Monday, 18 March 2013

A single-handed voyage

I've always been fascinated by the sea, and voyages, and especially what it must be like to sail single-handedly around the world. No light undertaking! It's been done many times now, of course, and wouldn't make the headlines like it might once have. Although headlines are irrelevant: it seems to me that the essence of a solo long-distance voyage is the relationship between you, your boat, and the sea itself. Nothing else can matter.

Imagine it: the sea and the stars, and an empty horizon! Endless danger. But the freedom...

I wouldn't regard it as an 'escape from the world' because you'd be heavily dependent on the outside world for navigational purposes, if nothing else. And I don't think I could do without a daily half-hour or more of the BBC World Service. No, I wouldn't want to cut myself off from society. I'd just want the constant novelty of reaching another little port, and the next, and the next.

Don't worry - I'm not going to sell my house, buy a ten-year-old tub and sail away. For one thing, I have no seafaring skills whatever. For another, I haven't got the courage. And I don't think it's wise for a 60 year old to pit themselves against the implacable ocean.

But many do feel such an urge, and are ready to take up the challenge regardless. One person whose story has always been in my mind is Donald Crowhurst. I have two books in my maritime collection that deal with his single-handed voyage in 1968/69. The one on the left devotes a chapter to him. The book on the right covers his story in detail:

Donald Crowhurst was a competent amateur yachtsman. He was likeable and engaging, very clever, and the very man to seize an adventurous opportunity. He built his life around a series of challenges, taking them on to wipe away past failures. He had a way of persuading people that he could do anything he set his mind to. But he was not a successful businessman; and when his small electronics firm in Bridgwater ran into difficulties, and bankruptcy loomed, he was ready to gamble. A national newspaper had organised a prestigious sailing race with a decent cash prize. The key elements of the race were that the participants must race each other around the world, they must do it single-handedly, and their voyages must be non-stop. Crowhurst was going to be up against some of the world's finest.

The story is outlined here: It ended in tragedy. Crowhurst left in a hurry to meet the starting deadline for the race, which meant that his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was not ready for its voyage, and some equipment was left behind or not installed. He also quickly found that his boat was not suitable for serious single-handed ocean racing, and when it began to leak he was forced to put into a small Argentine port for a makeshift repair, which broke the race rules. By that time he was a disappointed man looking for a way out. But he had already committed falsehoods and exaggerations connected with his speed and position, making it impossible for him to simply throw his hand in and drop out of the race. It was already far beyond questions of money and fame: his integrity was compromised. He was in reality far from where had made himself out to be, so that giving up and facing a shore reception would willy-nilly expose a sorry tale of shameful deception. An unbearable reward for all the support given to him.

He resolved to stay in the South Atlantic, marking time, as the best plan in the circumstances. And then, later on, at the right moment, he would resume the race in such a way that he would appear to be a 'brave loser', coming a close second or third. A runner-up, whose logbooks would never be scrutinised.

But fate intervened. Robin Knox-Johnson got home first, but in a time that Crowhurst could easily 'beat' even if he coasted home at a snail's pace. His unexpected reappearance in the race, at a position that put him dangerously close to home waters, made another competitor, Nigel Tetley, push his boat too hard so that he sank. It became a certainly now that Crowhurst would clinch the main prize for the most rapid voyage. But if he did, he would get intrusive and overwhelming publicity. His logbooks would be meticulously examined, and exposure would be certain. He wrestled with his predicament, and what the enormity of his deception would mean for his family. He was stressed to breaking point.

As he approached the Azores, and the dreaded homecoming preparations got under way, his mind snapped. It is presumed that he committed suicide by jumping into the sea. But he left all his navigational notes behind, so that his real voyage could be reconstructed. I like to think that he did this as a redeeming act, so that the truth would be known.

He also left a mass of personal writings, including narrative pieces and some poetry. He was throughout his voyage very much thrown upon his own inner resources. He had no human company, and the birds and fish he saw meant much to him. He described one particular bird in an essay called The Misfit. It was about a land bird, an owl, that had found his boat in the midst of the South Atlantic ocean, and was struggling to keep up with it. He says this about the owl:

He was unapproachable, as a misfit should be. He flew away as soon as I made any effort to get near him, and on to the mizzen crosstrees, where he hung desperately to the shaky stays with claws useless for the task he had set himself: bedraggled, shivering, eyes closing with heavy fatigue, head withdrawn, his feathers fluffed up in scant protection against the icy wind, his wings twitching into a slight spread from time to time to take him instantly into the air if he should lose his grip... Poor bloody misfit!...I could not slow up to make the misfit's life easier. I had seen my own clearance on the distant horizon. At last the owl abandoned his insecure perch and gamely fought his way out of sight to windward. My heart turned to lead and my eyes filled...somehow I knew he would not return. We were both victims of the one malaise. The victims of that malaise grow used to little quarter, and learn not to ask for it, drawing only on what is found by chance. Out of their own resources they delay as best they can the inevitable exhausted subsidence into the icy waters of death...he was a misfit, in all probability destined like the spirit of many of his human counterparts to die alone and anonymously, unseen by any of his species, yet accepting that one chance in a million of knowing things unknown.

And there was a short poem about the Misfit:

Save some pity for the Misfit, fighting on with bursting heart;
Not a trace of common sense, his is no common flight.
Save, save him some pity. But save the greater part
For him that sees no glimmer of the Misfit's guiding light.

It seems clear that Crowhurst identitfied strongly with that owl, so far from land, so lost at sea, and was foretelling his own demise as well as the owl's. And indeed how many of us have not felt a bloody-minded urge at some point to defy all common sense and fling ourselves headlong into the roaring waters? For that one-in-a-million chance of success, or just survival? Isn't it the final mark of a human being to face an impossible challenge, and meet one's nightmare face to face? 

1 comment:

  1. One wonders how these people fund their lifestyles. Is it always funded by a third party? What do they do after the adventure, go off on another one? Whilst I very much admire their efforts and achievements I think they ought to put something back into society all the same. It is different if you have the cash to do these things as you are not sponging on other people. Most folk like us Lucy would have loved to have gone off on an adventure but I guess we had other goals to reach and other commitments in life. Still, I would go sailing by myself even now if I could. Not sure it would be around the world though! I have a little experience in handling a yacht as it happens.

    Shirley Anne x


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