ONE OF the West Country’s most tragic sporting mysteries is probed in a new film to be released this week, starring Colin Firth.
The Mercy tells the story of yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s disastrous attempt to complete the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968.
The title comes from the sailor’s enigmatic last entry in his logbook: “It is finished – It is finished. IT IS THE MERCY.”
Amateur sailor Crowhurst left from Teignmouth in October 1968 to tackle the Golden Globe, with his home and business heavily mortgaged to fund the bid to win cash and publicity for his ailing firm.
Crowhurst had moved to Bridgwater, where he started a business called Electron Utilisation. He was a Liberal, and had been elected to Bridgwater Borough Council.
Faced with mounting problems on board his complex tri-hulled boat Teignmouth Electron, he secretly abandoned the race while reporting false positions. It seems he hoped to salvage something from the situation by sneaking home in last place.
But bizarre circumstances combined to mean Crowhurst’s falsely-reported progress actually made him likely to win a prize, having set off much later than the actual winner, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
The story of the amateur sailor who had taken on the world began to get publicity across the globe. If he appeared to have completed the fastest circumnavigation, his log books would be closely examined by experienced sailors, including the experienced and sceptical Plymothian Sir Francis Chichester, who had already expressed doubts about the plausibility of Crowhurst’s progress.
Crowhurst ended radio transmissions on June 29, 1969. The last log book entry is dated July 1. Teignmouth Electron was found adrift, unoccupied, on July 10.
Examination of his recovered logbooks and papers revealed the attempt at deception and what appeared to be his mental breakdown. His disappearance has been widely believed to be suicide – but even today there is no certainty.
Fifty years on, his son Simon, who lives in Cambridge, rarely talks to journalists. But he told The Guardian: “On the deck of the Teignmouth Electron, he kissed us goodbye. I think he said something like, ‘Look after your mother’, and then he was off. We didn’t think then that we wouldn’t see my father again.”
The film stars Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Ken Stott, and Jonathan Bailey alongside Firth, who was hospitalised with a dislocated hip during filming.
The actor said: “‘Even to this day, what Crowhurst did is unparalleled because, although people have gone round the world and have endured all sorts, I don’t know if it’s even possible now to construct a challenge with that sort of adversity.”
There is a moving postscript to the tragedy. The winner of the race Crowhurst dreamed of conquering, Robin Knox-Johnston, donated his £5,000 winnings to Donald Crowhurst’s widow and children.
- The Mercy goes on cinematic release on Friday, February 9.