Penguin has issued in paperback The Strange Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, a cliff-hanger of a reconstruction of that man's crazed efforts in the 1968 solo, non stop round-the-world race sponsored by the London Sunday Times. The fact that one knows what really happened does not spoil the suspense. Authors Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall give nothing away in mentioning that Crowhurst was the entrant who proved to have been faking his position. Rather than beating his way around the Horn in his 41-footer, Teignmouth Electron, he had spent eight months dithering in the Atlantic, and his boat was found abandoned there. It is generally thought that he lost his mind (as who would not, faking a log by calculating backward from imaginary positions and making up distances under unknown weather conditions) and finally leaped to his death.
John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook's Oars Across the Pacific (W. W. Norton, $6.95) is the blister-filled story of how the pair did indeed row a 35-foot boat 8,000 miles from San Francisco to Australia. It is fascinating in its way, but the chatty style somehow makes it hard to remember that the middle of the ocean in a small boat is a chancy place to be. Crowhurst was casual, too, though in a completely different way. He was so possessed by private demons that he embarked (he did, after all, intend to go around the world) in a trimaran he knew to be leaking, with the jib and staysail attached to the wrong stays, no pipe for his bailing system and spare parts left in a heap on the dock.
It remains for Survive the Savage Sea (Praeger Publishers, $7.95, available late this month) to put a decent fear of the oceanic gods back into us. Dougal Robertson's schooner was rammed by killer whales and it sank. Robertson, his wife, their three sons and a student friend, Robin Williams, found themselves adrift in the Pacific in an inflatable life raft towing a nine-foot dinghy. They had salvaged a motley selection of gear and rations. Robertson's prose is very plain and is the more vivid for it. Fancy writing is not needed to describe the point at which sucking out fish eyeballs is a lot of fun. In a footnote to what could easily have been Robin's last letter to his mother the skipper confines himself politely to "I apologize for having been instrumental in bringing his life to such an untimely end." That seems a bit harsh. The whales were not Robertson's fault, and his seamanship brought the sextet through. He had minimal help from the instruction booklet found in a pocket of the raft. "It gave little intelligent information on how to preserve one's life in mid-ocean," but it ended, Robertson recalls, with the words, "GOOD LUCK."