In challenging times it helps me to think about the doomed plight of Donald Crowhurst. A down-on-his-luck businessman, aspiring inventor, husband and father of 4, he set out on the 1968 Golden Globe Round the World Yachts Race in a flimsy trimaran. An amateur yachtsman who hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of debt, and having borrowed significantly to fund the endeavour, be became the centre of an international media campaign as Britain’s favourite underdog. After a few embarrassing false starts he set out across the Atlantic, only to discover within days that his hastily constructed boat was fast disintegrating and that he had little hope of finishing the race – let alone winning it.
Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Instead of turning back (if he forfeited he would bankrupt his family), Crowhurst resolved to cut off all radio contact with his team and to keep a record of fake co-ordinates, plotting his would-be trip around the world. As he drifted for months around the South Atlantic, he approximated an idealised journey alongside his competitors. His plan was to fall in stride with the fleet as it rounded the southern tip of the continent and, as his ambitions grew, to win the £5,000 for the fastest time. Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, things did not work out according to plan. After 11 weeks he sent a cryptic radio message stating that he had broken all speed records and was in the final stretch. At this point his wife Clare, relieved to finally hear from him, sent a telegram informing him that all but one of his competitors had dropped out and that he – amazingly – had a solid chance of winning. Realising that his logbooks and calculations would be carefully scrutinised and his ruse exposed, Crowhurst began to mentally unravel.
At some point after his last journal entry on the 1st of July 1969 Crowhurst either fell or threw himself overboard. His body was never recovered and the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned west of the Azores. Having been ‘duped’ by this outrageous facade the British public was less than forgiving, and decades would pass before he was reborn in the cultural imagination as a tragic hero. Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst was found amongst the belongings of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who died at sea during his own Atlantic crossing, part of the work In Search of the Miraculous (1975). Crowhurst’s story was sensitively retold in the 2006 documentary Deep Water and commemorated in the animated video ‘The Deception‘ by Leeds-based band iLiKETRAiNS. Inspiring numerous books and artworks, and a strange diagrammatic interpretation, his legacy was perhaps most poignantly captured in two video works by Tacita Dean from 1999. When Dean encountered the wreck of the Teignmouth Electron on the Caribbean island Cayman Brac, it reminded her of something out of a JG Ballard novel. She sent a photograph to the author and asked what he thought of it. Ballard responded by saying that he had no particular interest in Crowhurst, and dismissed him as a foolish man (though he likened the moored boat to the remains of downed WWII aircrafts still found in on Pacific islands).
For many Crowhurst is still a hoaxster who deliberately fooled the nation and the world for personal gain. Yet the most fascinating thing about Crowhurst’s tale is the determination that allowed him to continue on an imaginary journey around the world and toward victory, even as the the seams of his illusion began to show. That is, what keeps us returning to his story was the man’s ability to ‘fake it’ in a truly epic fashion. His elaborate fiction suspended his dreams and allowed him to survive, if only for a brief time, isolated and in increasingly desperate circumstances. As part of his efforts to create a convincing alternate reality, he tape-recorded fictional sightings and filmed the Faulklands coastline as he would have encountered it on the ‘home stretch’. In his logbooks and notes, amassing around 25,000 words, he constructed a plausible voyage alongside pseudo-philosophical writings about the human condition, a complex manifesto which became increasingly less coherent (those who have written a thesis might relate to this!). His false log entries were possibly his greatest achievement (one of his commercially failed inventions was ironically a navigational device); he was able to calculate convincing celestial co-ordinates that not only put him in the race but saw him breaking records. Together these documents represent a legitimate realm of experience based in Crowhurst’s fantasies and hopes, and his fundamental need to keep them, quite literally, afloat.
I marvel at our immense capacity to suspend disbelief as a way of coping with circumstances that do not suit our purposes or fulfil our needs. The negotiation of the real in relation to the ideal is at the heart of folly, but rewriting the present in the image of the past or an imagined future is not always a whimsical or playful impulse. In the case of Crowhurst, it was a matter of survival. Artifice gives shape and form to our fantasies and provides us with essential nourishment. Of course, the taller the tale the harder it falls, and monuments made of myth are destined to topple.
Despite the tragic end to Crowhurst’s tale, I feel that we continue to learn from it. It makes me wonder what might be gained from an understanding of fakery on more positive terms, seeing beyond associations with trickery and deceit. The little boy who adds a few extra flourishes to his account of an ordinary day at school, or the dad who caught a fish THIS BIG. Harmless elaboration, surely, and doubtless more interesting than the truth. Reality lets us down too often, and the ratio of dreams to the bleaker aspects of life sometimes requires that we take matters into our own hands. The folly, much like Crowhurst’s logbook, is a relic of the imagination. It contains the overflow of dreams when experience comes up short, and makes tangible the desired worlds that lie just out of reach.