A Really Good Book


I am reminded of one of my favorite books of all time. (This has been a week of book reminders. Yesterday it was “Earth Abides”, a book written by a local, George R. Stewart, and set in Berkeley. Such a good book.)

Today I am reminded of “The Strange Last Journey of Donald Crowhurst” by Nicolas Tomalin. Not a very popular book by any means. I doubt that anyone reading this blog will have read it. Although there was an interesting play produced (I didn’t see it, and even a movie.)

So here is a quick summary of the book. I came across it because it is all about sailing, and in particular a solo, non-stop, sailing race around the world.

Quite the adventure, and it attracted all the most adventurous sailors of the decade. 

Most of the entries were well-known, with tons of experience, and well-founded boats. The “Golden Globe” race wound be another remarkable sailing event, with dozens of boats facing the dangerous roaring Forties around Africa, and the tip of South America.

This story alone would have caught my interest at the time. I love sailing and all the drama of facing fifty foot waves in tiny boats. But there was an interesting wrinkle in this book.

Sailors have been known to drink in pubs, particularly in England. Donald Crowhurst was a local estuary sailor, with a very decent trimiran that he took out on weekends. 

Circumstances occurred where Donald stated that he could enter the race, or that he was encouraged by his friends, in either case, he filled out the forms and committed himself and his boat to the race.

In looking back, many people have suggested that wiser heads would prevail, and force Donald to reconsider. His boat wasn’t ready, he had never sailed nearly that far, and so on, In fact, some committee would certainly step in and take the responsible action to disqualify the boat. Problem solved and ego protected.

Except there were no “committees” and the deadline to start the race was fast approaching. His last chance was his wife and family. It turns out they were very fearful, but they wanted to be supportive. They let him go.

Donald Crowhurst was trapped by his words and commitment. He had to set sail with the rest of the sailors, even if he was just a weekend sailor, and even if his boat was vastly under rigged. 

So he did set sail and was one of the last boats to leave the harbor, to circle the world non-stop.

Now don’t you just want to get the book and find out what happened? Okay, well, I’ll spoil it for you.

Donald didn’t believe he would survive the race. His boat was pathetic, his skills were lacking. But his ego was huge.

So, he planned to sail as far as Brazil, then hide, and sail in circles until the rest of the boats were returning to England. Then he would slip in the rear of the pack and no one would know. All he had to do was sail in circles for months, and radio in fake navigational updates.

The plan worked well, he had two different logs, the real one and the fake. The boat held up mostly. He had enough food. He got lonely, for sure. It took months!

Eventually the race finished, but Donald Crowhurst didn’t sail in the middle of the pack. He didn’t sail in at all.

Weeks later his boat was found off of Brazil, still sailing in circles. Both logs were found. The fake race log had entries nearly all the way to England. It appears he was days away from joining the pack.

The real log had entries that were very confusing, maybe even torturous. He appeared to be losing his mind, with visitations who suggested that he walk off the boat. 

He was not found on the boat.

It is still one of the most remarkable and difficult sailing stories in the world. But no one knows what happened to Donald Crowhurst. 

Why am I reminded of this book? Something about my upcoming motorcycle trip, and the possibility of driving around Crater Lake, Oregon for seven days straight.