Have mercy.

Note : this post replaces my earlier, second post about the Donald Crowhurst/Golden Globe race ‘No Mercy’.  Once this post is published i will archive the previous pot.  My post ‘No Mercy’ was my second attempt to write about the subject and, as with my first post i am dis-satisfied with the result after reading it again.   This i promise will be my last attempt !.


In this post i intend to discuss 3 aspects of the Donald Crowhurst story, namely : 1.The physical evidence from his voyage ie the boat, his logbooks and accounts from those people who knew him and met him.   2. To make comparisons between him and his boat and some experiences of the other entrants.  3. To re-visit the character and personality of Donald Crowhurst from a purely psychological perspective.


Today as i write, in winter, in east Cornwall, it is blowing about 40kn and snowing.  There is literally ‘ice on the decks’ outside and i am warm and comfortable with the wood-burner going and a mug of coffee on my desk.  Many years back i was at the helm of a big and rough old maxi-yacht in the southern ocean, it was blowing some 40kn and snowing and that was in southern ocean summer.  I don’t mention that just to get a cheap ‘been there-done that’ but to remind myself and others that had Crowhurst pushed on with his voyage, that he would have been there in southern ocean autumn and potentially in much colder, windier and darker conditions.  It’s also vital to say right at the outset that one very good sailor, Commander Bill King, in a well sorted boat, was rolled and dismasted not far into his southern ocean passage.  Make no mistake it’s a ferocious place sometimes…..as race winner Robin Knox Johnston says “a total bastard of a place”.  Somewhere there is a photograph taken aboard the boat i sailed down there twice, its from my second time down there.  I am at the helm as we are doubling the Horn, my skipper and me are both in the picture…..we both look tired and drawn from the stress of our passage in a much bigger and fully crewed boat.   It’s not so much a feeling of triumph to get around the Horn but a great sense of release and relief.

The evidence.


What remains today is the decaying plywood hulls of Teignmouth Electron exposed to the elements on an isolated beach in the Cayman Islands.  The boat now can tell us very little and much better is the short section of film from the excellent documentary ‘Deep Waters’ which shows the boat in the condition i which she was salvaged.  What we do have crucially are Donald Crowhurst’s log books, film footage and interviews with his family, friends and those that knew him.  My re-write today is partially due to sensitivity towards his surviving family :  i am a fellow sailor and not a shock-horror journalist with cheap copy to fill.

I want to start this section proper with a sideways step which also refers back to my life in professional sailing but by introducing another character from that time : John Hart.   Allow me to explain : i knew John through his involvement with the boat that i worked on, John and his wife ‘Mags’ sailed with us often in those days.  John was then a retired lifeboat and pilot boat coxs’n and a working yachtmaster instructor and examiner.  John helped me get my head around ‘astro’-navigation and i talked to him a lot at around the time i took both my offshore and ocean yachtmaster exams as i did them almost back to back.   It is one conversation that i am going to talk about today.   Just to put ‘Harty’ in the picture, here he is talking to Tom Cunliffe about Bristol Channel pilot cutters and their owner/drivers.   As a further sideline here i would really like to sail on a pilot cutter some time and cover Tom for my own blog.

Anyway : back to me and Harty talking about boats, their owners and yachtmaster examinations.  John often seemed to be aboard our boat when we were in a state of chaos in-between voyages or charters.  I seem to remember often being under a heap of sailcloth up-forward usually whipping hanks back on one of the big headsails.  John was never worried about our state of chaos aboard as he said that he could see the work being done conscientiously and that we didn’t have our public face on for guests.

John’s work as a yachtmaster examiner on other skipper’s boats is what we were talking about and he made an interesting observation to me something along the lines of, and i have to paraphrase him as best i can that “i can learn a lot about a skipper almost the moment i set foot aboard his boat…..and just from the the way the boat and it’s gear is organised….or not”     Today i think of that as being very similar to going for a job interview or even interviewing someone else for a job interview in that John clearly gets his first impression of boat and owner within minutes of stepping aboard……except that it is the boat itself that shows the state of the owner’s state of organisation and ‘mind’.  I remember John talking about some of the different ‘types’ of boat owner he met during those exams although today sadly i don’t remember any more details.

I was reminded of this once again a few years ago when i was on my solo cruise with my Francis 26 WABI”.  Of all my boats so far that one had the most ‘me’ in it.   I may have told this story before but one time when i was in a Benodet marina, couldn’t get off the berth because of the tide so i walked up to the supermarket to get my stores in.  Somehow i had ripped the seat of my trousers so like a true English yachtie of a certain ‘type’ i literally had my arse hanging out !.  A very kind Dutch sailor spotted my problem in the supermarket and pinned me back together but later we met on the pontoon and he said that he had picked me out as a definite ‘type’ of sailor.   When i asked him about that he pointed out not only the features of the boat, homely but rugged, but all the simple ocean going features such as the windvane, the hanked on sails inside sailcovers on their stays and the steering oar/sweep lashed to the side-deck.

The point i am making here is that in a very real way the boat is a direct representation of its owner and his or hers state of mind.  I will come back to this later on with some comments on ‘Rogerian’ pysychology.  You might want to pause for a moment and consider just how well each skipper in the race matched his boat .


For now lets put that aside and see what we can get from the remaining evidence of Donald Crowhurst’s boat ‘Teignmouth Electron’.  This is one of the few photographs taken inside the boat after it was salvaged.   As realistic in my view as the short section of the film ‘The Mercy’ where the press agent goes below and is met by the sights and smells of absolute chaos…..unwashed plates, broken radio’s and just ‘stuff’ laying around, and this in a boat that hadn’t just been launched and neither had she just ridden-out heavy weather.  The only times i have seen this kind of thing up close myself is aboard boats that have been left abandoned in boatyards for several years.


Evidence 2 : the logbooks.

Like the Dutchman who ‘read’ me and my boat i ‘read’ the details of other peoples boats but what i rarely ever get to see is another skipper’s logbook.   If the boat is physical evidence of the owner’s state of mind then his logbook is even more so because it directly records his thoughts and quite often his emotional state.   My logbooks don’t read particularly interestingly (i have 2 on my desk right now) as one half is purely a record of the voyage, departures, sights, bearings, sail changes and so on and the second page is usually my defects/omissions and comments page…..i seem to talk about food quite a lot !.

I want to emphasise here, that i believe, that it is in Donald Crowhurst’s logbooks that we see most clearly each aspect of his state of mind during his voyage.  It is a complex picture not the least because he kept not one, but three, logbooks by the end of his voyage plus other notes written in his pilot books, his radio log and other notes.   At first he kept a conventional log with navigational information and notes about the faults he found with the boat.  Later on he wrote longer notes about the problems he was having and the decisions he felt he was faced with and ultimately trapped by.  Quite early on he seems to recognise that he couldn’t, in his judgement, go back and neither could he go forward in terms of approaching the southern ocean.    His choice seemed to be between return and therefore bankruptcy and personal ruin, and going on which he describes as 50/50 chance of survival in the southern ocean.  As he says himself “what a bloody awful decision to have to take”.   

It is not long after this that he starts his great deception, keeping a normal ‘true’ logbook and a second fabricated one where he started to create a fictional voyage complete with reverse-calculated navigational sights (i don’t think i even know how to begin that one) and his radio log in which he recorded the false information he sent out and a log of radio information that he then used to support his ‘observations’ during the made-up passage.  It’s an impressive piece of fiction, but it is fiction and the reality by then is that he was essentially ‘hiding’ in a deserted part of the atlantic.    What also comes across is that he seems to be writing at times as a ‘persona’ : the image of the heroic long distance sailor and clearly based on a pastiche of Chichester et-al .  In contrast to that are much more honest and naked comments which seem somehow a lot more true to what he was experiencing.

Right at the end there is evidence that he spent a huge amount of time writing his ‘philosophy’ and possibly having a mental breakdown.  This culminates in his now famous entries finishing with times and ‘The Mercy’*

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Evidence part 3.  Last human contact.

There are 2 last points of significant contact between Donald Crowhurst and other people.  First was his wife Clare Crowhurst and last of all were a small group of Argentinians including the petty officer who was in charge of the coastguard station at  Rio Salado where Crowhurst landed .  That point marks the last time as far as we can tell where he had direct contact with other people and where he had a chance to ‘phone home’.

The former last moment of contact with his wife is described by her as the last night that they spent together rather than the final chaotic day trying to put out to sea.  According to Clare Crowhurst her husband hardly slept but spent most of that night weeping, her regret is that she didn’t try to tell him or persuade him not to go even though that may have been impossible in his mind.

The last point of human contact ashore in Argentina is described by Petty Officer Santiago Franchessi and a local family : the Salvati’s.    In one view he is described as very thin and with a month’s beard.   Franchessi described him as distraught and ‘nervy’ and as someone who had been at sea a long time, The Salvati’s described hi as mercurial.     Although thin and unkempt he was still able to communicate normally although at times excitedly given the linguistic difficulties and did manage to get the materials he needed to patch Teignmouth Electron.

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At the end of this section i want to provide a different example of a disordered mind manifesting in the physical space around that person.  The idea stems from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers and i will provide a link to Dr Petersen’s lecture about Rogerian ideas.    My example is that of the compulsive hoarder, almost more than any other psychological disorder we can see the manifestation of that person’s mental state in their immediate surroundings :

Some Rogerian Psychology via JBP.


The hoarder.


Part 2.  Donald Crowhurst , the persona and the person.

In the first section i have just tried to portray Crowhurst as a sailor might see him, and principally from the physical evidence of his boat and his logbooks. In my view his chaotic and disordered boat, his increasingly strange writing and his game-hoax logbook tells us a lot about him.   At the end of that section i have written briefly about his mental state just before the race and during the last known contact with other people.

In my previous attempts to write about Donald Crowhurst’s personality i feel that i failed because i fell into the easy trap of hindsight bias, we know something went badly wrong with his mental state and i for one have accidentally followed along the same lines of being smart after the event.    It would be easy just to write him off as a dreamer, a hoaxer and ultimately a failure but today i don’t find that adequate and i want to at least attempt to get at the person behind the heroic mask.  I know little of psychology and am extremely wary of throwing terms around loosely, in other essays about Crowhurst we see terms such as narcissistic , delusional even manic .  I see some aspects of him needing an explanation from Freudian and Jungian psychology and i know barely enough of those subjects to begin with.    I am much more comfortable with trait psychology because it is measurable and having completed the process myself can maybe compare him directly with own traits.

In this section i want to try and discover more about Donald Crowhurst’s personality, mainly from the written records and film clips from those who knew him.  The way i want to do that is look for the words and phrases used to describe him, list those, and try to place them within the ‘Big 5 traits model.   If you like, then the process is less one of hindsight bias and much more like reverse engineering from the available records. According to Petersen psychological traits are remarkably fixed at an early age and stay consistent through a persons life.  Traits are also described well by language, specifically the words and phrases that we all might use to describe another person.     The reason i want to do that is that it seems to be the most consistent and reliable measurement system that can be deduced from outside observation as well as done in self reporting.  As an important note i must add that i am not a psychologist, merely an enthusiastic self-learner in the subject and that i am mainly working with the ‘Big 5’ traits and specifically the most recent version from the work of Dr Jordan Petersen.

As a side note to this i should also add that it is possible now to take a quite sophisticated online personality trait test and once  again the version i have used is the one from Petersen and his co-workers and is the one i have taken myself.        His new version takes the original 5 traits and sub-divides each one into 2 separate aspects, thus for example trait neuroticism can now be expressed as having 2 factors ie  volatility and withdrawl.  One central key idea in trait psychology is that uses the available language, notably descriptors so for example if we heard someone described as irritable it is likely that would be descriptive of volatility and thus neuroticism. What i have set out to do in this regard is to take each description i can find of Crowhurst and see where they fit into this Big 5 trait model.  At the end of this post i intend to record my own results and talk a little about them because in terms of sailing i have been a successful long distance sailor but consciously not a good skipper.

First though here is Dr Petersen talking about the modified Big 5 + 10 aspects test.

The process i used for this exercise was to simply read through, once again, everything i have that has been written about Crowhurst and record any word or phrase used to describe him.  I then repeated the exercise with the documentary film ‘Deep Waters’.  I have then listed them in 3 groups roughly equating to 3 main periods of his life and then finally i have tried to place them within the relevant trait.

The words that come up frequently include :

Mercurial, anxious, enthusiastic, impulsive, creative, untidy, ebullient, sharp tongued, violent,charming, religious, self-lacerating and self assertive, brave, warmth and wit, brilliant (at fixing things) .

In his time in the RAF we have mainly phrases such as :

“The madcap power to inspire affection” and ” wildest and bravest in any group” …..”a compulsive risk taker”  and “defier of authority”.       Furthermore : flirtations, knock-out intellectual arguments, insane show-off stunts and practical jokes.

(Remember that he was asked to leave the RAF and resign his commission)

To continue : socially prudish,  dashing, an intellectual, tolerant, sophisticated, kind, clever and ingenious, a boffin, lonely brilliance,esoteric heroism, open minded, unsuper-stitious, boisterous, vivacious, adventurous, a show-off, lacking in intellectual control, sulky, depressive, manic high spirits, resentful, violent energy, moody, less efficient,frustrated, having violent fits of temper, gentle with his children, sceptical, a brilliant innovator, hopeless businessman, enthusiastic, gay (in an older useage) supremely convincing, obsessive.

Until i put this list together all in one place i hadn’t realised what a complex and difficult man he must have been.   The over-riding impression i always had of him is someobody who had created a public persona which he was acting out in front of the camera and often in his writing and which was at huge variance with the real person.   I should really talk about the concepts of persona, self, ego and integration of personality here as that would make a much more complete picture but then the post would become far too long.  Also those concepts mainly come from Jungian and Freudian theory which i know little about.            Instead i will stick with an attempt just to place the descriptors into the framework of the Big 5 traits.  My main reason is that then makes him comparable with anyone else, for example we could then easily do exactly what i have done and see how my mix of traits compares with his.


So : lets try to put this together from what we have.  Here i haven’t used the normal format of either ‘CANOE’ or ‘OCEAN’ but worked from first impressions.

E. (Extraversion) My first thoughts are that he comes across as very extroverted ie : impulsive, ebullient, enthusiastic, risk taker, dashing, vivacious,

O .(Opennesss) Next that he was very intelligent, most likely he had a high IQ and high trait open-ness which correlates strongly with intellect : intellectual, brilliant, a boffin, creative, innovative.

N. (Neuroticism) Also possibly high in neuroticism , in this context : volatility, withdrawl and susceptibility to emotional pain in that we have : sulky, moody, volatile, violent, sharp tongued, resentful

A. (Agreeableness) He comes across as highly agreeable at times : warmth, wit, charm, kind, gentle,

C. (Conscientiousness) Finally in trait conscientiousness he comes across as very low in the trait ie : less efficient, not able to complete things, starts things but doesn’t finish them, lacking in detail, disorganised, chaotic, impulsive

My overall impression from this is quite an extreme character, certainly not an ‘average joe’ but high in intellect and open-ness , high in extraversion, high in neuroticism, highly agreeable and low in conscientiousness.    I will admit right now that is almost my extreme opposite as i am quite an extreme introvert although also high in openness.  However what i do have on my side as a sailor (and in healthcare) is moderately high agreeableness, notably compassion, high in conscientiousness and orderliness and very low in neuroticism….thus stable and non-volatile.  Clearly it isn’t possible to give a percentage score on each trait in this exercise unlike doing the actual test today….but i think we can get close to an understanding of him.  Having done this exercise i feel that i understand him a lot better although i’m even more sure that i wouldn’t have wanted to sail with him.   I am pretty sure that he would have found me mostly dull and boring but at least we would have had the spares on board and the sails hanked on properly !.

My own Big 5 + 10 aspects trait results.

Agreeableness 49th percentile.  Compassion 66th and politeness 26th percentile.

Conscientiousness. 69th percentile with industriousness 82nd percentile and orderliness 48th percentile.

Extraversion 31st percentile with enthusiasm 13th and assertiveness 58th percentile

Neuroticism 13th percentile with withdrawl 10th and volatility 20th percentiles

Openness 83rd percentile with intellect 72nd and openness to ideas 84th percentile.

A brief explanation of those is that my lowest score is in extraversion , thus i am quite an extreme introvert.  I am probably at about the bottom limit of coping with social situations and i have had to adapt a lot to do my job.  It does mean that i am happy in my own company.  I am also very low in neuroticism, thus i don’t experience psychological pain easily, am the opposite of volatile thus very stable.  Where i luck-out is that i have high openness (intellect and ideas) high conscientiousness such that i can focus on detail and get stuff done.  The trait that amuses me is agreeableness : i am average in the trait although above average for a man, the way mine breaks down though is that i have high compassion but low politeness…..what this means is that i am likely to be very kind to you if you are having a bad time but equally likely just to tell you to ‘Fuck off’ if you really annoy me !

My traits applied to sailing make me, i believe, an excellent crew member and mate as i am stable, calm and ‘get stuff done’.  Where i fail spectacularly is as a skipper where i just can’t be the ‘front man’ and just too uncomfortable around people to create a social success among guests.   Looking back it was clearly a bad mistake to try and be the skipper of a charter boat and work with guests.  Looking forward i so no good reason why i wouldn’t be able to cope with a long solo voyage.

For Don it may have been the worst mistake of his life to isolate himself in that way that he did, to cut himself off from social contact, also i believe now that he simply bit-off far more of a complex project that his skills of organisation could deal with.  I have to also remember that he was ‘one of nine’ that set out on the global voyage, and that all but one failed or dropped out for some other reason.   The one that didn’t, Robin Knox Johnston is as stable and normal a bloke as i have ever met, described by a psychiatrist before and after the event as ‘distressingly normal’.  Moitessier was clearly a much more artistic and spiritual man who ‘found his soul’ by not completing the race but sailing on for the pacific ocean.   Moitessier almost becomes the first of a whole line of sailors who ‘drop out’ to go and discover something about themselves.  Commander Bill King sailed the race because, as he says, his nerves were frazzled from 16 years of commanding submarines and 6 years of that in wartime.  Ridgeway i don’t know but should have been the toughest character of them all from his background in the SAS and yet  its extraordinary to read that he admits to having been in tears nearly every day.   Chay Blyth i have met and found him to be a disagreeable but highly pragmatic businessman who couldn’t even sail or navigate when he left port, having said that i have respected his attitude of quickly accepting when something isn’t working and to ‘shed it’ in his own words…..pick yourself up and start again.    Tetley i have most sympathy with as he was so close to bringing it home aboard a boat that was quite literally breaking up under him.    His death, probably suicide a few years later was one of the worst outcomes from the race.

At the end of this post, this attempted series of posts, i feel that i know Donald Crowhurst a bit better and feel much more compassionate towards him.  I hope that in the end he did find his mercy.

In memory of Donald Crowhurst 1932-1969


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