In 1968, Britain's Sunday Times announced it would sponsor a race for the first person to sail solo around the world, without ever setting foot on land. They were hoping it would be an inspiring adventure story that would move a lot of papers. Instead, they accidentally opened some kind of portal to the nightmare dimension. Things would have turned out less cosmically horrifying if they'd held a contest to make the most insulting hand gesture to Cthulhu. Nine boats would ultimately leave Britain on a quest to claim the prize. Only one would finish the race. The others would founder in an ocean of madness.
In fairness to the Sunday Times, they were just trying to revive a craze from a bygone era. As the 19th century drew to an end, people found themselves more urban, independent and bored than ever before. Traditional city amusements (public executions) had fallen out of fashion and their modern equivalent (Vanderpump Rules) hadn't been invented, so people were desperate for something to pass the time. The inner-city toughs of America were so starved for entertainment that they all became massive Shakespeare fans and fought bloody street brawls over which actor played Macbeth better. Meanwhile, the good citizens of London spent roughly six months yelling "Quoz!" at each other and collapsing into fits of giggles, for no reason any outside observer was ever able to detect.
Luckily, people could always count on the era's favorite crowd-pleaser: a big crazy race over dangerous terrain. Americans mobbed newsstands to follow contests like the Chadron-to-Chicago race, which started as a bad practical joke but spiraled so far out of control the pranksters actually had to stage an epic 1,000 mile horse race across the badlands of Nebraska. The invention of air travel only heightened the drama, as crowds turned out for bloodbaths like the 1911 Paris-to-Madrid race, during which a plane veered off the runway and crashed propeller-first into the VIP booth, slicing a cabinet minister in half. The pilots then had to fight off enraged eagles with revolvers, while the winner was so overcome with sky-rage he had to be dragged away from the terrified King of Spain by mental health professionals.
The wacky races were eventually replaced by a new popular pastime (dying in World War I), but the Times hoped to resurrect the fad. Unfortunately, the era had passed and experienced professionals largely spurned the race. Instead, a ragtag collection of amateurs and misfits signed up for the big cash prize. Typical was Nigel Tetley, who enjoyed tooling around Britain in his trimaran and entered the race on a whim after reading about it in the paper at breakfast. While preparing to depart, he bumped into the legendary French yachtsman Bernard Moitessier, who urgently explained that a trimaran wasn't the right vessel for the voyage, since it would be impossible to right if it rolled over, meaning a single slip-up was a potential death sentence. Tetley cheerfully ignored him, even as Moitessier started showing up with a series of ominous gifts, including a wetsuit, backup lifeboat, and a big saw to cut apart a waterlogged hull.
Also not listening to any French people was Robin Knox-Johnston, who had entered the race basically out of outrage that "Frogs" like Moitessier were getting favorable press coverage. Declaring that "By rights a Briton should do it first," he stocked an old boat with corned beef and cigarettes and set off to enjoy some of the worst shits imaginable. He would maintain a completely one-sided feud with the entire nation of France for the rest of the journey. The last person to enter was Moitessier himself, who majestically ignored the whole thing until the Sunday Times sent a reporter to beg him to participate, at which point he declared that he liked the reporter's face and would take part after all.
The early leader was Chay Blyth, a British Army sergeant who would just take any insane challenge you offered him. In 1966, he rowed across the Atlantic, despite never having set foot in a boat before. Now he was trying to sail around the world, despite zero sailing experience. Immediately after leaving Britain he got completely lost and just sailed around till he washed close enough to France to seek directions. At one point, he got hit by a storm and had to literally sit down and read a manual about what to do. But he still roared into the lead before his boat basically fell apart near South Africa. Four other boats soon dropped out due to a combination of engine trouble and loneliness. That left four boats, all alone in the vast ocean.
The final four were Knox-Johnson, Tetley, Moitessier and a bumbling electrical engineer called Donald Crowhurst, who had entered the race in the desperate hope the prize fund would solve his money problems. He was sailing an experimental self-designed trimaran, with a special inflatable bag that was supposed to prevent it from capsizing, but the invention was never finished and the elaborate nest of wires he showed off to investors wasn't actually connected to anything. The night before the race, Crowhurst had a sobbing meltdown when he realized it would never stand up to tough sailing. His wife, mistakenly believing he just lacked confidence, urged him to go anyway. The boat started to break down almost immediately.
To make matters worse, Crowhurst had promised his investors full repayment if he didn't complete the race. Dropping out would leave him in debt for years. Instead, he decided to cheat. And then that's when the race went terribly wrong.
Crowhurst's plan was to cruise around in the calm, isolated waters of the southern Atlantic for a few months, using his radio to report false positions, before rejoining the race in the final stretch back home to England. This was an incredibly hard scam to pull off, since Crowhurst had to craft an entirely false set of log books, showing a believable round-the-world voyage that avoided any major shipping lanes (to explain why he was never seen). He spent hours crouched over his desk, carefully calculating tides and winds, plotting his next radio transmission. Otherwise, he maintained almost complete radio silence, fearing that the signal would give his true location away.
It was an incredible deception, and yet Crowhurst somehow pulled it off. He even started to get a little carried away, casually claiming to have set a new solo record by sailing 243 miles in a single day. His transmissions perfectly described weather conditions along his supposed route, and were padded with convincing little details, like complaints about wood rot and a broken jib. British newspapers quickly warmed to the story of the plucky underdog outdoing everyone. The Daily Telegraph correctly noted that his record-breaking feats were surprising "in light of the very poor speeds in the first three weeks of his voyage," but simply concluded that this made his new achievements "all the more remarkable." Like a mediocre athlete who suddenly gains 80 pounds of muscle, a severe rage problem, and three Olympic gold medals, there was nothing suspicious about Crowhurst.
In fact, the only person who knew what Donald Crowhurst was up to was Donald Crowhurst, and he was not handling it well. His logbooks began to take a strange turn, with his careful nautical reckonings interrupted by bizarre limericks and musings on the nature of God and human ethics. He began to fixate on Albert Einstein's Relativity, one of the few books he had brought along, reading and rereading it obsessively. His calculations became progressively more bizarre. On one page, he attempts to find God via a complex "Cosmic Integral," ultimately concluding that "the sum of man from minus infinity to plus infinity equals zero." Hiding alone in a tiny boat in the endless Atlantic, struggling to suppress the guilt of his cheating, Crowhurst was beginning to go mad.
The other participants weren't faring much better. Nigel Tetley was actually well positioned to win the 5,000 pound prize, but believed himself neck and neck with Crowhurst, who always seemed to stay close on his tail (thanks to simply lying about his position). Over months at sea, Tetley became obsessed with beating his unseen rival, forcing himself to the limits of endurance as he raced into the final stretch. His beloved trimaran was badly in need of repairs, but Tetley ignored them, sure that any delay would allow Crowhurst to catch him. He rode through huge waves off Cape Verde, then zoomed past the Azores at incredible speed, desperate not to give Crowhurst an inch.
By this point, one of his three hulls was close to falling off entirely, but Tetley kept going, confident that he could finish the race on the other two. North of the Azores, just 1,100 miles from the finish line, he attempted to sail straight through a huge storm. The trimaran was reduced to splinters. A passing ship discovered Tetley floating in his lifeboat the following day. On returning to England, he insisted that he wanted to complete his circumnavigation, but was unable to raise enough money for a new boat. His body was discovered hanging from a tree in 1972.
What Tetley tragically didn't know is that Crowhurst never had any intention of beating him, figuring that a second place finish would be lucrative enough without drawing too much attention to his cheating. But that plan was thrown into jeopardy when Bernard Moitessier also started to crack up. Moitessier was an intensely philosophical man who had become a French celebrity for his books on sailing, which described the sea with something approaching romantic devotion. Now, he spent hours a day practicing nude yoga in his cabin, renounced soap, and let his beard grow uncontrollably, only trimming a hole for his mouth when it became too difficult to eat porridge.
After rounding Cape Horn, Moitessier failed to turn north for the finish line in Britain, where he seemed certain to claim the huge cash prize. Instead, he simply kept right on sailing. His only explanation was a note fired onto the deck of an oil tanker with a slingshot, which explained he had renounced the race and would continue to live alone in the ocean because "...I am happy at sea, and perhaps to save my soul." He then sailed halfway around the world again, before washing up in Tahiti months later.
Robin Knox-Johnston was physically ahead, but only because he had left England well before everyone else. His elderly boat was actually making extremely slow progress, giving him no chance of taking the prize for fastest circumnavigation. Although he did manage to add a few knots after picking up a radio transmission about a minor trade dispute between the UK and France, which sent him so insane with rage that he risked capsizing in a storm, confident that the extra few miles would avenge the "insult to our ambassador." Crowhurst's earlier confidence and fake speed records now came back to haunt him, as there was no way to plausibly slow down so much that he would finish second to Knox-Johnston's tortoise-like pace. With Tetley and Moitessier out, Donald Crowhurst was going to win the race.
After months alone in the Atlantic, Crowhurst was navigating dark new seas in his own mind. His journal indicates he began declaring himself the son of god and dedicated himself to inventing a new type of mathematics that would allow him to reverse time and undo the mistakes of his past. His logbook descended into a crazed scrawl: "If creative abstraction is to act as a vehicle for the new entity, and to leave its hitherto stable state it lies within the power of creative abstraction to produce the phenomenon!!!!!!!!!" ran one typical entry. Later entries ranted about the nature of sin and evil, or simply broke off into strange equations of uncertain meaning.
Over the course of imaginary conversations with Albert Einstein, Crowhurst began to believe he had found a way out. Humans, he wrote, were capable of an "extraphysical existence, making the need for physical existence superfluous." The human intelligence could simply leave the body behind and live forever as a cosmic being, floating free throughout the stars. The power of his mind made him the one human being capable of ascending to this higher plane of existence through a mighty "effort of free will."
The final entry of Donald Crowhurst's log reads:
Now is revealed the true nature and purpose and power of the game...I am what I am and I see the nature of my offence. I will only resign this game if you will agree that on the next occasion that this game is played it will be played according to the rules that are devised by my great god who has revealed at last to his son not only the exact nature of the reason for games but has also revealed the truth of the way of the ending of the next game that
It is finished
It is finished
IT IS THE MERCY
11:17:00 -- It is time for your move to begin/I have not need to prolong game/It has been a good game that must be ended at the/I will play game when I choose I will resign game
11:20:40 -- There is no reason for harmful
His trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, was found floating in the center of the Atlantic on June 10, 1969. There was no sign of Crowhurst, or of the ship's clock. The logbooks revealing his true course were neatly laid out in the cabin, as if waiting for someone to find them. The boat was towed to the Cayman Islands, where it now lies rotting and abandoned.
Robin Knox-Johnson was the only person to finish the race, winning the Golden Globe trophy and the cash prize, which he donated to Crowhurst's family. A psychiatrist hired to help him deal with any mental or emotional damage could only describe him as "distressingly normal."
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