Staff Pick: A Voyage for Madmen

Staff Pick
A Voyage for Madmen
By Peter Nichols
(Harper Perennial)

"I will play this game when I choose I will resign the game 11 20 40 There is no reason for harmful."

Those were the last words frantically scribbled in the logbook by Donald Crowhurst — captain, pilot, and sole passenger of a yacht called the Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst carefully noted the hour, minute, and second when he made his final notation. Then, so obsessed with time in his final weeks at sea that he apparently thought he could take it with him, he carefully unscrewed the brass chronometer from his ship's bulkhead, carried it with him to the railing, and stepped over the side.

Two weeks later his empty ship was found adrift in the North Atlantic and towed home.

Crowhurst was one of nine men from England and France who in 1968 joined an around-the-world sailing race that had some very challenging rules. The journey, which could take a year or more, had to be performed alone. The ships could make no stops for repairs, food, supplies — not even medicine. The pilots of these vessels, which ranged from small single-hulled wooden yachts to 60-foot fiberglass trimarans, weren't even allowed to accept letters from home tossed to them from passing ships. They did carry radios, but in these days before sophisticated weather radar and GPS systems, the Golden Globe Race, sponsored by London's Sunday Times, would be the toughest ever conducted.

And what a motley crew it attracted. Though all the participants had been at sea before, none had ever attempted anything as bold as this. One intrepid Britisher had teamed up with another fellow and actually rowed across the Atlantic the year before. But when he launched his vessel into the English Channel in October, that marked the first time he had ever operated a sailboat.

At least he knew more about sailing terms than me. Quite a few times I had to pause and figure out what "lying abeam in the wind" meant, or "backing the headsail." But Nichols — a former yacht captain, novelist, and creative writing professor — doesn't dwell on too many technical details, because he knows this story isn't really about the boats; it's about the men who sailed them.

More specifically, it's about the type of person who would attempt such a thing: squander their life savings to purchase and stock a vessel, bid farewell to families and friends, and set out into the lonely and dangerous ocean. As Nichols discovered, they did it not for the prize money, a paltry 5,000 pounds, and not even for the fame that would come to the winner, but for something much more elusive.

And the book is called A Voyage for Madmen with good reason. Certainly you have the enduring mystery of Donald Crowhurst, who never left the Atlantic Ocean, but shuttled back and forth between Africa and South America, while broadcasting false reports of his position to the race officials back home. But you also have the quest of Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, who managed to circle the globe and turned his vessel towards England to claim first prize. Then, just a few hundred miles from victory, he realized that the race wasn't about winning at all. So, stunning his wife, not to mention his sponsors, he turned his boat around, and radioed that he would just keep sailing, wherever the wind and currents carried him.

Nichols has done a remarkable job of allowing the reader to become a passenger aboard each of these boats, and A Voyage for Madmen is a classic tale of men against the sea. You may think his book's cover blurb ("Nine men set out to race each other around the world. Only one made it back.") gives away the ending, but that is by no means the whole story.

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