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A Race Too Far

By Sue Richards last modified May 14, 2010 11:40 AM

Published: 2010-05-14 11:40:10

Chris Eakin
ISBN 978-0-09-193259-6
Publisher: Ebury Press

This is an excellent book that all cruising sailors should read as it says a lot about preparation, the challenges of the sea, etc.

This is the story of the first round the world race, a spell-binding tale of immense courage, heroic sacrifice and profound despair whose reverberations are still felt by the survivors of this epic drama and whose painful memories have not been alleviated by the passing of time.

Shortly after Francis Chichester had completed his one-stop circumnavigation of the world in 1967, the Sunday Times newspaper threw down the gauntlet by offering the Golden Globe trophy and the considerable prize of £5,000 (approximately £100,000 in today’s money) for the first person to sail around the globe without stopping anywhere. The rules were very simple, any type of sailing boat was allowed and participants had to start between 1 June and 31 October 1968.

Several sailors were already silently planning such a voyage and eventually nine set off, among them seven monohulls and two trimarans. Under tremendous pressure to get ready in the short time available, most competitors left in unfinished, poorly equipped or grossly unsuitable boats, while several lacked any offshore experience. It was a sure recipe for disasters which were not long in coming. It was therefore no great surprise that only three made it past the Cape of Good Hope and into the Southern Ocean where the route continued through the Roaring Forties to Cape Horn and home.

As the first to start, Robin Knox-Johnston on the 32 ft Suhaili, maintained his lead but was chased by the most serious contender, the late starter Frenchman Bernard Moitessier on his 42 ft Joshua. Also considered a potential winner was Nigel Tetley’s faster trimaran Victress. Another trimaran, Donald Crowhurst’s Teignmouth Electron, had also a good chance of winning but its whereabouts were shrouded in mystery and its eventual untangling was to add a further twist to this amazing tale.

As Suhaili passed Cape Horn and headed for home, Joshua was slowly catching up and the prospect of a nail-biting finish were stoked by an increasingly chauvinistic press on both sides of the Channel. Alas, the sailor-philosopher decided that there were better things in life than fame and riches and, in a true gesture of the hippy sixties, continued east and ended up in Tahiti. Meanwhile Robin Knox-Johnston stayed valiantly on course and claimed victory. Nigel Tetley also pushed on and, feeling threatened by Donald Crowhurst, ended up pushing his damaged boat too hard and it disintegrated and sank barely one thousand miles from home. Soon afterwards, the abandoned Teignmouth Electron was found drifting in the South Atlantic and from its retrieved logs it became clear that the unfortunate skipper had been giving misleading position reports and had most probably taken his life.

Several participants have written their own accounts and there have been a number of books written about this unique race, but none conveys better the excitement and drama of this modern odyssey than Chris Eakin who skilfully weaves together the disparate strands of a heart-rending tale of human tragedy and redemption of Homeric dimensions. There are indeed many parallels with the immortal saga of Ulysses as his modern followers battled with monster seas and were tempted by the call of sirens to abandon their voyage, while back home faithful Penelopes waited impatiently for their heroes’ return. As in most such situations, that tale is rarely told and it is to the author’s great merit that he puts this right by bringing to the fore the sad stories of Francoise Moitessier, Eve Tetley and Clare Crowhurst whose suffering and sacrifices throw an unexpected light on this amazing story. More than anything else, it is the interviews with the three widows as well the surviving participants that bring to life so powerfully the events of four decades ago and their lasting consequences.

Jimmy Cornell