Donald Crowhurst – #88 of 100 Top Hoaxes

Donald Crowhurst’s is a sad story. It started off with good intentions, but turned into a tragic hoax.

In 1968, Crowhurst, an amateur sailor, signed on for a lone round-the-world race. He signed up for the prize and the glory, but quickly realized he was in over his head. But it was too late: he had put his house up as collateral to cover the costs of the race, and the pressure put on him by his many supporters left him no chance but to go through with it.

Before signing up for the race, Crowhurst didn’t have nearly enough experience to prepare him for sailing in the open ocean. He hoped that the race would help him garner publicity for his business ventures, which included selling safety and navigation equipment for sailing. Unfortunately he failed to complete the products in time for the start of the race, and ultimately started the race with an incomplete boat.

Here I turn to Wikipedia

Crowhurst left from TeignmouthDevon, on the last day permitted by the rules: 31 October 1968. He encountered immediate problems with his boat and equipment, and in the first few weeks was making less than half of his planned speed. According to his logs, he gave himself only 50/50 odds of surviving the trip, assuming that he was able to complete some of the safety equipment before reaching the dangerous Southern Ocean. Crowhurst was thus faced with the choice of either quitting the race and facing financial ruin and humiliation, or continuing to an almost certain death in his unsafe boat. Over the course of November and December 1968, the hopelessness of his situation pushed him into an elaborate deception. He planned to loiter in the South Atlantic for several months while the other boats sailed the Southern Ocean, falsify his navigation logs, then slip back in for the return leg to England. As last place finisher, he assumed his false logs would not receive the scrutiny of the winner.

Since leaving, Crowhurst had been deliberately ambiguous in his radio report of his location. Starting on 6 December 1968, he continued reporting further vague but false positions and possibly fabricating a log book; rather than continuing to the Southern Ocean, he sailed erratically in the southern Atlantic Ocean, and stopped once in South America (in violation of the rules) to make repairs to his boat. A great deal of the voyage was spent in radio silence, while his supposed position was inferred by extrapolation based on his earlier reports. By early December, based on his false reports, he was being cheered worldwide as the likely winner of the race, though Francis Chichester publicly expressed doubts about the plausibility of Crowhurst’s progress.

After rounding the tip of South America in early February, Moitessier had made a dramatic decision in March to drop out of the race and recircle the globe. On 22 April 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to complete the race, leaving Crowhurst supposedly in the running against Tetley for second to finish, and possibly still able to beat Knox-Johnston’s time (due to his later starting date). In reality, Tetley was far in the lead, having long ago passed within 150 nautical miles (278 km) of Crowhurst’s hiding place; but believing himself to be running neck-and neck with Crowhurst, Tetley pushed his failing boat (also a 40-foot (12 m) Piver trimaran) to the breaking point, and had to abandon ship on 30 May. The pressure on Crowhurst had therefore increased, since he now looked certain to win the “elapsed time” race. If he appeared to have completed the fastest circumnavigation, his log books would be closely examined by experienced sailors, including Chichester, and the deception in all probability would be exposed. It is also likely that he felt guilty about wrecking Tetley’s genuine circumnavigation so near its completion. He had by this time begun to make his way back as if he had rounded Cape Horn.

Crowhurst ended radio transmissions on 29 June. The last log book entry is dated 1 July. Teignmouth Electron was found adrift, unoccupied, on 10 July.

Crowhurst’s body was never found. He may have committed suicide, drivento it by guilt and by the fear of humiliating himself and his family, and by his months alone trying to keep up his deception.

His widow was haunted by the possibility of him still being alive, and this was fueled by hoaxers who faked messages from him and reported spotting him.

Crowhurst was a tortured man, whose over-ambitious adventure turned into an unfortunate hoax. But he was also very brave, and pushed himself to his limits to try to make his family proud.

See a list of hoaxes counted down so far after the jump.

100. Bridezilla Freaks Out About Her Hairdo
99. The Joe Schmo Show
98. The Crying Indian
97. Ivar’s Underwater Billboards
96. Well to Hell
95. Great Comics Switcheroonie
94. American Cannibal
93. Nacirema Tribe
92. Indian Rope Trick
91. Eruption of Mount Edgecumbe
90. Republic of San Serriffe
89. Sydney Iceberg
88. Donald Crowhurst

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