A Voyage for Madmen

Around-the-world races are part of our everyday lives these days, but in 1968 when the London Sunday Times announced the rules of their Golden Globe race, its participants would attempt something never before achieved: a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation. It was the last great sailing milestone, and in the wake of Francis Chichester’s recent one-stop solo circumnavigation, preparations were already being made by many different sailors to grab the title, independent of the Times and their trophy. However, while these courageous sailors headed to sea, the world’s gaze shifted to the sky and three other voyagers in Apollo 8, who would soon cast a trivial shadow over the race and its participants. This is the setting for Peter Nichols’ new book, which follows the nine individuals in their attempts to sail alone around the world. It describes their excruciating months at sea and the demons (or lack thereof) that guided and pushed them, sometimes beyond their limits. Nichols leads us so far into the lives of these lone voyagers - from Bernard Moitessier’s transcendental soul cleansing to Robin Knox-Johnston, whose plain yogurt introspection is described as “distressingly normal” in a pre-race psychiatric exam - that they become familiar friends. The story that steals the show is of Donald Crowhurst, the intelligent but struggling electrical engineer who, despite minimal experience at sea, risked everything to enter the race and make his mark on the world. His tragic story has not gone unnoticed before: it was exquisitely recounted in the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, originally published in 1970, and was apparently the inspiration for the novel Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone. Crowhurst’s tale even inspired a one-man opera in 1998. HarperCollins, New York; 298 pages; $26. Ted Thompson

By Ocean Navigator