In 1968 the Sunday Times announced they would give a prize to the first person to sail around the world, non-stop, alone. The newspaper would make a mint, covering the race. The prize they would give to one out of many who risked their lives, would be a relative pittance. The result was tragedy and a salty adventure tale that illustrates a choice we all make, even us landlubbers.
Nine men entered what was called The Golden Globe Race and set off in their nine sailboats, beginning in England, traveling south through the Atlantic, taking a left by the Cape of Good Hope, and circling the globe by sailing the Southern Ocean, that troubled stretch of water just north of Antarctica and south of everywhere else. Six of the contestants dropped out before ever leaving the Atlantic by pulling into port for repairs. A seventh, Donald Crowhurst, quickly saw his boat would never survive the Southern Ocean; but, instead of dropping out of the race by going to port, chose to poke around in the Atlantic instead. His plan was to hang around in seldom visited stretches of water, far from shipping lanes where he could be spotted, until he heard the other contestants had returned to the Atlantic; then he would dash back to England, claim he had sailed around the world, and enjoy fame and fortune.
Crowhurst thought he had a good reason to do this. He would face bankruptcy and disgrace if he didn’t. So, he sent a radio transmission, claiming he was having electrical problems and would be unable to radio his position. He sailed around the Atlantic with no contact with anyone for the better part of a year.
Meanwhile two other men battled the Southern Ocean where the winds circle the globe, unabated, producing savage storms. When they passed Cape Horn and entered the final leg towards home, it looked like Bernard Moitessier would win.
Crowhurst broke radio silence, claiming he had fixed his electrical problem. He heard Moitessier was going to win and was fine with that. Second place was better because no one scrutinizes the runner-up very closely. He might still write a book, go on TV, and preserve his pride.
Moitessier thought of all the attention he would get if he won the race: a book deal, media events, interviews, endorsements, meeting the French President, a ticker tape parade. He would go from spending most of a year alone, to the glaring spotlight. He didn’t want it. He was already happy alone on his boat. He didn’t need a ticker tape parade. Rather than sail into port triumphant, Moitessier turned around and circled the world a second time.
When Moitessier announced he was going around a second time, Crowhurst lost his nerve. He didn’t want all that attention, either. He didn’t know what to do. Later his boat was found, bobbing around the Atlantic. In the cabin were the crazed writings of a man who had been alone too long. It’s presumed Crowhurst jumped overboard.
The one remaining contestant, Robin Knox-Johnston went on to win the race. He graciously donated the prize to Crowhurst’s family. As for the fame, he took it all in stride.
As I said, the race illustrates the choices you make. How do your respond to what the world offers you? What are your feelings about the spotlight? Are you a Moitessier, who sees the rewards the system offers as a trap and does his own thing? A Crowhurst, cheating at the game, secretly fearing he’ll be exposed as a fraud? Or a Knox-Johnston, who blithely sails in and claims what everyone else surrendered?
Or, are you the Sunday Times? Setting the whole thing up and benefiting, backstage?