Electron in spotlight again

A 35-year old trimaran that lies rotting and seemingly forgotten on the shoreline of Cayman Brac is to be featured in a book about madness and adventure by Canadian author Geoff Powter.

The tale of the Teignmouth Electron has been recounted in books and magazines, has inspired artwork displayed in London’s Tate Gallery, and is the subject of a website, celebrating both the boat and Donald Crowhurst, the man behind its creation.

The Electron was built for the 1969 Sunday Times ‘Golden Globe’, a non-stop single-handed sailing race around the world. It was constructed to the specifications of one of the contestants, Donald Crowhurst, a British electronics engineer and amateur sailor.

Realizing that neither he nor the yacht were prepared for such an undertaking, Crowhurst kept a fraudulent track of his global voyage for more than eight months, without ever leaving the Atlantic, before slipping into a state of schizophrenic paranoia and finally committing suicide.

The Electron was found floating in the mid-Atlantic on 10 July, 1969. It ended up in the possession of Winston McDermot, who brought it to Cayman Brac to use as one of the first dive-boats on the island. The yacht was damaged in 1980 during Hurricane Allen and never repaired.

One of publisher McGraw-Hill’s Sailors’ Classics, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, was first published in 1970 and reprinted in 2001. It was described by the Washington Post as ‘one of the most extraordinary stories of the sea ever to be published’, while the first man to sail single-handed round the world, Sir Francis Chichester, called it ‘the sea drama of the century’.

A seven-minute 16mm colour film of the Teignmouth Electron by the British artist Tacita Dean was featured in an exhibition at the Tate in 2000. Dean also produced a book featuring images of the boat, taken on Cayman Brac in 1998.

David Ekins, a website designer from Nova Scotia, who built the site www.teignmouthelectron.org, told the Caymanian Compass why he thought the story of Donald Crowhurst remains fascinating:

‘Perhaps in all of us, there are times when pressures have forced us down a particular difficult road. After his difficulties at the start of the race, Donald created such a complex web of intrigue that extrication became impossible. Why did he do it, and what would we do in a similar type of situation? Today, we recognize the impact of stress over our ability and judgment, something that would have not been acknowledged in the 1960s; it would have carried the taint of weakness and not manly. It is ironic that Donald was not the only competitor to suffer from internal wrangling.’

He believes that the key to the story’s longevity is the fact that we’ll never know the real story behind what happened. ‘Could it be the Mary Celeste nature of the ghostly ship floating crewless in the ocean – signs of life still clearly visible onboard?’

Powter told the Caymanian Compass that his book is built around tales of people who descended into madness during adventures as a result of unendurable stress or due to a personal or genetic predisposition; stories of people who were attracted to adventure for less than healthy reasons (such as money, fame or undoing a troubled past), and adventurers who seemed to completely disregard the normal self-protective mechanisms that most of the rest of mankind seem to value so highly.

Powter has been a mountaineer for 31 years and a clinical psychologist for 23, so when publisher, The Mountaineers Books, approached him with the idea for the book, he said it seemed a natural fit. The working title is “Lost Souls: Journeys along the fine line between risk, adventure and madness”, but this might change before publication, he said.

As well as Crowhurst’s fateful adventure, the book examines the ‘madness’ of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten, Swedish polar balloonist Solomon Andree, American mountaineer Johnny Waterman, Polar and mountain explorer Frederick Cook, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, among others.

He said, ‘The most interesting thing has been the degree to which the difference between the ‘madness’ I am writing about, and the great adventures of history, is indeed a fine line. There is one factor that most reliably – though perhaps unjustly – predicts whether we judge an adventure as heroic or mad: success.’