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.