Eight-year-old Simon Crowhurst huddled in a big, strange bed, listening to the waves batter the coastline while the wind moaned outside his window. His family was staying in a hotel in Teignmouth, on the southern toe of England, because tomorrow his father, Donald, was setting off to sail around the world. But as Simon listened to the weather rage, the excitement he’d felt over his father becoming a real-life adventure hero collapsed. He had seen his father’s spindly 12-metre boat, and for the first time, it occurred to him that this voyage was dangerous. Simon was terrified.
In a nearby room, Donald Crowhurst’s confidence was crumbling into tearful panic as he confessed to his wife, Clare, that his boat wasn’t ready. Only later would it occur to her that he may have been begging her to tell him not to go, to give him a way out. The thought would haunt her. But at the time, even with her normally ebullient husband sobbing in front of her, she still believed he could do anything and didn’t want him to regret giving up. So Clare did for Crowhurst what she’d been doing for their children, 10-year-old James, seven-year-old Roger, five-year-old Rachel, and Simon: She stuffed her fear down deep and told him everything would be fine.
The next day, Oct. 31, 1968, Simon was relieved to see the weather had calmed. His excitement returned, buoyed by the news cameras and onlookers milling around. He and his family boarded his father’s boat, the Teignmouth Electron–named as a publicity nod to the resort town from which he was sailing and his own struggling electronics business—to say goodbye. Crowhurst kissed each of his children on the forehead and told James and Simon to look after their mother. Simon would always remember the undulating sea beneath his feet as he stood on the deck of another boat with his family, watching his father and the Electron get smaller, then slip over the horizon and disappear.
Donald Crowhurst, 36, was about to became a British folk hero, the middle-class family man who conquered the seas and captivated the nation. Later, he would be seen as a con man who claimed to have sailed around the globe—despite never having ventured out of the Atlantic. Ultimately, he was revealed to be the victim of a storm in his own head. His family never saw him again after his boat blinked out of sight, and it would take them years to unravel what happened to him; even now, that’s a jagged-edged question they’ve each answered in their own way. The truth about the inventor’s phony voyage can only be guessed based on the evidence he left behind. What is certain is that when Crowhurst sailed from Teignmouth, he was tragically ill-prepared, but had staked so much on the journey that the circumstances carried him away like a riptide.
WATCH: The trailer for The Mercy, Colin Firth’s 2018 film about Donald Crowhurst
Just as the Americans were shooting for the moon, the British had rediscovered the allure of the sea. In 1967, Francis Chichester electrified England by completing the first solo circumnavigation, with one stop in Australia, in his 16-metre yacht. The next obvious challenge was a non-stop solo sail. London’s Sunday Times announced a race in which competitors would set off any time between June 1 and Oct. 31 of 1968. There would be one prize—a Golden Globe trophy, giving the race its name—for the sailor who returned home first, and another prize of £5,000 for the fastest trip from departure date to return.
Crowhurst, inspired by his fascination with Chichester, immediately declared himself a competitor. “I think he felt a certain amount of jealousy—he wished it had been him, and he really thought he could do the next thing,” says Simon. His father had sailed the wildly varying tides and aggressive currents of the Bristol Channel, but he’d never attempted anything on the open ocean. Like Chichester, Crowhurst had served in the Royal Air Force, though he was kicked out because of some bit of mischief. He joined the British Army, where another disciplinary incident got him booted. He studied electronics engineering, raced cars and, after marrying Clare, started a small company, Electron Utilisation, to manufacture the Navicator, a sailing navigation device he designed to work on radio signals. Crowhurst would get so absorbed tinkering in his workshop behind the house that his children would have to go out and wave from the doorway so he’d come in and eat dinner.
Simon adored his father. He didn’t understand the grown-up jokes, but he knew his dad was funny because he was always making people laugh. Crowhurst read to his children in goofy voices and drew futuristic aircraft and spaceships for them. He loved building things: circuit boards, model boats, elaborate landscapes where Simon’s plastic dinosaurs could live. Simon would grow up to pursue a career in geology, tracing his lifelong interest back to those model volcanoes. One of his lingering memories is leaping over muddy creeks with his father on their way to Pot of Gold, the 20-foot sloop Donald sailed near their home in Bridgwater in southern England. Crowhurst also loved poetry, and Edward Lear’s “The Jumblies” was a favourite he’d recite from memory:
“They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
And when the Sieve turned round and round,
And every one cried, ‘You’ll all be drowned!’
They called aloud, ‘Our Sieve ain’t big,
But we don’t care a button!
We don’t care a fig!
In a Sieve we’ll go to sea!’”
When he struggled with sales of the Navicator, Crowhurst convinced local businessman Stanley Best to back his company until things picked up. When they didn’t, Best wanted to pull out. Instead, Crowhurst persuaded him to bankroll his Golden Globe entry, touting it as an epic advertisement for his company and assuring his benefactor he could win both prizes. “It was, I suppose, the glamour of the idea, the publicity and the excitement–and the persuasiveness of Donald,” Best told the authors of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst (published a year after the race, with detailed reconstructions based on Crowhurst’s logbooks). The pair struck an agreement that if the race went badly, or if Crowhurst withdrew, Electron Utilisation would buy back the boat—spelling certain bankruptcy. Best also re-mortgaged the Crowhurst family home to repay some of the business debts. Crowhurst would either return home in triumph, his meagre finances fattened by the prize money and his business saved by the publicity, or he would lose everything—even the home his children were living in.
He decided to race a trimaran, a new craft thought to move faster than single-hull yachts. But the speed had a cost: Trimarans were difficult to right if they capsized. Crowhurst designed a clever system of sensors, buoyancy bags and pumps to stabilize his boat, but by the time he departed, none of it had been tested or even installed properly. Instead, the boat-building process was so rushed that water leaked in through the hatches, the bailing pipe was somehow never put on board and screws fell from the mainmast like raindrops. Donald Crowhurst was going to sea in the Jumblies’ sieve.
By the time he set off—on the last possible date of entry—eight competitors had left up to five months ahead of him. Among them were a Frenchman, Bernard Moitessier, who viewed the voyage as a spiritual quest; a naval officer named Nigel Tetley, also sailing a trimaran; and Robin Knox-Johnston, a young merchant navy officer sailing a tiny wooden scrap of a boat. The race route wound south through the Atlantic, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, south of Australia. It then crossed the Pacific and looped past South America’s Cape Horn before hitting the home stretch north through the Atlantic. Crowhurst had calculated that he could complete the race in as few as 130 days, faster than any of the others, and even make up enough time to return home first.
Harsh reality destroyed those expectations immediately. His boat was a heap of leaky lumber, the slowest in the race. “Racked by the growing awareness that I must soon decide whether or not I can go on,” he wrote in his logbook early on. “What a bloody awful decision–to chuck it in at this stage!” But in his calls and telegrams, Crowhurst never admitted how bad things were.
The race was a constant source of excitement and confusion for his children. Reporters showed up periodically, and the voyage was frequently the subject of chatter at school. Simon and his siblings told friends their father would be home when the daffodils returned in the spring, because that’s what Clare told them, and Simon talked about how his father would avoid the sharks that were sure to be out there, but whales didn’t usually smash into boats. At home, a world map was hung on the playroom wall, and each time the competitors radioed in their coordinates, Clare plotted their location on the map with pins. The other sailors were oceans ahead of her husband.
Crowhurst had hired former crime reporter Rodney Hallworth as a PR agent; he began sending him vague, chirpy cables, never specifying where he was, just where he was headed. He had apparently found a way to save face: He simply began inventing the voyage he wished for. Hallworth was oblivious, spinning those fuzzy updates with even more optimism for the press. Then Crowhurst sent a telegram claiming he’d covered 243 miles in one day—a solo sailing record. Overnight, he was transformed from faltering footnote to the lead news item. Crowhurst also started maintaining two sets of navigational coordinates: one accurate and the other a meticulously constructed fake journey. In January, he meandered around Rio de Janeiro while claiming to be close to rounding the Cape of Good Hope. It would soon become obvious his radio signals were off, so he cabled Hallworth saying he was having problems with his generator flooding and would send messages when possible. Then he disappeared into the wind for nearly three months.
Crowhurst’s family had adjusted to not hearing from him for long periods, but as the weeks stretched on, dread crept in. The map on the playroom wall grew more haunting by the day, the pin representing Crowhurst frozen implacably in place. “We hadn’t realized quite how serious the situation was because everyone had just gone quiet,” Simon recalls. “We were asking from time to time, and when you realized nothing had been heard, there’s a tacit assumption that you don’t talk about it anymore.” As Simon remembers it, the map was one day quietly removed from the wall; Clare still insists it stayed where it was.
By early April, the three other competitors remaining—the rest had been forced out by illness, accidents or boat problems—were in the home stretch. (When Moitessier, the eccentric Frenchman, passed Cape Horn, he couldn’t bring himself to return to civilization, so he sailed off around the globe again.) Knox-Johnston was in the lead, with Tetley hot on his heels. Finally, Crowhurst resurfaced. He sent Hallworth a telegram suggesting he was about to round Cape Horn—a major milestone, had it been true—and asking cheekily for a race update. “WHATS NEW OCEANBASHINGWISE,” Crowhurst inquired.
The full depth of Clare’s fear for her husband only became obvious to her children when it gave way to euphoric relief with the news of his telegram. They had a party in the garden, celebrating with ice cream, cookies and jellies. Simon knows it might not be an accurate recollection, but in his childhood memory, the sun was shining. “It was as if he’d come back from the dead and was just moving inexorably back home,” he recalls.
On board the Teignmouth Electron, even as Crowhurst turned north from the coast of Brazil and headed for home in earnest, things were not so bright. Throughout the journey, he had made audio recordings and composed bawdy limericks and romantic descriptions of life at sea, all of them showing off a charming and cheeky public persona. But now, Crowhurst’s writing revealed loneliness, depression and a retreat from reality. He scrawled mathematical formulas purported to represent universal life truths, along with rambling meditations on his childhood, his understanding of God and human dishonesty. He fixated on Einstein’s theory of relativity and argued furiously with the dead physicist in his notes. The loneliness appeared to be consuming Crowhurst, as did the strain of maintaining his deception.
Hallworth sent a cable urging his client on: “YOURE ONLY TWO WEEKS BEHIND TETLEY / PHOTO FINISH WILL MAKE GREAT NEWS.” On April 22, Knox-Johnston arrived home to great fanfare and claimed the Golden Globe trophy. But since his trip had been leisurely, England’s breathless attention shifted to Crowhurst and Tetley (who had departed six weeks earlier than Crowhurst) to see who would complete the fastest journey. In early May, Hallworth sent another galvanizing cable: “TEIGNMOUTH AGOG AT YOUR WONDERS / WHOLE TOWN PLANNING HUGE WELCOME.” In response, Crowhurst sent a telegram warning it was impossible for him to beat Tetley.
When he heard about Crowhurst materializing out of nowhere, Tetley pushed his badly damaged boat to the limit. Off Portugal, he battled too hard through a storm, and one of his three floats snapped off and slammed into the centre hull. Tetley scrambled into a life raft, then watched his boat sink beneath the waves—a near tragedy Crowhurst learned about in a cable from Clare. Now he was the only remaining sailor in the race.
A few weeks later, the power supply partially failed on Crowhurst’s radio transmitter, making it impossible for him to send messages. He spent his time obsessively trying to repair the device, desperate to speak to Clare. On June 22, Crowhurst got the transmitter functioning well enough that he could send Morse code messages, but he was still unable to make direct calls. He let his boat drift aimlessly through the mysterious Sargasso Sea, historically rumoured to swallow up ships in the thick carpet of seaweed on its surface. He began writing a rambling, 25,000-word meditation on free will, physics, perception, the nature of God and the possibility of freeing the soul from the body.
Another cable arrived from Hallworth, crowing that 100,000 people would welcome him back to Teignmouth. With just weeks until her husband’s expected return, Clare told a newspaper about the giddiness that had overtaken her family. “Now most of the bad things are lost in the tremendous anticipation of seeing him again,” she said. “It’s almost like the atmosphere you get when you have a child. We just can’t wipe the smiles off our faces.” A radio operator relayed a message to Crowhurst that his family was excited to meet him near the Scilly Isles before he reached the crowds. Crowhurst sent back word that they should not come, insisting the operator confirm receipt. Clare was hurt, but decided he must have wanted to spare them all seasickness.
Crowhurst’s writing grew more anguished and abstract. Finally, on the morning of July 1, he offered a long, elliptical confession of what he’d done, then concluded with:
“It is finished
It is finished
IT IS THE MERCY.”
Nine days later, a Royal Mail ship discovered the Teignmouth Electron adrift in the Atlantic. The logbooks and notes that contained all the evidence of Crowhurst’s forgery, along with the fraying of his mind, were sitting in the cabin. Crowhurst was gone.
As Simon remembers it, two stone-faced nuns appeared in the family’s driveway that evening and asked to speak to Clare. Later, Clare took the children upstairs to Roger’s room, sat them down on the bed and told them their father’s boat had been found, but he wasn’t on it. Then she began to cry. Confused and desperate to comfort their mother, the children reassured Clare that surely their father would be found. “One moment you’re expecting him to come back, and the next the boat’s found and he’s not on it,” Simon recalls. “It just knocked everyone flat.”
The Sunday Times started a relief fund for the family, and Knox-Johnston donated his £5,000 prize. Simon and his family still believed so strongly in Crowhurst’s resourcefulness that they held out hope he might have climbed aboard a lifeboat or some other craft. They didn’t yet know what his notes revealed about his journey and state of mind. The captain of the mail ship had turned the logbooks over to Hallworth, who in turn passed them on to the Sunday Times. The paper had won the auction for exclusive rights to what was still thought to be Crowhurst’s heroic around-the-world story. Once they understood the reality of Crowhurst’s voyage, the Times editors decided they had to run with the story, but first, they showed it to Clare.
The sad, bizarre tale took over the front pages of all the English papers. But it would be years before Simon understood what the logbooks revealed and how the rest of the world saw this would-be hero he knew so intimately. “I did feel always as if I’d just stepped off a ship and [was] trying to find [my] land legs again,” Simon says. “The very things you took for granted were not quite solid, and you needed to reappraise things.” When he was about 16, he read Strange Voyage. Simon could recognize his father in the logbooks, especially in the early stages, before Crowhurst started to slip away from himself. But the creeping distress in his words made Simon feel as though he were reading a letter from his father distorted by someone else. “They are harrowing reading and a kind of psychological and intellectual vortex,” he says. “In some ways, you have to be careful not to get drawn in.”
In all the uproar and speculation over the years, what bothered Simon most were claims that his father was trying to cheat his way to victory. “He was trying to avoid appearing to have humiliatingly failed—because actually he had humiliatingly failed,” Simon says. “He didn’t want that to be apparent because the financial consequences for his business and his family would have been so terrible.” Simon thinks that, for quite a long time into the race, his father kept open the possibility of giving everything up, confessing where he’d been and brushing off the rest as an elaborate prank. He points to a blank section in the accurate logbook, believing his father intended to eventually fill it in and reveal the truth. “I don’t think at first it was a grand scheme,” Simon says. He believes his father conjured up false reports like that record day of sailing so he could put in the appearance of a strong performance and then drop out of the race with some dignity. But as his lies propelled the Teignmouth Electron ever further from its true location, Crowhurst was trapped: It would be impossible to dismiss the whole thing as a lark without serious humiliation.
Simon thinks his father finally broke his radio silence at a time when he figured several competitors would have already completed the race. Instead, no one was home yet, and he found himself thrust back into the spotlight because he appeared to have a good shot at finishing fastest. He deliberately slowed down, which Simon views as an effort to take pressure off Tetley. When Tetley nearly died, Simon believes the circumstances just closed in. “When Nigel Tetley’s boat sank, obviously there was no way he could claim it was a joke,” he says quietly. He is careful in conveying his own interpretation of how his father died because he doesn’t want to upset his family members, who have each reached their own painful conclusions. (Clare, for one, has always maintained Crowhurst would not have taken his own life, but may have accidentally fallen overboard.) All Simon will say is that when someone who is mentally ill dies, he thinks it’s really the illness that’s killed them.
Crowhurst’s story has inspired countless TV shows, news stories, documentaries and feature films—a new biopic starring Colin Firth is slated for release soon—along with several plays and an opera. Simon understands why the dark voyage is such an irresistible tale, even if it’s an incomplete portrait of the father he loved. “When something dramatic like this happens, people tend to think this summarizes the entire person,” he says. “It’s one part of his life and how his life ended, but it wasn’t all there was to say about him. It’s a pity that people remember him for the thing that went most disastrously wrong, but that’s how it’ll always be. I suppose he’s remembered at least, so that’s maybe something.”
The Teignmouth Electron changed hands several times after it was rescued from the Atlantic, and it now rests on a tiny lick of the Cayman Islands, disintegrating languorously in the Caribbean sun. Simon has a black-and-white photograph of it, sent to him by the British artist Tacita Dean, which hangs at the top of the stairs in his house. He loves the photo because it’s taken from the air and at a distance, with the sea twinkling beyond the prow and the boat looking more complete than it ever really was. He hasn’t seen it in person since his father kissed him goodbye that October afternoon, and he has no great desire to. For Simon, the real Teignmouth Electron is the boat that never existed–the technological marvel his father dreamed he could sail around the world. “That boat never came into being,” Simon says. “And that would be the boat I’d really like to see.”