A Voyage for Madmen
Peter Nichols book A Voyage for Madmen (Profile Books 2001) tells the story of all nine sailors in the original 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Assuming his premise is correct – as an entrant in the 2018 incarnation of the same race, with similar boats and technology, then I must be mad too?
Very early on the author offers an explanation for the catchy title. Those who commit to such undertakings are driven by something essentially insane. They can never really answer ‘why’ they take such risks. He references the lone hero myth they all subscribe to and the Ulysses factor. We are all a recognisable type. Those who pursue such dangerous ventures are wannabe cowboys; self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-assured and, of course, self-absorbed. It’s a neat conceit, once established the author even feels confident enough to dismiss a psychiatrists diagnosis of Knox-Johnston of “distressingly normal” as simply wrong.
I enjoyed this book and discovered much about the other sailors in the race. We already know a lot about the three main characters. They so neatly represent the archetypes of victor (Robin Knox-Johnston), spirit (Moitissier) and tragedy (in Donald Crowhurst). It was especially interesting though to read about Nigel Tetley who completed the first ever circumnavigation in a multihull, an extraordinary achievement.
While it’s great to get an outsider’s perspective on this story, (most sailing books are written by the sailors rather than writers), the mechanism he has used to dramatise this already epic tale presents the reader with a fait accompli. Instead of attempting to explain ‘why’ they attempted such a voyage on an individual level the author too quickly falls back on his Ulysees theory and in doing so ends up telling a very stylised version of their personal stories. This makes for a great read but I fear it is a bit misleading.
It is quite possible the psychiatrist was correct in his diagnosis. Knox-Johnston was quite normal for a British sailor of his generation still harking back to the golden age of sail and empire, as so many did in the late 60s. If you read RKJ account of his race A World of My Own, you could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that a big motivation for RKJ to keep going was a simple horror at that thought that a Frenchman might win!
Also the book doesn’t consider how normal it is to seek adventure. Whatever that adventure may be isn’t it quite strange not to want some excitement and unpredictability in our lives? Isn’t it also quite normal to want to test oneself – to see how, or if you can handle difficult situations?
Then there is whole aspect left largely unexplored by the book: That for many people sailing makes for very enjoyable and engaging work. It is multidisciplinary. It requires intellect and physical strength. This is more prosaic and harder to appropriate for dramatic affect, but it is an essential part of what keeps someone going on any activity for weeks on end. Floating around the Atlantic waiting for the other racers would have contributed tremendously to Crowhurst’s breakdown. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand that.