Tacita Dean on Donald Crowhurst

Back to Tacita Dean..again.  She has made three films inspired by Donald Crowhurst: Disappearance at Sea, Disappearance at Sea II and Teignmouth Electron, and stills for these are shown below.disappearance


The first two films explore the roles of lighthouses, and time, and their existance at the edge of land and use of time for navigation in a way that underlines the vastness and timelessness of the seas.  The second explores the sad hulk that is all that remains of the Teignmouth Electron, Donald Crowhurst’ boat washed up on a beach in the Cayman Islands.

I am interested in Donald Crowhursts story given our brief on celebrity, how he became trapped by his fame and renown leading eventually to his tragic and lonely death in the mid Atlantic.


“Donald Crowhurst was one of nine competitors in the 1968 solo Round the World Yacht Race.  He was a family man with a struggling business and no professional sailing experience, but his determination to to enter and to win set him on a path of delusion that swept up others and trapped him into leaving in an unfit boat, ill prepared and afraid.”  (Dean 2006.)  I watched a documentary about Crowhurst last year and I remember he was loaned money by a business man to build his boat, on condition that if he did not participate in the race he would have to repay the money, and Crowhurst did not have this option as it would have made him bankrupt.  There was huge publicity across Britain and he became a tremendous celebrity, even though as the departure date of the race due near he realised he was hopelessly ill-prepared and lacked the experience he required.  He left Britain on the last possible day, and then once at sea and in mortal danger devised a scheme to enable him to return home safely and avoid disgrace without going through the very dangerous passages of the race which would have surely killed him.  He intended to lurk in the south Atlantic out of harms way, filing false position reports until the other race goers had returned home and then he could slink quietly back into port.. Unfortunately all the other racers dropped out so he would have returned as the winner, his records would have been scrutinised and his deception would have been exposed.  Crowhurst struggled with fear and loneliness and desperation on his yacht, eventually becoming mentally deranged and his body was never found..nor that of the ships chronometer.

Teignmouth Council had reaped huge publicity from Crowhursts venture and was planning to give him a huge welcome and had all sorts of plans set up when the sad end of his race became clear.  A book on the Crowhurst quotes the minutes of a meeting of Teignmouth Community Council from their point of view “Despite the sad end the voyage has brought up more publicity than this Committee has managed in fifty years.  We have had this extremely cheaply, and I hope the town appreciates it”..

The fame and publicity Donald Crowhurst received at the beginning of his venture in the end became a millstone round his neck.. it was acceptable, probably enjoyable, when all was going well, but the anticipation of the public humiliation and shame of failure was not an option he could contemplate.  His story is one of great human sadness.


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