. Well, now I know. His poor wife. And children. And himself, too. Just all too sad, really, a tale full of “if onlys…” and “what ifs..”

  4. Stephen K says:

    This is a haunting story, the more one reads. Nigel Tetley, whose trimaran sank just 1,000 miles from home port because he pushed his craft too hard thinking Donald Crowhurst would beat him, died in tragic circumstances only 2 and 1/2 years later. His death is also surrounded by some mystery. Only one, Knox-Johnston, could be said to have survived the challenge unscathed. Gosh, there’s some cause for reflection here.

    • This brings me to think of purgatory on earth – a person is brought to know his true self without affectation or false super ego. We can also think of the commentary by Dom Delatte on the Rule of St Benedict:

      The absence of distractions and diversion entirely delivers us to our suffering. The suffering of contemplatives is like Purgatory: the fire penetrates to the marrow, to the most intimate fibres; it is like food being cooked slowly, the lid on the pot, the steam transforming the food. All the movements become painful, like a man who has had his skin stripped away…

      The isolation is less absolute in a monastery than at sea alone, in a man who is spiritually unprepared. He might be good at sailing and a brave man, but can he face his true self? The documentary shows that there was a lot of falseness in Crowhurst, and it got its own back against him. Sexual perversions and addictions alike take their toll, and are only magnified in solitude.

      • Stephen K says:

        Father, I can’t help feeling that to say there was a lot of falseness in Donald Crowhurst is both harsh and not completely true. Yes, there was some falseness, if you mean that he projected a “false” image of his own confidence and competence or that he was initially and for some time prepared to construct a false story for himself and the public. But you can see from the documentary that it was as much a case of just being weak at the wrong moments and fallible, garden-variety self-preservation kicked in. Are we not all capable of such weakness and fear? And indeed, at the end, he had just enough contact with the folly of his responses, that he realised the game would be up. Some will say that suicide is a coward’s way out, and that may be partially true. But not completely: try deciding to and then actually jumping off a boat in the middle of the ocean to kill yourself. Most of us shrink from the idea even of taking sleeping pills!

        Of course, we can say from the comfort of history that if he had loved his wife and children more he would have gone back to face the music. But I suspect we diminish the enormity of the pain that that would have represented. I feel so very sorry for his wife and children, but by golly! what one of us has not done foolish thing from which return seems hopeless, or, if not, what one of us is not capable of doing so?

      • I think the documentary gives a lot of subtlety. I didn’t see him as a cheat. Indeed his wife was convinced he didn’t have that intention when setting sail from England. As far as I can see it, he was trapped into a kind of Catch 22 situation and all he could do was to gamble.

        In a certain way, many of us TAC people have had that kind of trouble (apart from not being at sea in a boat) when Archbishop Hepworth threw in his lot with Rome. Beyond a certain point, there was no return.

        When I saw the documentary, I asked myself whether Crowhurst was some kind of narcissist with a grandiose view of himself with the usual characteristics of being without conscience, glib, superficial, etc. Was he prepared to face himself in the ultimate monastic cloister? After a time, I no longer saw the narcissist “profile” but rather a man “in it up to the neck”.

        Save me, O God : for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.
        I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is : I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.

        Psalm 69 (Prayer Book)

  5. Simone says:

    You may be interested in reading the history of Bernard Moitessier, who took part in the same race but abandoned halfway after Cape Horn, going forward to Thaiti (abandoning his wife and three sons who wouldn’t have see him again for years) and to another world roundtrip because “he was happy on the sea, and maybe also to save his soul”.
    An haunting race indeed!

    • Robin Knox-Johnston was the only one to finish the race and gave his winnings to Crowhurst’s family to enable them to keep their house. He is still alive and a legend in the yachting world. He seems to be the only one who really kept his sanity other than the guys who were sensible enough to give up when they saw that non-stop circumnavigation was beyond their capabilities and the seaworthiness of their boats.

      Moitessier seemed most strange (he died of cancer at an old age) with his 1960’s spirituality and way of coping with loneliness. He seemed to have rejected the world he had left and the commercial aspect of competitive sailing.

      Saving his soul? I’m not sure what Moitessier would have understood by that. He practised Yoga and didn’t seem to be otherwise a religious man.

      • Stephen K says:

        Father, when someone says they want to save their soul, I don’t automatically think of a Christian “getting to heaven” idea, but more in terms of something more terrestrially existential, more akin to recovering their sanity and integrity and sense of purpose and harmony with self. I think that’s what Simone may have meant and how Bernard would have thought of things.

      • That sounds very good to me, as we both have a mind to getting away from “literalism”.

      • Simone says:

        That’s exactly what I intended – or better, what I intended from what he affirmed. Unfortunately, the original quotation is present only on the Italian and French Wikipedia:
        Alors que tout le monde l’attend en vainqueur (au train où il avance, il dépassera bientôt Robin Knox-Johnston, parti bien avant lui), Moitessier, passant pour la seconde fois le cap de Bonne-Espérance, catapulte à l’aide d’un lance-pierre un message sur un cargo : « Je continue sans escale vers les îles du Pacifique, parce que je suis heureux en mer, et peut-être aussi pour sauver mon âme »

      • Simone says:

        Another interesting bit of the story is Moitessier’s tombstone:

        that summarises well the contemporary “spirtual but not [insert institutionalised religion of your choice’s name]” approach.

      • Above all the era he lived through, the après-guerre and the 1960’s. Sauver son âme is an expression often used in conservative French Catholicism, but the experience of contemplative life obviously won out over any desire to return to Europe and his family. It was perhaps not a very moral choice – as family always comes first, but it was his choice.

        There is an interview in French about his motivations on http://emmanuel.guyetand.free.fr/Celebres/Ecrivain/MOITESSIER/Moitessier.htm

        I summarise:

        He was a man who made friends easily. He would have been something like a lorry driver of the sea. They are vagabonds in the most noble meaning of that word. But, he was not a “marginal”, just that he was not a competitive sailor. The sea was his way of life, a way of thinking. He wanted to live free and in simplicity. He was not a believer, but was impregnated by the words of Christ. He had an animist side from his origins in Indochina, and was marked by his stay in Israel.

        On board his boat, he was a total loner and hardly ever took on anyone to crew. I see in his words a kind of anarchist and distance from social conventions. However, he always answered letters and was warm and generous with people. He was a utopian, following the ideas of Rousseau. He wanted to live in harmony with nature and was very much of the “1968” movement.

        To anyone who would like to follow in his wake, he said: Be as simple as possible, and you can go without having all the instruments they try to sell you at the Boat Show. What is important is to get going.

        * * *

        Well, I have to be frank, that’s just me. I am a Christian and a priest, but I also love the sea and the simple life – something that exasperates my wife!!! Fortunately, something we agreed on before we married, is that she also wants a simple life without bourgeois sophistication. But I think she’ll draw the line at living on a boat and swanning all over the Pacific Isles! 😀

      • Stephen K says:

        Again I must worry or tease at something you’ve said, Father: Bernard’s decision to go with the sea rather than his family being not a very moral choice, as the family must come first. Is that necessarily so? It may seem like it. It seems instinctive. In the end it may come down to this. But I ask the question. Here we are, talking and reflecting on the problems of nakedness before the Deep, that Abyss we call “God”; about sanity and isolation; about confronting one’s self, buckling under, feeling carried along by a great stream towards the waterfall and doom of one kind or another; about making decisions semi-deterministically; about being alternately foolish and courageous, fearful and at peace. If Bernard was discovering at that moment some inner existential destiny, it seems that it might only have had full meaning and effect if he acted then, there, without the convention of a return. This is what happens when such crisis moments come – before you know it, you must simply act at the flood or go mad or mediocre in the bosom of safety and approval. Was it the only possible decision to bring any benefit in its wake? Surely not, but that is an entirely different question. Remorse and regret can cohabit very easily with decisions made in a spirit of destiny, when it seems that no matter which way one jumps, something will be lost. What I am trying to get at is expressed in this poem I once wrote:

        At that great moment when one stands lone before
        That mighty sea-wall, that wave of change
        That comes in each man’s passage on this earth
        And represents a crossroad and rebirth:
        This surging flood, monumental, strange
        That builds and growls its cataclysmic roar,
        Towering twenty man-spans high from base to wash;
        When one watches, ready for the crash,
        That awful impact overwhelming, suffocating,
        Burying, covering complete and inundating
        In its deep blue sepulchre:
        One has but one escape, one choice,
        One thought with which to furnish voice
        And that is but to stand, braced, and dive
        Into the very depths of that dark wave and strive
        With every strength, with every muscle straining
        Until the surface of that tidal giant gaining
        One breaks free of fear, uncertainty and death
        To suck the air of love with impatient breath.

        At that great moment one must choose and take
        The step, the act that love demands and nothing less.
        For it offers life itself and therefore must be paid
        The price: to plunge into that seething, dark cascade
        That taunts a lesser man with fear of nothingness
        But cannot courage of a lover ever break.
        All past errands, vain pursuits and ill-begotten
        Moments, hours, years and errors, all forgotten
        Must they be at this momentous second;
        And for one’s destiny, all effort worthy reckoned,
        To go through this great barrier:
        For what prize more precious can there be
        Than that first breath of air above the sea?
        And then the second and the third, and all the rest
        As Life is taken hungrily and held within one’s breast?
        For he that would attain his life must risk it at the flood
        And boldly win true love by daring limb and blood.

        Perhaps in memory of Bernard Moitessier I should include my rough translation of it in French:

        (LA MAREE DE LA VIE)
        En ce grand moment quand on se tient avant
        Le digue tremende, cette onde de change
        Qui vient dans la vie terrestre de chaque homme
        Et qui represente un carrefour, une renaissance:
        Cette marée haute, monumentale, étrange,
        Qui croisse, grondant son mugissement enorme
        S’élevant du bas en haut vingt empans humains;
        Quand on regarde, prêt pour le debâcle,
        La fracas effroyable, accablante, suffocante,
        Enterrante, voilante et inondante
        Tout dans son sepulcre bleu foncé, profonde:
        On n’a qu’une seule délivrance, un choix
        Une seule pensée pour fournir la voix
        Ce qui est à se tenir debout retrempé, et plonger
        Au fin fond de cette onde assombri et lutter
        Avec toute force, faire tous ses efforts
        Afin d’atteindre la surface de ce géant maréal
        Et qu’on echappe la peur, l’incertitude, et la mort
        Respirant l’air precieuse d’amour impatiemment.

        En ce grand moment on doit choisir et faire
        Le pas, l’acte que demande l’amour et rien moins.
        Car il offre la vie elle-même, et donc il faut payer
        Le prix: c’est plonger dans cette cascade bouillante, obscure,
        Qui injure l’homme timide avec la peur du grand néant
        Mais qui ne peut point romper le courage d’un amant.
        Toute course passée, toute vaine poursuite et irréfléchi
        Moment, heure, an, erreur, tous oubliés
        Doivent-ils être en cet instant important;
        Et, pour le destin, tout effort doit s’estimer digne
        De passer à travers cette grand barrière:
        Car quel prix plus precieux existe-t-il
        Que le premier souffle au-dessus du mer?
        Et puis, le deuxième, et la troisième, et les autres
        Quand la Vie s’est pris et tenue dans le sein?
        Et puis celui qui voudrait atteindre sa vie doit le risquer à la marée
        Et gagne l’amour vrai intrépidement, en risquant le bras et le sang.

        One of the reasons why I think worrying about orthodoxy in religious dogma and purity of belief in such things is often futile at best and contemptible at worst – especially from armchair heresy-hunters – is because such things pale into insignificance against the raw and overwhelming force of suffering and human courage we encounter in this life. We know we are alive in the moments of crisis when we must come up with an answer to the question whether the void we face is God or just….emptiness. One thing is for sure, we will all face the brink, at least once.

        I think “Deep Water” is a very significant, indeed a great, documentary, dealing with a very big question and almost the ultimate mystery.

      • Or the great poem by Walt Whitman set to music by Vaughan Williams in the Sea Symphony. This has always been a great favourite of mine.


        Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
        Cut the hawsers — haul out — shake out every sail!

        Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,

        Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
        For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
        And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

        O my brave soul!
        O farther farther sail!
        O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
        O farther, farther, farther sail!

        By the way, Stephen, have you ever done any sailing?

      • Stephen K says:

        Alas! no, not in the sense you mean. If you’re asking me whether I ever lent my hands to help wrap up sheets and sail or hold a rope as my father barked an order on the yacht he was skippering on a turn about the mouth of the Hawkesbury River where it meets the Pacific ocean, or crouched down on the aft-deck as the boat sliced through the waters at speed and watched a school of dolphins leap in arches barely thirty yards away in the same direction, and as fast, I say, well, I did those things. So I was only ever a passenger, and hardly ever in anything you could call a real swell. But I remember the salt and smells and power of the estuaries of even those mild jaunts and how colds and germs would magically disappear and sinuses clear over the water. But I was also caught in a deadly rip trying to rescue my little son and found myself failing fast as I struggled to hold him up, until mercifully a stronger swimmer and a life-saver reached us and helped me recover my breath when we floated way beyond the breakers in a weird kind of calm spot. So I’ll never forget or underestimate the magnitude of even the edges of the sea.

      • You certainly know what it is all about! I’m just a little amateur myself and a “messer about in boats”.

    • Simone says:

      I know well the type and the background, as I am myself the son of a Moitessier-without-the-boat, so to speak. Curiosly, my generation [1970s-1980s] is evenly split between the eternally Peter Pans (a minority and generally from very affluent families) and a more conservative block, similar more to our grandfathers than to our fathers. The great majority of my college and university circle is married and often with more than one children, hard-working in an economical environment with less career possibilities than few decades ago, but generally more satisfied than their parents with their lives. Their spirituality is obviously post- or a- christian, but maybe things would be different if they could find something else than guitar masses and social assistans behind the door of the local parish.

  6. ed pacht says:

    I like what Stephen K says. If I’m thinking in terms of Christian religion, I find that I can’t talk at all about ‘saving my soul’ — only Christ can do that — that’s what the Cross is all about. I do, however, on occasion use just that phrase in a secular/psychological meaning, just as he said, “recovering [my] sanity and integrity and sense of purpose and harmony with self.”

  7. ed pacht says:

    Stephen K
    What a wonderful poem! If you have no objection, I’d like to spread it around a bit to a number of my fellow poets. If you want fuller attribution, you can send your actual name to me as edpacht1@myfairpoint.net

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