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Donald Crowhurst’s Son Tells his Story

by The Sunday Times/Fiona Wingett on 3 Feb 2007
Simon Crowhurst SW
Some say Donald Crowhurst could have been talked out of his tragic attempt at deception on a round-the-world yacht race. But his son Simon tells Fiona Wingett the die was cast before he left.

It was a grey, windy day when a 41ft light blue trimaran sailed out of Teignmouth harbour, the choppy sea churned yet more by the motors of dozens of chase boats filled with well-wishers and the media.
The shore, littered with jetsam from gales the night before, was thronged with people eager to watch the departure of a man who might become the first to sail solo and non-stop around the world.

The adventurer at the centre of the maelstrom was Donald Crowhurst — one of nine men taking on the gargantuan yachting task — who would become infamous for faking his positions and, having succumbed to the mental pressures of life alone at sea, for stepping off the side of his vessel and committing suicide.

The year was 1968, and only a year earlier Sir Francis Chichester had completed his epic voyage sailing solo around the world. But no sailor had ever completed the task without putting in to port: when The Sunday Times announced the Golden Globe around-the-world race, the nation became gripped by race fever.

On October 31, Simon Crowhurst, then eight years old, stood with his mother Clare and the rest of the family in a launch in the Devon harbour, excitedly waving his father goodbye. 'I remember vividly the effort of trying to see the sail for as long as possible, of watching that sail getting smaller and smaller and waving, occasionally, just in case he could see us, and, finally, straining to see it even after it had completely disappeared,' he says.

Crowhurst had set off in the Teignmouth Electron, an unsuitable boat that was ill-prepared: hatches leaked, the plywood hull would not stand up to the pounding of Atlantic waters and vital safety equipment was left behind on the dock. But the universal pressures of time and money forced him out of port before he was truly ready.

Crowhurst’s story is being dramatically retold in Deep Water, a film by the makers of Touching the Void, which has just opened in British cinemas. In similar documentary style, it tells the story of Crowhurst’s doomed venture through reconstruction and interviews with family and colleagues.

At the same time, Robin Knox-Johnston, one of Crowhurst’s competitors in the 1968 race — who later donated his winnings to Crowhurst’s stricken family — has just arrived in Fremantle, Australia, at the end of the 13,000-mile first leg of another solo round-the-world race. He said he had 'plenty of memories' of that first race: 'The waves seemed bigger then.'

A complex man, who had had unremarkable stints in both the RAF and the army, Crowhurst had set up a business selling a direction-finding gadget for yachts, the Navicator. This race was, among other things, a brilliant marketing opportunity.

He found a sponsor in millionaire businessman Stanley Best and took on ex-Fleet Street reporter Rodney Hallworth as his press agent. Simon and his brothers, James and Roger, and sister, Rachel, idolised their father, a larger-than-life character who would take them out on his little yacht, Pot of Gold.

As his dream of taking part in the race turned to a reality, the children saw less and less of him. Stanley Best had made Crowhurst sign a last-minute agreement forcing him to pay for the boat should he withdraw in the early stages of the race, which would have meant financial ruin.

The night before departure, a stressed and exhausted Crowhurst wept in his wife’s arms. Clare believes that had she told him not to go, he would have been saved, but Simon disagrees: 'He was so determined, he would have gone even if he knew it was the wrong thing to do.'

Almost from the outset things weren’t going well for Crowhurst. At first the children eagerly plotted their father’s position on a map in their playroom, although it soon became clear that his progress was excruciatingly slow. But in December news came that he had had a record-breaking day’s sailing — 243 miles in 24 hours — and he sent a telegram saying: 'The race begins.' We now know it was at this time that he started faking his navigational records.

'The pin on the wall was moved in accordance with the positions given by Hallworth which were his interpretations of messages received from my father,' says Simon. They later proved to be wildly inaccurate. Shortly after Crowhurst warned that he might lose radio contact, communications ceased. The family heard nothing for 11 long weeks.

Finally, Crowhurst broke radio silence. 'It was like a switch had been thrown. There was a euphoric feeling among everyone at that time — us, mother, all our friends. But the main thing I remember is how happy my mother was.'

Instead of having been the sea-conquering hero, which the family believed, he had in fact been languishing in the South Atlantic, faking his position. He intended to rejoin the race when the other competitors rounded Cape Horn and were on their home leg. He planned to come a safe third or fourth, a position he knew would mean his logbooks would not be too closely scrutinised.

But all the other competitors, bar two, Robin Knox-Johnston and Nigel Tetley, had withdrawn. From the position he gave, Crowhurst appeared likely not just to finish — but to win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation.

His jubilant family wanted to go to the Isles of Scilly to welcome him home. But suddenly, the plan was ditched. 'I discovered later it was because my father sent a message telling my mother not to go. That was the first inkling we had that things might not be perfect.'

Far worse was to come. After eight months at sea, the boat was found, intact and in the mid-Atlantic, but without her skipper. 'My mother took me and my brother Roger up to our bedroom. All three of us sat down on the edge of the bed and she said: ‘The boat’s been found and he’s not on it’, then she broke down in tears’.'

Days later, the search was called off. 'They had found the logbooks and worked out what had happened. But we didn’t know that as children and neither did my mother. She was devastated, paralysed with trauma and grief.'

As he grew up, his father’s death remained shrouded in mystery. It was only years later, when Simon was 16 and studying A-levels at Millfield school in Somerset, to which he had won a scholarship, that he chanced upon a book in the school’s library. The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, published in 1970, included excerpts from his logbooks that revealed his disturbed state of mind.

For the first time, Simon confronted a shocking truth about his father. Rather than being a hero, he was cheat. 'I felt disappointment and shame, mixed with pride that he did do so much and that he struggled so hard. I didn’t realise that so much was known about the voyage: it was a revelation.

'The worst thing about it is that he endangered Nigel Tetley, who pushed his boat beyond the limit when he was told of my father’s ‘position’ and had to be rescued. That is reprehensible.' The family lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a house that they could not afford to heat and which they were often threatened with having to sell.

It was only through the magnanimity of the eventual winner, (now Sir) Robin Knox-Johnston, who donated his £5,000 prize money, that the family managed to keep their home. 'I have total admiration and huge respect for Sir Robin. Not to retract his gift once it became clear that my father had done this terrible thing, had not sailed round the world and was actually disqualified much earlier by going ashore in South America, showed a great capacity for empathy.'

The Crowhurst family was reunited with Knox-Johnston for the filming of Deep Water. 'I never expected to win that money so it just made sen
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