Earth, Wind & Water

Ramblings of an Earthling, Laserite and small boat sailor

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Deep Water: The Loneliness of a Long Distance Liar

I watched this gripping documentary alone over the weekend, and it put me in a funky mood. It revolves around the strange and tragic last voyage of Donald Crowhurst, an entrant into The Golden Globe race, that set off in 1968. Francis Chichester had recently sailed around the world single-handedly, stopping only in Sydney to make repairs. This success, and the sensation it caused prompted the Sunday Times to organize a single-handed, nonstop race around the world. In addition to Deep Water (2006), Crowhurst's failure which presumably ended in suicide inspired the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall.

A struggling inventor, Crowhurst signed a contract with a promoter worth £5000 requiring him to enter the race and to not drop out too early. Despite his recognition that his own made boat was not ready, he put on a brave face for interviewing journalists, and set off on the last day before the deadline, imposed by the race organizers to avoid winter in the Southern Ocean.

Immediately, he ran into problems, fouling the main halyard on the buoyancy bag on the masthead, if full view of the on-looking press. Once underway, the outriggers of his trimaran started taking on water through their numerous leaky hatches. From the very start, he was deliberately vague in his position reports. By the time he made it to the trade winds north of the equator, he started issuing false progress reports, and keeping two sets of logs. His deceptions and lies pushed him to further deceptions and lies. At this point, strange obsessions entered Crowhurst's logs . The number 243 cropped up repeatedly. He reported covering 243 miles in a day, which would have been a single-handed record. In addition, he had planned on finishing the race in 243 days.

He now knew that his boat was not adequately seaworthy for the Southern Ocean. Through his lies, he had backed himself into a corner. After a certain point, he couldn't retire from the race without exposing himself as fraud, because he was supposed to be thousands of miles beyond the ports he would have pulled into.

After ruling out that option for himself, he concocted a new deception. He would loiter in the South Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil until the race leaders had rounded Cape Horn and headed north. Now he couldn't make any radio broadcasts, as those would give away his position. By the time he broke his radio silence, Robin Knox-Johnson had already finished, winning the Golden Globe, as first to finish. To avoid close scrutiny of his faked logs with fake celestial observations, his plan was to now finish more slowly than Nigel Tetley, who was on course to win £5000 for the fastest voyage. Then, only 1200 miles from the finish, Tetley sank. Now in real danger of making the fastest voyage, and being uncovered upon the inspection of his logs. He went insane as evidenced by his delusional and incoherent log entries. As his log entries ended that day with what's taken to be suicide note, he is presumed to have taken his life on 1969, July 1st, the 243rd day of the year.

A big lesson to be taken from this tragedy, is the loneliness of holding a deep and dark secret and confiding in no one. In fact, can there be anything lonelier than telling such a lie?  Also, as with all big lies, and as the experiences of Presidents Nixon and Clinton illustrate, lies beget more lies in an ever more tangled web of deceit.  The best thing to do is to swallow one's pride and admit the truth.

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