Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Book Review: A Voyage for Madmen

This summer we spent a wonderful week on the Devon coast at East Prawle, a few miles West of Start Point. On our first evening the yachts of the Fastnet Race swept past our window on their outward leg, and on the bookshelf beside the window I found a book I had heard of but never read: A Voyage For Madmen

Peter Nichols' book follows the nine diverse characters who set out to be first to sail around the world non-stop. The race started in 1968 and Nichols does a great job of exploring the characters of these extraordinary men, and the dynamics of the race that developed, fuelled by the growing interest of the media. It held particular interest to me as I have met two of the survivors of the race, John Ridgway and Robin Knox-Johnson, who eventually won the race.

First to start was John Ridgway, an early celebrity favourite having rowed across the Atlantic two years earlier with Chay Blythe. Like most of the other competitors, Ridgway was sailing in a fundamentally unsuitable craft, the bilge keeled English Rose IV, and after a collision with a press boat as he leaves Ireland he was baling out all the way south through the Atlantic. He pulled out after only 6 weeks at sea.

Ridgway and Blythe (who set sail a week or so later) were both early casualties of the malign influence of sponsors - both were sailing boats provided by manufacturers eager for publicity for inshore cruisers that were not fit for the Southern Ocean. But much greater pressure was to befall the last competitor to set sail, Donald Crowhurst, who beat the race deadline of 31 October by only a few hours. He had gambled his house on winning the competition for the fastest circumnavigation, and set sail in a boat that was entirely unfit for the storms ahead.

Nichol tracks Crowhurst's lonely preparations, departure and, eventually, his decision to cheat in order to save his family. After months at sea and a surreal episode when he goes ashore in South America and has a fine meal with customs officers, Crowhurst's log records his descent into madness. His abandoned craft was found sometime later. He is presumed to have stepped overboard.

Meanwhile, Robin Knox-Johnson, with his radio and self steering gear broken, is relentlessly progressing through the mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean, and eventually returns to a hero's welcome as the only competitor to complete the circumnavigation. In a remarkable act of generosity he gave his winnings to Donald Crowhurst's widow. Psychologists' reports of Knox-Johnson commissioned by his media sponsors before he left described him as "distressingly normal".

Nevertheless, this is an excellent and entertaining study of 9 remarkable men and their endeavours in a bygone age in which it was possible to be without contact with any other human for more than 4 months. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the study of determination and adventure.

I worked for John Ridgway in 1990 as an instructor at his adventure school in the highlands of Scotland and so it was a special treat for me to read an account of one of his earlier exploits. I spent a very enjoyable evening with Robin Knox-Johnson more recently at an event where he was presenting on the challenges of raising sponsorship for sporting events. When I mentioned that I had worked for John before becoming a Royal Marine, he collected us some drinks and regaled me with tales of his encounters with Royal Marines in Norway and elsewhere for the rest of the evening.

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