Friday, January 13, 2017

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall


I started the week with a book about a mild-mannered person surviving a tragedy and I'm ending it with a book about an ostentatious person becoming a tragedy. Go figure.

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst set off to sail around the world single-handed.  He was part of a race sponsored by the Sunday Times.  He had some amateur sailing experience but was an electronics engineer by trade.  He was an often brash and self-assured intellectual and declared to anyone who would listen that he should certainly be the favorite in the race despite having less experience and financial backing than almost any other competitor.  Crowhurst set off on the last possible day he could and still qualify for the competition.  He had been scrambling to have last minute modifications done to his small trimaran boat and was still receiving supplies up to the last day.  At some points in the race he was traveling at record-setting speeds and went from a curious afterthought to a possible winner.  Then weeks before he was expected to return from his 30,000 mile journey, his boat was found drifting in the mid-Atlantic unmanned.  There was no sign of an accident or a struggle.  Donald Crowhurst was just gone.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst was written by two journalists who worked for the Times.  And the book presents a problem:  how do you write about the last months of a man's life when he had almost no direct contact with anyone.  Hall and Tomalin pieced together the mystery of Donald Crowhurst by going through everything that had been on board his ship.  They read every logbook, journal, and odd scrap of paper left behind.  They watched clips Crowhurst had filmed with a camera given to him by the BBC.  They listened to audio recordings Crowhurst had made during his journey.  And like all journalists, their story was ultimately about a person.  They tell the story of Crowhurst's life from childhood to his sad, mysterious end.  I was enthralled throughout this book and I have no sailing experience whatsoever.  This story has confirmed for me two things:  sailing alone is far more interesting than I had assumed and that I have no desire whatsoever to do it.

If you like this book, you might also like Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum.

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