Fifty-four years ago this month, in a push for publicity, The Sunday Times offered £5,000 to whoever could sail solo nonstop around the world the fastest. It was technically a race, but that was an afterthought, as no one had ever completed the feat.
There were no qualification requirements and few rules. Nine men joined the race, one of whom had never sailed. Just one man finished, 312 days and 27,000 miles later.
But it was two participants who never completed the race that generated the most news. One ended up dead, the other found himself happier than ever. Both outcomes came from decisions made at sea, but neither had anything to do with sailing.
The two men, Donald Crowhurst and Bernard Moitessier, are astounding examples of how the quality of your life is shaped by whom you want to impress. Their stories are extreme, but what they dealt with was just a magnified version of what ordinary people face all the time, and likely something you’re facing right now.
Donald Crowhurst was a tinkerer who came up with his own boat modifications. Convinced his innovations could propel him to win the Sunday Times race, he faced just one obstacle: he was broke, and stood no chance of financing the race himself.
Crowhurst struck a deal with an English businessman who agreed to cover the cost of the race under two conditions: They would orchestrate a media frenzy, portraying Crowhurst as a sailing savant. And if Crowhurst didn’t finish, he would owe all the money back.
Crowhurst left Teignmouth on October 31st, 1968, the last day participants of the race could begin their voyage. His boat, the Electron, had been so heavily modified, so weighed down with half-finished gizmos and gimmicks, that it was barely seaworthy for a short sail near home, let alone a solo trip around the globe. Crowhurst knew it. He broke down in tears in front of his wife the night before he left.
Two weeks into the race, as Crowhurst had covered less than half his intended distance, the Electron sprung a leak. “This bloody boat is just falling to pieces due to lack of attention to engineering detail,” Crowhurst wrote in his diary. In the calm waters of the South Atlantic, the small leak posed little threat and could be bailed with a bucket. But continuing on to the treacherous Southern Ocean would bring certain catastrophe.
So Crowhurst seemed to have two options: Continue the race and face ruin at sea, or return home and face bankruptcy and humiliation.
He in fact chose a third option, which was outright fraud.
By mid-November Crowhurst began loitering in the south Atlantic, drifting in circles in calm water. He then began sending fake coordinates back to England, giving the impression that he was still on track, rounding Cape Horn, on his way to circle the globe.
He went virtually nowhere for months, which was the plan: By mid-summer, when enough time had passed to have plausibly circled the globe, Crowhurst hoped to quietly sail back to England, “finish” the race, and hope no one noticed that during his round-the-world voyage he never actually left the hemisphere.
As Crowhurst sailed back to England he realized he did not want to appear to win the race, because if he did the media and judges would scrutinize his logs and uncover the deception, whereas no one cares about the runner-up. After receiving word on the location of other race participants, Crowhurst timed his return so that he would finish the race in third place, which seemed good enough to maintain dignity yet low enough to avoid suspicion.
But then the boat that was in second place sank. And after miscalculating his return time, Crowhurst was suddenly on track to beat the sailor who had been in first place.
Crowhurst was now going to cruise into England with what looked like the fastest time. He was going to win the race. The BBC had a crew prepared to meet the man who defied the odds to become the world’s greatest sailor – which, ironically, is the kind of attention a fraudster desperately wanted to avoid.
On June 29th, Crowhurst wrote in his diary:
I have no need to prolong the game … It has been a good game that must be ended … It is the end of my game. The truth has been revealed. It is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.
Soon after he sent his last fake coordinates to his team, and shut his radio off.
The Electron was found 11 days later, adrift in the Atlantic. There was no major damage, no sign of an accident – and no sign of Crowhurst.
He had presumably thrown himself into the sea.
Left behind were his diary and two log books: one real, one fake.
Three months before Crowhurst took his life, another sailor in the Sunday Times race made an equally astonishing life decision at sea.
Bernard Moitessier was an expert sailor, and five months into the race, he was on track to legitimately win.
Moitessier loved sailing but despised the commercialization of his sport. Or, more accurately, he hated the sport side of sailing. He just liked sailing for sailing’s sake.
The personality required to spend nine months alone at sea selects people who are fine detaching from society. Moitessier was an extreme version of that, and the idea of sailing for someone else’s pleasure – to perform for the press, the race organizers, the sailing magazines, the fans – was so detestable that midway through his voyage he’d had enough.
He wrote in his diary:
I really feel sick at the thought of getting back to Europe, back to the snakepit … I am really fed up with false gods, always lying in wait, spider-like, eating our liver, sucking our marrow. I charge the modern world – that’s the Monster, trampling the soul of men … returning to [England] feels like returning to nowhere.
But being on his boat, Joshua, was a different story. He loved it, loved being on the water. Moitessier later recalled:
There were so many beautiful days on this beautiful boat that it really made time change dimensions … I was just feeling totally alive. And that was just fantastic.
As he sailed around Cape Horn – a position Crowhurst could only dream of – Moitessier began contemplating the unthinkable: Abandoning the race and sailing somewhere else.
Thinking of his family and friends, he wrote:
I do not know how to explain to them my need to be at peace, to continue toward the pacific. They will not understand. I know I’m right, I feel it deeply. I know exactly where I am going, even if I do not know.
On March 18th, Moitessier threw a jerrycan onto the deck of a passing commercial ship, whose captain caught it on the fly. Inside was a note addressed to the Sunday Times’ editor. It read:
Dear Robert, today is March 18th. I am continuing non-stop toward the Pacific Islands because I am happy at sea, and perhaps to save my soul.
Moitessier shouted for the captain to take the message to the French consul.
He then changed course, off the race’s path, and set sail for Tahiti.
Moitessier wrote in his diary:
Now it is a story between Joshua and me, between me and the sky; a story just for us, a great story that does not concern the others any more … To have the time, to have the choice, not knowing what you are heading for and just going there anyway, without a care, without asking any more questions.
He anchored in Tahiti in June, where he remained for years. He built a house on the beach, grew his own food, and wrote a book about sailing.
“You can’t understand how happy I am,” he wrote.
In a twist of irony, Tahiti was so far out of the way and required so much backtracking that, despite dropping out of the race, Moitessier did circle the globe, and set a world record for the longest ever nonstop solo sail – more than 37,000 miles.
There is no mention of that fact in his book. He didn’t seem to care.
Anyone alone at sea for nine months will start to lose their mind, and there’s evidence both Crowhurst and Moitessier were in poor mental states when their decisions were made. Crowhurst’s last diary entries were incoherent ramblings about submitting your soul to the universe; Moitessier wrote about his long conversations with birds and dolphins.
But their outcomes seemed to center on the fact that Crowhurst was addicted to what other people thought of his accomplishments, while Moitessier was disgusted by them. One lived for external benchmarks, the other only cared about internal measures of happiness.
They are the most extreme examples you can imagine. But their stories are important because ordinary people so often struggle to find balance between external and internal measures of success.
I have no idea how to find the perfect balance between internal and external benchmarks. But I know there’s a strong social pull toward external measures – chasing a path someone else set, whether you enjoy it or not. Social media makes it ten times more powerful. But I also know there’s a strong natural desire for internal measures – being independent, following your quirky habits, and doing what you want, when you want, with whom you want. That’s what people actually want.
Last year I had dinner with a financial advisor who has a client that gets angry when hearing about portfolio returns or benchmarks. None of that matters to the client; All he cares about is whether he has enough money to keep traveling with his wife. That’s his sole benchmark.
“Everyone else can stress out about outperforming each other,” he says. “I just like Europe.”
I think Moitessier would approve.