The Teignmouth Electron is a 41-foot trimaran sailing vessel designed explicitly for Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated attempt to sail around the world in the Golden Globe Race of 1968. She became a ghost ship after Crowhurst reported false positions and ultimately committed suicide at sea. The journey was meticulously catalogued in Crowhurst’s found logbooks, which also documented the captain’s thoughts, philosophy, and eventual mental breakdown.
In 1968, the British Sunday Times newspaper initiated a new sailing competition called The Golden Globe Race. The deceptively simple objective was to succeed in the first non-stop, solo circumnavigation of the earth. Thirty-four year-old Donald Crowhurst, an inventor, amateur yachtsman, and family man, decided to enter the race. Construction on the Teignmouth Electron began in June of 1968 after Crowhurst failed to acquire the famous circumnavigating vessel Gipsy Moth IV, previously sailed by Sir Francis Chichester in a single-handed circumnavigation with a single-stop in 1967. This feat, though completed by many other sailors, gained significant media attention, and spurred a national maritime phenomenon for the United Kingdom which was slowly losing its claim to empire.
After being denied the rights to the Gipsy Moth, Crowhurst sought funding for a vessel built specifically for the round the world voyage. The boat was in-part funded by the town of Teignmouth and business investor Stanley Best who also invested in Crowhurst’s business, Electron Utilisation, thus the ship was named the "Teignmouth Electron" in an amalgamation of the business and the town that funded it. Without a proper boat or open-sea experience, he set out to design and construct, from the ground up, a new and untested vessel. This uniquely engineered trimaran would become the infamous Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst became convinced that the Trimaran model, with its potential for extreme speed, would serve him best to win the race. The Electron is based on designs for Arthur Piver’s “Victress” class trimaran. However, significant structural and aesthetic deviations from the original designs were made at Crowhurst’s request, in order to make the ship more suitable to the long journey through rough seas. Due to the significantly short window in which the boat must be constructed, a complete build set between June and October of 1968, Crowhurst had the hulls fabricated at Cox Marine Ltd. in Brightlingsea who regularly produced the “Victress” class, and then had the hulls shipped to be finished at L.J. Eastwood Ltd. in Brundall of Norfolk for completion.
The Brundall shipyard had two partners, John Eastwood and John Elliot. Eastwood acted as the main boatbuilder and engineer. According to Eastwood, the Electron’s modifications were made in order to accommodate numerous technological and electronic inventions meant primarily for preventing the ship from capsizing in large seas. Because of its multi-hulled design, the trimaran is fast and fairly stable due to it’s weight dispersal over a large surface area. However, it cannot right itself if capsized like a mono-hulled ship would be able to. Crowhurst, anxious about the rough waters of the Roaring Forties and Cape Horn, attached a buoyancy bag to the mainmast, that would inflate when a main computer sensed the boat was falling and keep the boat at a rightable 90 degree angle. However, due to severe time and capital constraints, and a potential lack in technical ability, the main computer was never installed in the ship—even though the electronic wiring that ran underneath the decking and along the roof of the cabin was in place, they terminated in a tangle of unconnected wires.
The additional weight of the buoyancy bag necessitated that both the main mast and mizzen had to be shortened by a metric of four feet from the original “Victress” model—leaving the main mast at thirty-eight feet. The masts were made of aluminium alloy and were supplied by International Yacht Equipment Ltd. Extra bulkheads were also added, though this meant the deck had an unusually high number of hatches—four in each wing hull and three in the center hull. Additionally, these hatches were inadequately sealed due to a shortage in the appropriate stock of soft rubber needed to create a watertight seal which was substituted for a harder, less malleable alternative. On the deck, two layers of ⅜ inch ply were used instead of the typical single layer which allowed for staggering the joints to alleviate any high stress points that could buckle under the extreme expansion and compression they would face in open ocean. Additionally, against Crowhurst’s wishes and the original “Victress” designs, the decking was painted with polyurethane paint as opposed to being sheathed in a fiberglass skin as the hulls had been by Cox Marine Ltd. While this did not present a structural issue, it created greater aesthetic deviation from the “Victress” design. The boat was“completed” just days before the race’s deadline, leaving testing and innumerable details incomplete. The boat was 200 percent over budget. On 31 October, 1968, the last day possible to begin the race, the Teignmouth Electron and Donald Crowhurst sailed into the Atlantic.
The Electron was designed to be very sparse, with a sizable reduction of living space that was intentionally designed to reduce wind and water resistance. They featured a high enclosed wheelhouse superstructure that Crowhurst abandoned for a flush deck that only allowed for a small rounded “doghouse” for the wheel. Aboard the ship was a table with a screw on vice for small repair work, a Marconi Kestrel radio-telephone, a small built-in table with a red cushioned seat that would have hidden the main computer but instead obscured a tangle of carefully color-coded, but unconnected, wires that hung throughout the cabin. He also had a Racal RA 6217 communications receiver, a Shannon Mar 3 transmitter/receiver, headsets, morse keys, switch panels, and gross amounts of radio spares. Powering the existing electronics on the boat was an Onan petrol-driven generator that was seated under the cockpit where it would be at risk of continuous exposure to water in rough weather, but which was again, done in line with Crowhurst’s fear of capsize. The typical “Victress” cabin also featured built in shelving and cabinetry that Crowhurst replaced with Tupperware plastic containers for storing food, electronic components, a second-hand Bell and Howell 16mm camera and Uher tape recorder that had been provided by the BBC for documenting the journey. The boat also housed a Hasler self-steering system and a Hengist-Horsa wind speed and direction indicator.
The Electron set sail on October 31st, 1968 at 4:52 PM from Teignmouth Harbour. Crowhurst’s voyage lasted 243 days.The boat immediately experienced problems. She took on water, fittings broke, the generator failed, and communication equipment was still unfinished. Design flaws made the Electron nearly impossible to steer, resulting in a bizarre and erratic zigzag sailing pattern. During Crowhurst’s 243 days at sea difficulties would continue to escalate.
On March 6th, 1969 he dropped anchor at Rio Saldo landing in Brazil at 8:30 am, and grounded himself in the quickly receding tides in order to repair a sizeable hole in the starboard float. He stayed for two days while the boat was repaired at Rancho Barreto and set sail again on March 8th.At some point Crowhurst, sensing the project’s failure and unable to reconcile how this failure would affect him personally, financially, and professionally (his failing company was leveraging a portion of the cost) began faking an elaborate and faux-heroic course around the world. Crowhurst kept two logbooks: one detailed his innermost thoughts along with accurate readings of his journey; the other held forged entries of his imaginary progress around the world. For the next eight months, he sailed listlessly, never leaving the Atlantic. During this time, his mental state deteriorated. Gradually his epic deception, couched within extreme isolation, cultivated a form of psychosis that bridged complete insanity with perfect lucidity. As his mental state continued its rapid decline his writing became more prolific and eccentric. He began a 25,000-word manifesto in which he confronted topics ranging from meaning and existence, transcendental truth, fate, as well as a “functioning” model to erase the gap between the physical and the sentient.
In July 1969, after providing false readings to the race organisers for months, Crowhurst learned that the other sailors had either dropped out of the race or that their boats had fallen apart mid-course, leaving the Teignmouth Electron in position to not just finish, but actually win the race. This was too much to bear and mental anguish set in. Crowhurst felt that his only escape was death. His last log entry is dated June 24th, 1969; the final radio transmission on June 29th, 1969; the abandoned craft was found at 7:50 AM on July 10th, 1969 by the Royal Mail Vessel "Picardy", Captained by Richard Box at Latitude 33° 11’ North, Longitude 40° 28’ West, about 1,800 miles from England very close to where the famous ghost ship Mary Celeste had been found almost a hundred years before off the coast of the Azores. Three foghorns were given by the Picardy and when no response was returned, a team of sailors boarded the trimaran to find it unkempt, but not suspiciously so, devoid of life, and having obviously been abandoned many days before. In plain view his detailed logbooks outlining his grand lie as well as what he believed to be his ultimate life’s work - ideas written directly to humankind with “instructions” on attaining transcendence.
The Teignmouth Electron was taken to Florida, the nearest mainland location. The Electron’s British funders, wanting to recoup their losses and forget the horrible and embarrassing event sold the boat in auction sight unseen. A scuba diving company in the Cayman Islands purchased the strange-looking yacht and it stayed in commission as a diving boat until the early 70’s before she was sold to George McDermott who ultimately sold her to his brother, Winston. The boat was used for several years, but because of her awkward design, she never lent herself to constant use. While moored off the coast of Cayman Brac, the boat was damaged by hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Winston beached the boat and well aware of the boat’s history had eventual intentions to repair and restore her, though his plans never materialised.
Prior to 2004, images featuring the boat—such as those in the documented work of Tacita Dean—depict it still intact with the starboard hull in the air. The Electron has sat in the same location for nearly 35 years slowly decaying with the elements. In 2006 American artist Michael Jones McKean purchased the boat, well past the point of restoration. At this point, the support linking the starboard hull to the rest of the structure had fractured and the boat now exists in two pieces. In 2007 the island of Cayman Brac was hit by Hurricane Paloma, a category 4 storm and the third strongest November Atlantic hurricane on record, which caused severe damage to over 90 percent of the structures on the island. The Teignmouth Electron was also severely damaged in the storm.
- "Drama on the waves: The Life And Death of Donald Crowhurst". The Independent. 27 October 2006. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
- Robert McCrum. "Robert McCrum meets the family of the infamous 'lone sailor, Donald Crowhurst". the Guardian. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
- "The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst: Nicholas Tomalin, Ron Hall: 9780071414296: Amazon.com: Books". amazon.com. Retrieved 21 May 2016.
- "Shipwrecks of the Cayman Islands"
-  Tate Modern