A Voyage For Madmen
First and foremost, A Voyage for Madmen (AVFM) written by Peter Nicols is an absolutely brilliant read – an unquestionable 10 on 10. I’ve read a number of sailing books (particularly those which are touched by tragedy – my reading tastes run the macabre) and nothing even comes close. AVFM, however, isn’t as downbeat as many of the 1979 Fastnet disaster titles I’ve read, though the story is heavily touched by tragedy. It’s a maritime masterpiece and its literary crafting is as exquisite as it gets.
AVFM essentially tells the story of the first ever solo, non-stop, round the world yacht race held in 1968/69. While Robin Knox-Johnson emerged victorious, the real story arguably lies in the utter tragedy that befell competitor Donald Crowhurst.
Crowhurst’s voyage was ill-fated from the beginning, ill-conceived in every possible way and executed in such a manner that would ensure there could only ever be one outcome. He was merely a weekend sailor – his furthest voyage prior to his round-the-world attempt had been to the Bay of Biscay. His trimaran was a plywood trainwreck of nautical design: ill conceived, poorly and hurriedly constructed between different boatyards and totally ill-equipped. The weeks leading up to his very late departure were utter pandemonium and much of his crucial kit for such a voyage was left at the quayside.
In the lead-up to the event, Crowhurst immersed himself in the one world he was comfortable in – electronics. He intended to design a range of fancy sailing gizmos including a self-righting system for his doomed trimaran, that would be marketed through his electronics business later on. These were never finished – and he set sail with just endless bundles of wires leading nowhere, which Peter Nichols hints at as being chillingly poignant as a metaphor for Crowhurst’s life. He took a boatload of electronics, spare parts and the like but virtually nothing in the way of tools or supplies so often needed during a voyage.
Looking back on Crowhurst’s misadventure is utterly chilling: never in the history of sailing has someone worked so feverishly and resolutely in constructing the means of his own unhinging and ultimate demise.
Once underway, Crowhurst quickly realised his boat for what it truly was and abandoned any possible hope of sailing around the world. He meandered in the North Atlantic, while making a herculean effort to create the illusion that he actually had circumnavigated the globe. His voyage was funded through onerous sponsorship deals and re-mortgaging, resulting in his family’s financial welfare perilously hanging by thread.
Throughout the chapters dealing with Crowhurst’s voyage, I was repeatedly reminded of the similarity with Jack Torrence’s slow but unfaltering decent into insanity - in Stephen King’s book, The Shining. The glimpses of a talented if fundamentally flawed man, the immense pressure he felt stuck with his dilemma, the need to provide for his family and leave his mark on the world, fear of unliveable shame of failing (and later, cheating - all interlaced with guilt) and, perhaps most unhinging of all, final doubts emerging over his previously held belief in his own superiority.
Notwithstanding the attempted deception, it’s very easy to emphasise with Crowhurst’s position who, stuck firmly on the horns of a dilemma, had nowhere to go forward but was unable to turn back.
Towards the end of his deception, there were obvious attempts to indirectly admit his scheme to the world and gave positions which could not possibly be true. Sadly these were not picked up on until it was too late.
In the last few weeks and days before his disappearance, Crowhurst worked feverishly in fixing his broken radio – and succeeded – often working 16 hours at a time and ignored any attempt to look after himself, sail or even stay afloat. Then, in late June, he poured out his heart to his logbook and re-examined the meaning of life, man and even some of Einstein’s theories. He did this through a series of deranged ethereal observations and chilling poems which suggest be went on to believe he was the son of God, with the final entry in his logbook reading:
“It is finished, ... [i]t is finished. IT IS THE MERCY... I will resign the game.”
His final decent is as chilling as it is certain and Nichols captures it brilliantly.
It is believed Crowhurst jumped into the abyss on 1st July 1969 with the boat’s clock and his own inner-torment.