Writer Frank Virgintino looks back at an event that changed the sport of sailing and reflects on how one man’s quest for glory ended in tragedy.
The remains of the trimaran Teignmouth Electron lay stranded on Cayman Brac in the Cayman Islands. Where is Cayman Brac? It is one of the two ‘Sister Islands’ which are part of Grand Cayman (see free cruising guide at: www.caymanislandscruisingguide.com)
In 1968 the London Sunday Times offered a prize for the first person to sail solo, non-stop around the world. Inspired by Sir Frances Chichesters recent solo, one-stop circumnavigation, the Golden Globe Race attracted the world’s best sailors.
To put the Golden Globe Race in true perspective, consider that it predated GPS and all of the other electronic navigation aids available today. There was no satellite radio or tracking system.
Teignmouth Electron’s sole voyage was a race which started with nine competitors and spanned eight months in 1968 – 1969. The man who owned and skippered Teignmouth Electron, Donald Crowhurst, never returned from the sea. While the race was the Electron’s first and only voyage, it was her sailor’s last.
Donald Crowhurst was an English businessman and trained electronics engineer whose company was on the ropes. For him, simply completing the race represented a potential reversal of fortune.
Both he and his boat were inadequately tested. The safety inventions that Crowhurst had planned to incorporate and then market after the voyage were unfinished. Basically a weekend sailor lacking any blue water experience, Crowhurst and his boat crossed the starting line on the last possible day.
Less than two weeks into the race, the price for inexperience and hasty preparation became clear and Crowhurst decided to forego the circumnavigation and falsify his navigation logs. His plan was simple: he would remain in the South Atlantic until lapsed time would reasonably allow him to ‘reenter’ the competition near the end of the race.
What Crowhurst didn’t know for sure but probably suspected was that the race committee had become more than a little curious about inconsistencies in his intermittent radio reports and that they had taken the initiative to begin a quiet investigation.
Dwelling on his own deceit and possible exposure as a fraud, it is thought that Crowhurst committed suicide by stepping off the back of his boat. From that point on the story of Donald Crowhurst entered into sailing legend.
When the Electron was found adrift and abandoned, Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston automatically won the shortest lapsed time prize. Knox-Johnston immediately pledged his prize to a fund for Crowhurst’s family.
The Electron was found adrift with dirty dishes littering the galley and numerous electronic parts scattered about the cabin at 33o 11 N, 40o 28 W on July 10 1969 by the RMV Picardy. After communicating the find to England and following a search in the vicinity for the Electron’s missing owner, the Picardy, destination Santo Domingo, hoisted the vessel aboard. It was subsequently sent to Jamaica.
How the trimaran finally ended up stranded on Cayman Brac is a mystery.
This story of Donald Crowhurst is complex. It combines undertaking alone – and against the odds – an heroic, grueling task; attempting to salvage the effort by concealment (the only sin of which a god is capable, according to Crowhurst’s complex and elaborate apologia); and the surrender to a madness wherein if one sins as only a god can, then one must be as a god and â€¦ must join them. It rises to the realm of classic Greek tragedy. Â The story has been the subject of books, notably Tomalin and Hall’s The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (1970, re-released as a paperback in 2003).
And what of the other eight men who undertook the same heroic task as Crowhurst? Robin Knox-Johnson and Bernard Moitessier were the most celebrated of the nine who undertook the sailing world’s most extreme challenge. Both the ocean and the race rules were harsh mistresses. Peter Nichols, a redoubtable sailor himself, vividly assessed all nine competitors in light of why they took on the challenge, what was at stake in each of their lives, and the known and unknowable conditions they faced at sea in his book A Voyage for Madmen (2002).
For those of you who like to cruise and like to solve mysteries, I suggest you visit Cayman Brac. Aside from actually seeing the Electron you will also get to see Cayman Brac and perhaps Little Cayman as well. You will not be disappointed! You will find the Sister Islands, safe, extremely beautiful, very un-crowded and a joy to behold; albeit that they are ‘off the beaten track’.
Frank Virgintino is author of a number of Free Caribbean Cruising Guides and books which can be found at: www.freecruisingguide.com