If you happened to be walking the beaches of Cayman Brac, in the Cayman Islands, you might encounter the wreck of the Teignmouth Electron. Although its masts, fittings, and identifying marks have long been scavenged, you would know it by the words “Dream Boat,” spray painted on the stern. It’s a surprisingly accurate moniker, considering the lofty aspirations of its captain, Donald Crowhurst. However, his dreams aboard the Electron would be dark and plagued by madness.
In 1968, Crowhurst operated a small company manufacturing marine radio navigation equipment. However, with his business failing and debt mounting, he was teetering on financial ruin. In March of that year, the British Sunday Times announced their Golden Globe Race, a single-handed, nonstop race around the world. The winner was to receive 5,000 pounds and the distinction of being the first person to circumnavigate the globe nonstop, alone. Although he was only a novice weekend sailor, Crowhurst hatched an audacious plan to save his business, stave off bankruptcy, and achieve a little glory. He entered the race.
The first and obvious hurdle he needed to overcome was his lack of a boat. Securing financing from the town of Tiegnmouth and a longtime investor in his business, Electron Utilisation, the Tiegnmouth Electron was born. It was a trimaran design boasting numerous modifications and equipment conceived and designed by Crowhurst. He believed that his inventions would attract considerable and lucrative attention even if he didn’t win.
Construction of the Electron began in June, with the deadline for entry in the race being October 31. The maiden voyage occurred on September 23. It began ominously with a failed christening when the ceremonial champagne failed to break upon the hull. The trip itself was no less flawed. It took two weeks to complete when it should have taken only three days. Moreover, the trial exposed numerous design flaws and issues from the rushed construction. Nevertheless, Crowhurst set sail on October 31, the last possible qualifying date.
It did not take long for things to go wrong. Within two days, the screws to his steering column had sheered off, a problem that had also occurred on the test voyage. He had no spares, thus was forced to borrow them from non-essential equipment. In addition, he was plagued by numerous other problems, such as flooding, electronic system failures, and design flaws. Another problem was his wildly optimistic expectations of speed, as he found himself traveling about half the miles per day he needed to.
By November, it was clear he had no hope of competing, let alone finishing the race. So he began meandering around South America’s coast while formulating a new plan. By Crowhurst’s reckoning, he could not return to England for fear that failure to complete the race would lead to his financial, personal, and professional ruin. He had everything invested in this endeavor and now stood to lose it all. It was then that he devised a new plan, even more outlandish than his first.
In Crowhurst’s mind, he didn’t need to win the race to succeed, only complete it. To that end, a last place finish would be perfect. His plan was to loiter around the Atlantic for a few months until the other competitors were on the return voyage, then just slip in behind them. He knew that if he won, his logs would be meticulously scrutinized, but no one would bother checking if he came in last.
He began to falsify his navigation logs and radio in false reports of his location as if he were right in the thick of it. He monitored the weather reports for the regions he claimed to be in and fabricated all the data to support his claims. Then he maintained weeks of radio silence to lessen the chance of being discovered by his radio signals. Meanwhile, no one was the wiser.
In June, fate delivered an ironic wrinkle to Crowhurst’s plan. Upon making one of his now sporadic radio communications, he learned he wasn’t in place just to complete the race; he was likely to win it. Of the eight other competitors, six had dropped out, one sank, and one had already finished. However, the finisher, Robin Knox-Johnson, had departed long before Crowhurst; thus, even at his pathetic pace, he could still beat his time.
The news sent Crowhurst into a full-blown existential crisis. If he finished, he would be exposed, and his victory would end in disgrace. He began to sail aimlessly, and his log entries became increasingly erratic. While he pondered his fate, he authored a 25,000-word philosophical manifesto on the nature of human consciousness. On July 1, 1969, he penned his last log entry:
10 23 40: Cannot see any “purpose” in game.
10 25 10: Must resign position in sense that if set myself “impossible” task then nothing achieved by game…
10 29: …Now is revealed the true nature and purpose and power of the game offence … I am what I am and I see the nature of my offence … It is finished – It is finished – IT IS THE MERCY
11 15 00 It is the end of my [repeated] game the truth has been revealed and it will be done as my family require me to do it
11 17 00 It is the time for your move to begin // I have not [sic] need to prolong the game // It has been a good game that must be ended at the [missing word/s] // I will play this game when I choose I will resign the game 11 20 40 There is no reason for harmful [sentence incomplete]
The Teignmouth Electra was found abandoned nine days later, drifting off the coast of the Azores, not far from where another famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, was found. The fate of Donald Crowhurst is unknown. Upon reading his log and surmising his state of mind from it and his manifesto, most researchers believe that he committed suicide. It is worth noting that Crowhurst’s chronometer and “fake” logbook were also missing. The fact that the false navigation log was not recovered led some to question whether Crowhurst intended any deception at all.
The final days of Donald Crowhurst remain a mystery, and we will never know how he might have been received had he just sailed home. Would he have been ridiculed as a fraud? Would he have lost his company? Or would he be recognized for the remarkable commitment and bravery it took to survive alone on the ocean for seven months?
As for the Electron, it was taken to the Bahamas and sold as a pleasure yacht, then sold again in the Cayman’s as a dive boat. Eventually, it was beached for repairs to restore it to Crowhurst’s original design, but a hurricane put that dream to rest. Now it sits near the shore of Cayman Brac, a curiosity for all those who pass.