I recently watched a rather beautifully made documentary that made me think deeper about what it means to be a father. The documentary was not directly about family and fatherhood. In fact the movie by-lines describe the documentary as being about the 1968 around the world yacht race. But as I watched the major theme was of a father’s tragic fall from grace.
Men tend to be known by what they do. Thomas Edison was an inventor. Abraham Lincoln was a great president of the United States. Albert Einstein was a brilliant scientist. Usually it never occurs to anyone to ask if these men were married or if they had children. I think there is an innate desire in most men to want do something grand. It may be through sports, science, medicine, or business, but we have dreams of making our mark. Very few of us actually realize this dream. Instead, we get married, have children, and then spend the rest of our lives supporting the wife and kids with no glory to follow. To make up for this we read adventure stories, watch action movies, rabidly follow sports teams trying desperately to get vicarious “make our mark” fixes. It isn’t exactly like this for all men. Some men are able to find their balance and gain contentment and satisfaction in their family relationships even if they are anonymous to the rest of the world. They learn that their value is not really in what they do, but in who they are. This understanding is very difficult to obtain because it is constantly played against the thought that, “I have to accept who I am because I have failed at making a greater mark in the world.”
Donald Crowhurst was a the husband of a beautiful wife and the father of four wonderful children. He was an engineer who ran a small electronic firm that manufactured maritime navigational equipment. He was hard working and charming, but apparently he was unfulfilled. He was able to feed his family, but his business was slow and he was not rising in the world as many men are wont to do. He followed the great adventurers of the day reading all he could find on them. The most recent was a fellow named Chichester who was first to sale solo around the world. He was knighted for his accomplishment. This event must have made Donald Crowhurst dream. When the next great adventure was announced—a nonstop, solo yacht race around the world—Donald thought that this was his chance to make a mark.
To the documentary audience this is a great thing. We love stories of seemingly ordinary people doing great things. Could it be that Donald Crowhurst—husband, father, and struggling businessman—is going to sail solo and nonstop around the world? Why not? Why shouldn’t Donald make his mark in the world? We want him to succeed. His success will be the success of every other anonymous dreamer out there.
Donald needs a boat and supplies and for these he needs money. Because he is not known in any public way sponsor’s are hard to come by. Eventually he finds a man willing to sponsor him, but only if Donald will sign a contract stating that if he fails he must buy back the boat. The only way Donald would be able to do this would be to sell his home and his business. He and his family would be left destitute. Most of us anonymous men would stop at this point and lay the pen down without signing. We are not willing to put our family at such risk for a chance at fame. Perhaps that is why we never rise to greatness. Only those who suffer great risk receive great rewards. When we learn that Donald signs the contract we are pleased and excited. Here is a man just like me doing what I am afraid to do.
The rules of the race state that the competitors can leave anytime they like, but no later than October 31st due to the severe winter weather they would encounter at Cape Horn. The person who completed the trek first would get appropriate fame. The person who completed the trek in the fastest time would receive fame and 5,000 pounds. There were nine entrants. The eight others left month’s before Donald. Donald, who had had to have a boat built from scratch, had trouble getting it ready and supplied in time. Three days before the race the BBC reported that his preparations were in chaos. The night before the deadline to begin it was clear to Donald that boat would not be ready. Two men, who had monetary interest in his competing in the race, talked him in to going anyway. Of course, the final decision to go was Donald’s. His wife reports that he cried a long time the night before leaving.
On October 31st, 1968, Donald left his wife and children and a cheering crowd of anonymous men and women and started on his adventure—his chance to leave his mark on the world. He had a dismal start. He was sailing a trimaran with a central main hull and two other hulls that served as stabilizing floats. It was supposed to be fast. It wasn’t. He was making only around 65 miles a day in comparison to the others 95 or more miles a day. Then his boat began falling apart. Screws fell out of the self-steering gear. Then he noticed that the floats were leaking. He had to go out every day and bail out the compartments. He could do this in the calmer Atlantic waters, but once he reached the southern ocean in the “roaring 40’s” his boat would be swept by waves and he could no longer bail. The floats would fill and he would sink and drown.
Donald was faced with two choices: go forward and die or turn around and be financially broken. In his logbook Donald states that if he turned around all he would have left in his life would be his wife and children. Donald was faced with the choice of his life. How much did being a husband and father mean to him? Going forward and dying would leave no more mark in the world than he had already made by beginning this adventure. Five of the other contestants, all better sailors than Donald, had already dropped out of the race—some due to capsizing and losing masts and others to health reasons. Turning around and going home would humiliate him in the eyes of some and ruin him financially, but he would still have the love of his wife and children and the potential of a new and better life.
At this point in the documentary I, a husband and father, was feeling Donald’s anguish. What a devastating disappointment. But the choice was clear, go home. It was clear his wife and children loved him dearly. He was a good husband and father. Men had come back from financial ruin before. Something was wrong with Donald’s sense of husband and father. His need to make a mark or his need to avoid temporary humiliation was greater than his love for his family. Or it may have been that he thought he could still have both even if it meant destroying the best part of himself. He decided to lie.
Donald never got farther than Brazil. He had sent in reports that he was 1000 miles father than he was. He sat in the ocean there for six months under radio silence so as not to give his position away, while he waited for the three that were left in the race and who had started months ahead of him to round Cape Horn and head North for England. He would wait for them to pass and then fall in behind them and go home. With this plan he would get to return to his family and leave his mark, lie though it was, as having sailed nonstop and solo around the world. At this point Mrs. Crowhurst had already lost her husband. The Crowhurst children had already lost their father. The Donald Crowhurst they knew had died when his love for them lost to his selfish pride and need for greatness.
Donald had planned it well. Of the three ahead of him one easily had the better return time than he would have. Because he wouldn’t come in first and because he wouldn’t come in fastest the racing officials would not look to closely or look at all at the fake logbook he created for his fake journey. What he didn’t foresee what that the one sailor who had the better time would sink two weeks before reaching the finish line. This left Donald, who had broken radio silence and let his family know he was still alive and in the race, as the one who would arrive with the fastest time. Over 100,000 people were expected at his return. He would be regaled and paraded and possibly knighted for his fake achievement. And eventually he would be discovered as a fraud. He knew this. He turned away from England and drifted aimlessly in the Sargasso Sea. He was still a husband and father. His family was still there waiting for him. To come clean now would still be the saving act of love, but now his humiliation will be even greater and it is possible that it could cost him his family in addition to his finances. Although his body was never found, from what he had written in his logbook, it is clear Donald Crowhurst committed suicide. His logbooks were sold to the newspapers and the story came out in full. His family must have suffered greatly. There was the shame of what their father had done. For the young children the shame was nothing to the loss of their father in their lives.
I sat in silence when this documentary ended. I had started expecting a story of the triumph of the common man. At the end I had seen this common man destroyed. What is so troubling is that Donald Crowhurst was so much like I am now. I am a husband and father. I run a small struggling business. I am anonymous in the world except to my wife and children and extended family. I love to read of the adventures of others. I have read much of the climbing of the highest peaks and the exploration of Antarctica. Unlike Donald Crowhurst I know I will never take part in any of these type of adventures. I know my physical and financial limitations. But there are other ways I could leave a mark that are more possible. I still have time left in my life to write a great book or become an expert in some area. But the odds are against even this lesser greatness. The possibility of doing something great in the world are low to begin with, but when I chose to marry at a relatively young age and to have the number of children I have the possibility of greatness grew even slimmer. I didn’t know this at the time, but I had chosen to be a father.
It is true that there are many fathers who have attained worldly greatness without losing their families. But like most fathers I am probably not going to be one of them. I am no longer young and figure that if I have not found any brilliant streaks in my nature yet I probably never will. I am not a great inventor or a great athlete or a great businessman or a great anything . . . but wait. Is it possible that I could be a great father? Yes, being a great father is a possibility. How does it stack up against climbing K2 or winning the Superbowl? There is certainly less fanfare. There are less speaking opportunities and the money isn’t as good. It would definitely be better to be a great father and a great athlete.
It would please me to no end for my kids to be able to brag about their dad having done something great in the world’s eyes. All I have now from them is their love and admiration. Would their love and admiration grow if I became famous for something great? I really don’t know that it would. When my ecstatic sixteen-year-old calls me to tell me they won State in the choral contest would she be happier and more ecstatic about it if I were a billionaire? When my nine-year-old pulls me to the couch to read another chapter of Christy would she enjoy it more if I were the coach of the World Series winning baseball team? I don’t think so. As anonymous as I am I have all of the love and admiration that they have to give. That is worth far more than any mark I can leave on the world. I still have dreams. I still want to do something great in addition to being father. But if it doesn’t happen—if I never become anything less than a good father to my children— I will still have all the happiness this world has to offer if not all the greatness. In the end, I think that will be enough.