But look, our seas are what we make of them, full of fish or not, opaque or transparent, red or black, high or smooth, narrow or bankless—and we are ourselves sea, sand, coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves.- Hélène Cixous, 1976
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On December 24, 1968, astronaut Bill Anders, lunar module pilot on the Apollo 8 mission—his first and only space flight—took a photograph. In it, the distant blue earth, half in shadow, rises above the gray curve of the moon’s surface. Anders and the other crew members, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, were the first humans to orbit the moon. They were also the first to travel far away enough from our planet that they could look back and see it whole, a blue sphere against a void. When the first photographs appeared in newspapers the following day, the public was startled and moved. This was a snapshot of all of us, riding through a dark universe on a planet that is small and alone, vulnerable and finite.
At the moment Anders took his photo, four men on that blue sphere were pursuing a different milestone: to be the first to sail alone around the world without stopping and without assistance. These four were the remaining entrants from an original field of nine in the yearlong Golden Globe Race, sponsored by London’s Sunday Times, which would award a trophy to the first sailor to finish and five thousand pounds to the one who made the fastest circumnavigation. The race began in the summer of 1968 in the British Isles and headed south down the western coast of Africa before turning east around the Cape of Good Hope and into the southern Indian Ocean. From there, the course continued through the difficult and dangerous conditions of the high latitudes as it tucked under Australia and New Zealand before a long and lonely stretch across the southern Pacific Ocean. After rounding Cape Horn, the race turned northeast, running parallel to the Brazilian coast before crossing the equator and, eventually, mirroring the outbound track to arrive home again to Britain.
Most gave up before exiting the Atlantic. The last four sailors vying for the Golden Globe—Englishmen Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, and Donald Crowhurst, and Frenchman Bernard Moitessier—set out for different reasons, but they all faced the same test: to prove they could endure the danger of the sea and the strain of solitude in their crossings.
Ripple, by Sarah Anne Johnson, 2011. C-print, marker and photo-spotting ink. © Sarah Anne Johnson, courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery.
Compared to the Apollo mission orbiting over their heads, the task of the Golden Globe sailors may seem simple, even quaint, but the notion of sailing around the world alone would have been inconceivable to the earliest circumnavigators—not only insane but impossible. Ferdinand Magellan, entrusted by Charles I with finding a faster route to the valuable “Spice Islands,” is often considered the first to circle the globe, but he died midvoyage while attempting to conquer the Philippines. Hardly the expedition’s only mortality, Magellan sailed west from Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships and around 280 men, but the only vessel to survive limped back from the east in 1522 with just eighteen of the original crew aboard.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, the novel feat of circumnavigation would be repeated several times in less than a decade: Sir Francis Drake in 1580, Martín Ignacio de Loyola in 1584, Thomas Cavendish in 1588, and Loyola again, eastward this time, in 1589, becoming the first person to do it more than once. As knowledge expanded and technology improved, casualty rates dropped, and by the 1830s, circumnavigation was still dangerous but not so deadly as to rule out expeditions justified only by scientific, peaceful purposes. On one such mission, Charles Darwin circumnavigated aboard the Beagle from 1831 to 1836. Over the next several decades, round-the-world travel evolved into something of a zany Victorian fad, popularized by intrepid reporters like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, who were in pursuit of speed records and a good story, and personified by the fictional Phileas Fogg, an eyes-on-the-prize Englishman with an unshakable faith in timetables and the hero of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days.
As steam power became widespread and train tracks and telegraph lines webbed the world, the age of sail had one last pioneer. Joshua Slocum, a former ship captain, completed the first ever solo circumnavigation in 1898 and published an account of his remarkable journey, Sailing Alone Around the World, which became an immediate bestseller. At the age of fifty-one in 1895, Slocum, out of work and restless, had set off from Boston in a thirty-seven-foot oyster sloop called the Spray. The Spray’s seaworthiness was a source of great pride and satisfaction to Slocum, as was own his skill as a navigator. He was armed with a sextant, compass, lunar tables, and, since he couldn’t afford a precise chronometer, an old tin clock. This equipment, while basic, was good enough for Slocum, who navigated with extreme accuracy using a combination of dead reckoning and lunar sights, a method considered out-of-date even in the 1890s. Noon sights involve less-complicated calculations—the Golden Globe sailors used them. Even Apollo 8 made use of celestial navigation: when Jim Lovell accidentally deleted some navigational records, he recreated them using the spacecraft’s built-in sextant.
Early circumnavigators like Magellan were part of state-sponsored expeditions in pursuit of trade, conquest, and discovery. The men of the space race descended from a similar tradition: they were chosen to represent the resources and ambitions of entire nations. But sailors like Slocum sought an experience of extremity; he was an early adopter of the modern idea that earth’s indifferent topography offers a means for testing the limits of the self.
As social animals who depend on cooperation for survival, we regard solo adventurers with mingled fear and admiration. On Christmas Eve, 1968, Robin Knox-Johnston, Nigel Tetley, Donald Crowhurst, and Bernard Moitessier were as isolated as humans can be without leaving the planet. A solo adventurer accepts not only the prospect of lonely death in a desolate place, but also the possibility that the fatal act will be inflicted not by body, equipment, or nature, but the mind.
And so it was for the men of the Golden Globe—one would finish and become a national hero, one would sink, one would peel off and sail halfway around again, and one would drown himself in the Sargasso Sea.
Far from help or comfort, three of the four sailors were making their way through the stormy vastness of the ring of ocean between Antarctica and the world’s three great capes: Good Hope in South Africa, Leeuwin in Australia, and Horn in Chile. Only one other solo yachtsman had ever completed a circumnavigation by this particular track, known as the clipper route, and that was in May 1967 by a sixty-five-year-old Englishman named Francis Chichester, who returned home to a hero’s welcome and a knighthood. Afterward, the sailing community agreed there was nothing left to do but go around singlehanded, and nonstop, since Chichester had come ashore in Sydney for more than a month for rest and repairs.
As a growing number of yachtsmen began to make noise about attempting the voyage, the Sunday Times, which had sponsored Chichester, hit on the idea of setting up a contest that did not require any official entry or qualifying sail. The race’s minimal rules allowed contestants to leave from anywhere in the British Isles between June 1 and October 31, dates chosen so the sailors would arrive in the Southern Ocean during the austral spring or summer—winter would be suicide.
There is an old sailors’ proverb claiming that below latitude 40° south there is no law, and below 50°, no God. Cape Horn sits at 56° south, about 550 miles lower than the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand, and forces sailors much farther south than they would otherwise go. It is a landform that resonates with centuries’ worth of collective fear; thousands of people have died there. The cape itself is a promontory on a small island off the tip of South America that was first rounded in 1616 by a Dutch expedition—previous ships had gone through the Strait of Magellan—and was named after its captain’s hometown, Hoorn. There, mariners endure increasingly extreme weather as currents that otherwise circulate freely around Antarctica are forced through the narrow Drake Passage. South America’s steep continental shelf amplifies waves to heights that can surpass a hundred feet, and violent, gusty winds called williwaws shoot down through the Andes. The Horn, a symbol of the dangers of the sea, looms large in a sailor’s mind until it has been safely passed. In December 1968, the first of the men of the Golden Globe made his approach.
Marooned, by Howard Pyle, 1909. Delaware Art Museum.
Robin Knox-Johnston, a twenty-nine-year-old captain in the British Merchant Navy, was leading the field in the southern Pacific. One of the first to enter the race, he was still stewing about a French victory in the 1964 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, which had inspired headlines offensive to Knox-Johnston’s national pride (“Frenchman Supreme on the Anglo-Saxon Ocean,” ran one such offender in Paris Match). There were rumors that the same Frenchman was building a trimaran, a three-hulled yacht, for a solo nonstop circumnavigation, and Knox-Johnston was moved to action. “By rights a Briton should do it first,” he wrote. He sailed from Falmouth on June 14, 1968 in Suhaili, a heavy, leaky thirty-two-foot teak ketch burdened by, among other provisions, 216 twelve-ounce cans of corned beef and 3,000 cigarettes. By the end of December, when Bill Anders took his snapshot, Knox-Johnston had already passed Australia and New Zealand and was heading for the Horn.
In second place and closing the gap in the southern Pacific, was forty-three-year-old Bernard Moitessier aboard his red-hulled, thirty-nine-foot steel ketch Joshua, named for Joshua Slocum. Hanoi-born Moitessier was a highly skilled sailor and already a popular nautical memoirist in France. He wrote about the sea with a Gallic romanticism bordering on religious ecstasy. Here is how he described Joshua’s run up to Cape Horn:
Pearls run off the staysail; you want to hold them in your hand, they are real precious stones that live only in the eyes. The wake spins out very far behind up the slopes of the seas like a tongue of fire…Pointed toothlike seas masking the horizon, dull rumbling of the bow struggling and playing with the sea. The entire sea is white and the sky as well. I no longer quite know how far I have got, except that we long ago left the borders of too much behind.
By contrast, the Englishman Knox-Johnston had this to say about rounding the legendary cape:
It was a short rain squall and when it lifted I could plainly see the two tower rocks that mark the southwest of Isla Cabo de Hornos. We’ve passed it!!! Spliced the main brace and broke out Aunt Aileen’s fruitcake.
In other words, the race leaders were very different men. Moitessier did yoga naked on deck and fed Camembert to the albatrosses; the less-fortunate birds who followed Knox-Johnston were treated to bits of digestive biscuit and recitations from a treasury of English verse. On Christmas Eve, Knox-Johnston sang himself a carol service and the following day drank a loyal toast, regretting he had slept through the queen’s speech on the radio. Frustrated by “diabolically unfair” winds and imagining Moitessier gaining quickly, Knox-Johnston confided in his log, “If the Frogs are meant to win—OK, but there is no need to torture me as well as allowing me to lose, and the Chinese could hardly have thought up a slower, more destructive method of torturing a person than this.” Later he added, “Drake and Nelson must be weeping.”
In third place, somewhere in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean, was forty-five-year-old Nigel Tetley, an inoffensive Brit recently retired from the Royal Navy. While perusing the newspaper one morning with his wife, aboard his forty-foot trimaran, the Victress, he had read about the race and simply decided to take part. Multihulls (catamarans and trimarans) were, at the time, new and controversial yacht designs; they are fast, light, and cheap, but once capsized, they tend to stay upside down, held in place by the weight of the masts and sails. Part of Tetley’s reason for sailing was to test the suitability of a trimaran for round-the-world racing. Otherwise his motives remained obscure.
That Christmas Eve, Donald Crowhurst, one of the last men to set out, gave his position as “somewhere off Cape Town,” but in fact he was thousands of miles away, zigzagging aimlessly off the northeast coast of Brazil. Crowhurst was a thirty-six-year-old British electronic engineer and family man skippering the Teignmouth Electron, a forty-foot trimaran. The boat was named for the South Devon port town he sailed from and for his electronics company, Electron Utilisation, which was failing. For Crowhurst, the race was less a personal quest than a desperate attempt to drum up publicity for his business. An investor fronted him the money for the Teignmouth Electron with the stipulation that if Crowhurst did not complete the circumnavigation, he would have to repay it, a debt that would bankrupt him.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.- Thomas Traherne, 1670
After leaving port and spending two weeks making slow progress down the Atlantic, Crowhurst realized the Teignmouth Electron was woefully unfit for the Southern Ocean. To continue would mean almost-certain death, but giving up would bring financial ruin and humiliation that Crowhurst—a proud and ambitious man—found impossible to face. On December 6, he began plotting a record of fake positions in his logbook, a brutally intricate exercise in reverse calculating celestial positions and guessing at faraway weather conditions. By the end of the month, he was radioing vague positions indicating extremely fast sailing to his publicist, who enthusiastically passed them along to the national press. Crowhurst’s plan was to dawdle off the coast of Brazil for several months, avoid being spotted, and then fall into line with the other racers, at best winning the cash prize and at worst returning home with his honor still intact.
On Christmas, already heavily stressed by his predicament, Crowhurst caught the holiday broadcast from Apollo 8 while spinning through his radio dial and wrote a dark, troubled poem with rambling allusions to Herod, starving children, and Santa Claus while listening to astronaut Jim Lovell read from the Book of Genesis. Knox-Johnston also learned of Apollo 8 on Christmas and responded in his own indomitable fashion:
There they were, three men risking their lives to advance our knowledge, to expand the frontiers that have so far held us to this planet. The contrasts between their magnificent effort and my own trip were appalling. I was doing absolutely nothing to advance scientific knowledge…I was sailing round the world simply because I bloody well wanted to—and, I realized, I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
Moitessier silenced his radio that day, weary of the holiday programs (“They were really getting on my nerves with their infant Jesus”). Tetley, who had celebrated with champagne and roast pheasant, offered no opinion on man’s orbit around the moon.
After a roundabout voyage of 46,000 miles and many stops that took more than three years, Joshua Slocum concluded his journey in 1898, writing:
If the Spray discovered no continents on her voyage, it may be that there were no more continents to be discovered; she did not seek new worlds or sail to powwow about the dangers of the seas. The sea has been much maligned. To find one’s way to lands already discovered is a good thing, and the Spray made the discovery that even the worst sea is not so terrible to a well-appointed ship. No king, no country, no treasury at all, was taxed for the voyage of the Spray, and she accomplished all that she undertook to do.
The problem with adapting to the extreme simplicity of life alone at sea is the eventual need to return to land. With income from the lecture circuit and his best-selling book, Slocum bought a farm on Martha’s Vineyard for himself and his wife but struggled to find contentment. He had run away from a farmer’s life on Nova Scotia, and decades at sea had not made him any better suited for it. He would set off alone in the Spray for long periods, sometimes putting in to port where he would display the increasingly squalid sloop as a tourist attraction. In 1906, he was accused of sexually assaulting a twelve-year-old girl who had come aboard in Riverton, New Jersey. Although the charge was quickly downgraded to indecent exposure, and exactly what happened was never established, the incident was part of a larger pattern of difficulties on land. Three years later, on his way to the Caribbean, Slocum and the Spray disappeared at sea.
On January 17, 1969, Robin Knox-Johnston rounded Cape Horn and turned north for home. Assured he would be the first to return, Knox-Johnston could not be confident his time would be the fastest. Suhaili was heavy and slow compared to the other boats in the race.
The Raft of the Medusa, by Théodore Géricault, 1819. Louvre, Paris, France.
On February 6, Bernard Moitessier sailed past the Horn, but unlike Knox-Johnston, he could not find an end to his journey. Somewhere beyond the Falkland Islands, Moitessier made a decision. “Leaving from Plymouth and returning to Plymouth now seems like leaving from nowhere to go nowhere,” he wrote. Although he was still trailing Knox-Johnston, he would almost certainly post the faster time, thereby earning the cash prize, and had a good chance of passing Suhaili on the homestretch to take the Golden Globe trophy as well. But he would not sail back to Britain, reunite with his wife and stepchildren, accept his prize and celebrity—he would keep going. Aboard his “little red and white planet made of space, pure air, stars, clouds and freedom,” he found peace, and peace was the one thing Moitessier would not sacrifice. In Cape Town, on March 18, he used a slingshot to deliver a canister to a passing tanker. It contained a message for the Sunday Times:
My intention is to continue the voyage, still nonstop, toward the Pacific Islands, where there is plenty of sun and more peace than in Europe. Please do not think I am trying to break a record. Record is a very stupid word at sea. I am continuing nonstop because I am happy at sea, and perhaps because I want to save my soul.
He did not stop until he reached Tahiti, halfway around again.
By chance, the same day in March that Moitessier dropped out, Nigel Tetley rounded Cape Horn. With Moitessier gone, Tetley realized he might beat Knox-Johnston’s time and take the five thousand pounds. Believing Donald Crowhurst to be in hot pursuit as he sailed homeward up the Atlantic, he pushed his already ailing ship hard.
Robin Knox-Johnston landed in Falmouth on April 22, 1969, 313 days after he left, winning the Golden Globe trophy and bragging rights as history’s first nonstop solo circumnavigator. The British public had been following the race closely, and Knox-Johnston was welcomed home with screaming headlines, a platoon of welcome boats, and crowd-jammed docks. If Apollo 8 brought a thrill of optimism to the end of a terrible year for the United States, one dominated by civil unrest and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Knox-Johnston’s victory did something similar for Britain. He gratified a national nostalgia for the days when the island nation dominated the world’s oceans. Just two weeks before Knox-Johnston arrived, an expedition led by the British explorer Wally Herbert reached the North Pole by dogsled, eventually completing the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean. Englishmen might not have orbited the moon, but no one could say they weren’t tough.
On May 20, during a gale in the Azores, to the west of Portugal, the Victress broke apart. Tetley, rudely awakened belowdecks, had just enough time to throw his logbooks, film, navigational equipment, and a small radio transmitter into his life raft before the trimaran sank underneath him. He had sailed 29,000 miles in eight months. Britain was a thousand miles away.
For Tetley, returning to land proved hazardous. He wrote a memoir of the Golden Globe race, but unlike Slocum’s book or Knox-Johnston’s, it did not sell well. Frustrated by his incomplete voyage, he built a new trimaran that he planned to enter in a transatlantic race in 1972, but he had little luck securing sponsorship. In February of that year, he was found hanging from a tree near his house. He was wearing a woman’s stockings and a garter belt, and he had a corset over his head like a hood. Whatever demons were pursuing Nigel Tetley, he hadn’t been able to shake them since his return. “The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity,” Melville wrote, “my God! Who can tell it?” For some, homecoming offers no relief from the heartless immensity but merely heightens despair at the inescapability of the self.
Ashore it’s wine, women, and song; aboard it’s rum, bum, and concertina.- British naval saying, 1800
After Knox-Johnston’s glorious victory and Tetley’s wreck, Britain’s attention turned to Donald Crowhurst, who was still at sea and was expected to beat Knox-Johnston’s time. After two lonely, boring months spent meandering off Brazil and Uruguay and making a furtive trip to land for repairs, he sailed far enough south down the coast of Argentina to get photos and film of the Falkland Islands, which he hoped would serve as proof enough he had rounded the Horn.
After eleven weeks of radio silence, he cabled a message to his publicist in his usual enigmatic, jocular style: “Heading digger ramrez log kaput 17697 28th what’s new oceanbashingwise.” Unpacked, this meant that he was heading for the Diego Ramírez island group, southwest of Cape Horn, that his boat’s log (an instrument used to measure speed and distance) had broken at 17,697 miles on March 28, and that he would like an update on the other competitors. Crowhurst waited anxiously for a response, knowing that he might have been spotted and reported somewhere, that the jig might already be up. But the cheerful reply came that Knox-Johnston was due back within two weeks and the race between Crowhurst and Tetley was very close. In mid-April, Crowhurst headed for home.
After drifting alone for months in his closed world of fantasy and dwindling options, Crowhurst’s psyche was as battered and cracked as his boat. While insulated from the outside world, he had convinced himself that his deception would pass muster with the distinguished race judges. But, on May 23, when he learned of Tetley’s sinking, his illusions seem to have been shattered. He had been sailing purposefully for Britain, but his course began to zigzag and wander. He passed out of the trade winds and into the doldrums. His wife and his publicist sent news of the 100,000 people expected to greet him in Teignmouth, of the fame and money that awaited, and of the mounting requests for his story.
The Stages of Life, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1835. Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
On June 24, Crowhurst steered away from England and into the mid-Atlantic, drifting through the hot, still, seaweed-dense Sargasso Sea. Over the next eight days, in a kind of fever, he wrote 25,000 words in his logbook, expounding a strange “philosophy” that began with a rambling treatise on Einstein’s theories of relativity and devolved into theological ravings. “The explanation of our troubles is that cosmic beings are playing games with us,” he wrote. “During his lifetime, each man plays cosmic chess against the devil.” On July 1, at 10:29 a.m., he wrote:
It is finished—
It is finished
It is the mercy.
At 11:17 a.m., he added:
I will play this game when
I choose I will resign the
game 11 20 40 There is
no reason for harmful
He had reached the bottom of the page and wrote no more. On July 10, the Teignmouth Electron was found adrift and unmanned by the Royal Mail ship Picardy. When the Picardy’s chief officer went on board, he found Crowhurst’s scrawl-filled logbooks and charts plotted with real and fake positions. If Crowhurst had continued to reverse compute navigational sights after his first week of experiments in December, he took the record with him into the ocean, along with the boat’s chronometer. His body was never found. The Teignmouth Electron was hoisted aboard the Picardy and unloaded in the Caribbean, where it was eventually sold. For a while it served as a dive boat, but today it lies abandoned and slowly deteriorating on the island of Cayman Brac.
In a 1962 speech to Rice University, John F. Kennedy laid bare his argument for a mission to the moon: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won…Only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” Even though we know the ocean—the blue in our blue planet—is inconceivably small relative to the universe, in our cultural memory it is inseparable from the idea of exploration, the necessity of risky state-sponsored ventures to establish hegemony over new territory, and the prospect of heading into a vast and dangerous unknown.
All the lands have been discovered, and man has moved on to orbit new celestial bodies, but a belief persists that there is still something that can be found by putting to sea alone in a sailboat. “I feel like somebody who’s been given a tremendous opportunity to impart a message…some profound observation that will save the world,” Crowhurst told his tape recorder shortly after leaving port. Despite these brave-sounding words about a noble goal—to perceive, to experience a change in vision—Crowhurst, who began his journey in hopes of saving his business, was only posturing.
Bernard Moitessier, sailing on without knowing when he would stop, believed the voyage itself, not its completion, would save his soul. The trial of pitting oneself against the ocean is only endurable to people who are willing to risk their lives and their sanity for the hope of an encounter with the sublime. “I listen, I feel, I sift the invisible,” Moitessier wrote. “A delicious warmth runs down my leg…It is already past. It saved me the complexities of zippers and trouser buttons, which might have prevented my perceiving something essential.” Moitessier, a man who would rather wet his pants than look away from the ocean, was perhaps the ideal solo circumnavigator. The ocean gave him access to a feeling of transcendence, of merging with his surroundings; his circle around the planet was a mandala. Religious language is appropriate: Moitessier wanted a personal relationship with the earth, not one filtered through national interests or other people. For him, the edges of the earth were the same as the edges of the self.