When Donald Crowhurst’s wife cracked a champagne bottle against the hull of the rickety trimaran in which her husband aimed to win the first around-the-world solo non-stop yacht race, the glass failed to break. Traditionally, that is the omen of a doomed voyage. Crowhurst may have laughed it off, but the ocean gods were not smiling.
Nine months later, in July 1969, his boat, Teignmouth Electron, was found ghosting through the Sargasso Sea. Its occupant had disappeared after hoaxing the country into believing he might have made sailing history with an epic journey across the seas. He left behind three faked logbooks, dozens of crazed diary entries and one compelling question: what happened to him?
Playing David Crowhurst, Colin Firth is arguing, on screen, for the amateur sailor’s achievement and honest ambition to be acknowledged
The Crowhurst affair has been an enduring mystery for the past half-century. A major new film about it, The Mercy, does not definitively say whether he committed suicide or perished in an accident, though the former has always seemed more likely. What it does is to ask for him to be forgiven.
As Colin Firth, who plays Crowhurst in The Mercy, says, ‘I think this film is asking, “Who are you to judge?” There is a side to us that is no better than a playground bully. It’s a way of distancing ourselves from the spectacle of someone who’s been humiliated or who’s fallen short. It’s a very, very ugly phenomenon. Incredibly facile and unfair judgments have been applied to the Crowhurst story. My hope is that by telling it on a personal level, revealing some of the nuances, people won’t be able to do that any more.’
The 36-year-old father-of-four, an electronics engineer from Devon, had set sail on October 31, 1968, with the noblest of intentions. He genuinely hoped to circumnavigate the globe alone without stopping, but was soon beset by bad weather, the failures of his second-rate boat, fatigue, injury and an aching loneliness. Facing defeat, disgrace and financial ruin, he began faking bulletins about his ‘progress’. In truth he was hiding out in the nautical no-man’s-land of the mid-Atlantic, waiting until he could reasonably plot a course for home. Crowhurst ended radio transmissions on June 29, 1969, and Teignmouth Electron was found adrift on July 10.
Now Firth is arguing, on screen, for the amateur sailor’s achievement and honest ambition to be acknowledged. ‘I don’t know if it is even possible now to construct a challenge with that sort of adversity,’ he says. ‘I think it was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston [who eventually won the race and in doing so became the first to achieve a solo non-stop circumnavigation of the world] who said they were like astronauts. They were sailing across a frontier. There was no GPS; ways of finding you were scant. They were sailing with the sort of equipment Captain Cook used: a sextant, a barometer, compass, wind vane and their own skills. No one would be there to rescue you unless someone was in range of your Morse code.’
Rachel Weisz with actors playing the Crowhursts’ children. Crowhurst had gambled both his home and his teetering electronics business on the venture
Firth feels great compassion for Crowhurst, choosing not to see him as a liar and a cheat, but as a man who made one colossal mistake.
‘I think people will realise what it feels like to go further than you are truly able, to take on something risky and ambitious and dare to do something. They’ll also recognise the idea of random events conspiring against them.
‘This happens to the heroes we all celebrate, the guy who reached the top of Everest, went into space, crossed a desert or sailed an ocean. The narrative is interpreted completely differently if it ends happily than if it doesn’t. But sometimes there’s a hair’s breadth between it going one way or the other.’
There’s a Donald Crowhurst in all of us, reaching beyond our lot, dreaming of glory
Firth’s Crowhurst is firm-jawed, bright-eyed and handsome in Aran knits, a devoted husband and father full of fun and looking to a better future. In truth he was a trickier character than that, a headstrong egotist who had gambled both his home and his teetering electronics business on the venture without telling his wife, Clare, played by Rachel Weisz in the film.
Director James Marsh, the man behind The Theory Of Everything, concedes: ‘He seemed to have had a series of failures in his life and he escaped them by rolling the dice bigger on the next adventure.’
The 1968 Golden Globe Race was by far his greatest gamble. It was a 30,000-mile challenge using the old clipper route south through the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, east across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, around Cape Horn and north back home. Its daring and romanticism gripped the country and the last-minute entry of an amateur – Crowhurst – just hours before deadline unleashed a frantic public interest. Crowhurst didn’t need to win to make his name and fortune, he simply had to come home.
Crowhurst’s wife, Clare, is played by Rachel Weisz in the film. Weisz is a picture of threadbare glamour in pin-tucked blouses and floral tea dresses
He was waved off by Clare and his children. Weisz, a picture of threadbare glamour in pin-tucked blouses and floral tea dresses, says: ‘There was perhaps this notion that he’d cheated and lied, but it’s about somebody who is a dreamer and gets caught up in a white lie. Perhaps he would have been stoppable but what would have happened if Clare had tried? Would he have ever forgiven her? In a relationship can you stop the other from living their dreams? In that moment she didn’t feel she had the right to try – she was in an impossible situation.’
That predicament was made far worse by former Fleet Street journalist turned PR agent Rodney Hallworth, who leveraged this story of British bulldog spirit into a series of sponsorship and media deals. He also put his own spin on his client’s cables and lengthy radio silences, sending public expectation sky high. ‘If there is a villain here, it’s Hallworth,’ admits David Thewlis, who plays him in The Mercy.
No one knows precisely when Crowhurst decided to start lying about his location, but on December 10, 1968, he cabled Hallworth to say he’d sailed a record 243 miles in a single day. Similar bulletins followed, making him a hero in absentia, a certainty to claim the £5,000 prize money for the fastest voyage.
To add authenticity, Crowhurst fabricated colourful details of where he’d been and what he’d done. He falsified his logbooks using all his mathematical dexterity, tape-recorded fake accounts of marine sightings and even sailed towards the Falkland Islands to film the view he would have enjoyed if he’d sailed past them on his way home.
Firth with David Thewlis as Rodney Hallworth. ‘If there is a villain here, it’s Hallworth,’ admits Thewlis
On April 10, 1969, Crowhurst sent news that he’d rounded Cape Horn, but it was the race bulletin relayed back to him in May that metaphorically sank him: every competitor bar Sir Robin Knox-Johnston had abandoned the quest. Crowhurst looked set to come second.
It meant his logbooks and the account of his voyage would be scrutinised far beyond his ability to bluff. The lies he’d told to protect his reputation, his family, his home and his business would be his undoing.
By then he was already losing his mind, as his notes and logbooks later revealed. Firth shows him as skinny, semi-naked and nut brown, a man who has given up sailing in favour of looking for the meaning of life. He obsesses about the work of Albert Einstein and, bewilderingly, starts to wonder if he himself is the son of God. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of a crumbling soul, a man being subsumed by the open sea and blazing sun.
‘He’s stripped of civilisation and becomes much more elemental and that’s shown in his physicality,’ says Marsh. ‘He loses weight, doesn’t wear as many clothes and starts to look like a vagabond on the boat. The mental journey is much more interesting than the physical one. By this stage it is a classic Greek tragedy.’
The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by a passing Royal Mail ship, Picardy. Alongside the logbooks that revealed his hoax were tens of thousands of increasingly less lucid words.
‘It is finished, it is finished,’ Crowhurst had written on July 1. ‘It is the mercy. It is the end of my game. The truth has been revealed.’
The media, the public and the world of yachting were stunned to have fallen victim to such trickery. Of course, the greatest victims were Clare and his children, not just bereaved but destitute too.
Donald Crowhurst and his boat, Teignmouth Electron, in 1968. The Crowhurst affair has been the subject of several books, films and plays, a documentary and even an opera
They were saved by the only man to complete the Golden Globe, Knox-Johnston, who handed over his £5,000 prize money, about £80,000 today, to the family.
Sir Robin has seen The Mercy and has declared himself deeply moved by the retelling of the drama in which he was a real-life protagonist: ‘It gets as close to what happened to Donald Crowhurst as we ever will. It’s a sad story but it treats him well.’
The Crowhurst affair has been the subject of several books, films and plays, a documentary and even an opera. As The Mercy shows, it still has the power to mesmerise.
‘I think,’ says Weisz, ‘there’s a Donald Crowhurst in us all, reaching beyond our lot, dreaming of glory. If he’d made it we’d be telling a very different story.’
‘The Mercy’ is released on February 9