Norfolk links to tragic sailor Donald Crowhurst

Champagne launch: Celebrating the newly-launched Teignmouth Electron at Brundall in September 1968.

Champagne launch: Celebrating the newly-launched Teignmouth Electron at Brundall in September 1968. Clare and Donald Crowhurst are on the extreme left and right of the group, with the trimaran in the background - Credit: Archant

A new film tells the tragic tale of Donald Crowhurst, the amateur sailor who tried to fake his way to victory in a round-the-world yacht race. Trevor Heaton explores the Norfolk connections to an extraordinary true story.

Colin Firth plays ill-fated round-the-world sailor Donald Crowhurst in the filrm The Mercy (12A).

Colin Firth plays ill-fated round-the-world sailor Donald Crowhurst in the filrm The Mercy (12A). - Credit: Archant

He should have been a hero, a famous name to quote in the same breath as the likes of Chichester, Knox-Johnson and Rose. Someone who had dared to take on and succeed in the greatest possible test of skill and courage on the high seas, that of sailing single-handed around the world.

But instead Donald Crowhurst was to secure a unique and unwelcome place in yachting history, that of a man who had tried to cheat his way to fame and fortune and chose, it is believed, to take his own life when faced with inevitable disgrace.

Now his story – already brought to the big screen in a 2006 documentary, Deep Water – is being given the full film treatment with the release on Friday February 9 of The Mercy, a drama starring Colin Firth as Crowhurst.

The release has prompted memories of the part East Anglia played in this tragic coda to the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first solo, non-stop, round the world contest.

For the cutting-edge boat in which Crowhurst made his ill-fated attempt – the Teignmouth Electron – was built here in East Anglia, and the Brundall boatyard which fitted it out found itself with a ringside seat to the highs and lows of this sad story.

The late 1960s had seen round-the-world yachtsmen become front page news, beginning in 1967, when Francis Chichester pulled off the stunning achievement of becoming the first person to achieve a true circumnavigation of the world solo from west to east. His 226-day epic voyage (with one stop) earned him a knighthood. Alec Rose repeated the feat the following year, for which he was also knighted.

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Then the Sunday Times announced its Golden Globe contest. Nine competitors – including the likes of Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth – signed up for this ultimate sailing challenge.

Joining them was Crowhurst, a 36-year-old father of four who ran a struggling electronics business in Somerset. He was convinced that winning the £5,000 prize – worth something like £80,000 in today's terms – and the global fame that followed would completely change his fortunes.

From the outset, it was an extraordinary gamble. Granted, Crowhurst was an experienced amateur sailor - but a 28,800-mile challenge such as this was in another league. Then there was his boat, a radical three-hulled design which traded off its ultra-low weight in return for increased speed. To have the boat ready in time, Crowhurst had set himself (and its builders) a ridiculously tight schedule.

Crowhurst secured sponsorship from the small South Devon resort of Teignmouth – hence the name of the boat – and also secured a deal with the BBC to film and tape-record his experiences. The main sponsor for the project was businessman Stanley Best, and Crowhurst mortgaged his house and business to meet the estimated £10,000 cost. From the start, it was 'all or nothing'.

He chose the hulls made by the Brightlingsea yard of Cox Marine. For the fitting-out, the 41ft Bermudan ketch came north to Brundall on the Norfolk Broads, where L J Eastwood Ltd took on the task.

Further local connections came with the mast and 15 sails, which were made by Jeckells of Wroxham and Lowestoft.

Eastwood's had just six weeks to design and complete the project. It was a tall order, but in the competitive world of boatbuilding, success would have given an enormous edge to the Norfolk business.

It received the hulls on July 28 1968, with staff often working through the night to finish the work. Crowhurst asked for sparse accommodation, carrying only 80 gallons of water and relying on rainwater to top up his supplies. He claimed he could survive on a pint a day.

Two separate safety systems were built, to Crowhurst's own designs. Electron was three times stronger than normal trimarans, with Crowhurst's company supplying the navigation gear, plus a system to warn of any unusual stresses in the triple hull. To save more weight, Crowhurst planned to take some tools and basic materials with him to manufacture any spare parts while at sea. All in all, the boat weighed just five tons.

On September 23 the boat was ready to launch. Crowhurst's wife Clare performed the traditional champagne ceremony. Those of a superstitious bent might have looked back with hindsight months later and remembered an unlucky omen: the bottle failed to break first time.

Competitors had been given a four-month window in which to set sail, and such was the time pressure that it was – literally – only in the last few hours of the final possible day (October 31) that Donald Crowhurst set out in his ketch from South Devon. He was already under considerable strain, not helped by a delayed start due to contrary winds. Crucially, too, it later emerged that vital packages of spare parts and supplies had been left behind.

From the start, Crowhurst fell behind his schedule. Sometime in November and December he realised that his situation was already hopeless. Faced with the ignominy of returning a ruined and humiliated man, he conceived a desperate plan. By falsifying his position and creating a bogus logbook, he reasoned he could stay in the South Atlantic and rejoin the race a few months later on its return leg.

To help with the deception, Crowhurst claimed that his batteries had been damaged, forcing him to maintain radio silence for weeks at a time.

In truth, some back home were already beginning to have their doubts. When, in early December, he claimed to have clocked up a world record 243 miles in one day, the chairman of the race committee refused to believe it. He knew his stuff: he was Sir Francis Chichester.

In mid-February Crowhurst radioed to John Elliott, joint director of the Brundall boatyard, to say that he was 'in very fine spirits'. The stern and hatch had been damaged by a gigantic wave, he claimed, but had been repaired. Mr Elliott told the press he expected the sailor to be off Australia by the end of the month.

On April 11 Crowhurst broke months of silence by radioing that he had reached Cape Horn – having crossed the Indian and Pacific Oceans - and was averaging 188.6 miles a day. By now he was one of only three remaining yachtsmen in the race.

The victory target was set two weeks later when Robin Knox-Johnson (who had started four months earlier than Crowhurst) was the first home on April 22. Crowhurst expected to be back home by early July which would break – no, smash – his rival's journey time of 322 days.

By the end of May preparations were in full swing in Teignmouth, which planned a hero's welcome. 'It will be the biggest day in the resort's history,' a spokesman claimed, with 50,000 people and hundreds of boats expected to welcome Crowhurst home.

On June 22 Crowhurst radioed in once more, confirming that he expected to finish in the first week in July. His last message was sent on June 29. And then: nothing.

On the day that he should have arrived home – July 8 - the Electron was reported becalmed off the Azores. Three days later the boat was found drifting. All of Crowhurst's personal papers were intact, as were his food supplies, dinghy, diving gear and emergency life raft. Of the sailor, though, there was no trace.

A massive air-sea search proved fruitless. Robert Riddell, one of the organising committee, said: 'There is no logical explanation why he should have voluntarily abandoned the boat.'

There was a wave of support for Crowhurst's family, with Knox-Johnson immediately donating his £5000 prize, and the BBC doubling the fee it had agreed with Crowhurst.

On July 17 the boat was towed in to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Experts examined the trimaran and quickly concluded it was in good shape and seaworthy. Now it was down to Crowhurst's 200,000-word logs for more clues.

The whole edifice finally came tumbling down on July 27. The Sunday Times revealed that Crowhurst's log showed he had spent 243 days in the Atlantic while claiming to have sailed thousands of miles across the oceans.

Attention switched to the Brundall yard, with the firm vigorously defending itself against claims that the boat had contributed to the tragedy. John Elliott pointed out it had been found in excellent condition and was 'sound and seaworthy'. There had been early teething troubles but the boat had sailed 14,500 miles – halfway round the world – with no damage (despite Crowhurst's earlier claim). He added that Crowhurst was a 'very brave and courageous man'.

Crowhurst's ambitious timetable, he said, had been a measure of his determination. But it had come at a cost. 'Because of the shortage of time she never had sufficient sailing trials in rough weather to test the brand new and untried equipment,' Mr Elliott said. 'Snags which subsequently occurred, should and would have been discovered on hard sea trials.' But Crowhurst's 'determination' to enter the race meant there 'simply was not time'.

'He had gambled everything on success and to fail would ruin him,' he added.

Mr Elliott said that the boat had more than shown its capabilities but the loneliness and the tremendous mental strain had proved too much to bear for Crowhurst. A book issued the following year supported his view, the authors concluding: 'Donald Crowhurst was the kind of man who, in a tight spot, blamed everybody and everything except himself. If we were having a boat built we would be very happy to have the Eastwoods to do it.'

As for the last word, that comes from Donald Crowhurst himself, the weekend sailor who had taken a tragic gamble which had dreadful consequences for himself and his family. His final tape recording made on board the Electron ran: 'There is nothing like going to sea for getting rid of all the poisons – the poisons in your body and you must get rid of them. I feel in tremendous shape. I have never felt so….'

And then the tape ran on, blank, to the end.