WAG: Why did so many men who were clearly
unprepared step forward to compete in the 1969 Golden
Nichols: A few were prepared, and waited until they
were; others, hearing news of everybody else getting
ready to do the same thing, departed before they
were ready. And there were those who would never
have been ready no matter what their preparations.
All were gripped by the idea to do it, and they
took off when they felt they had to, ready or not.
If you had been of age to compete
in the 1969 Golden Globe race, would you have answered
the call for competitors?
Nichols: I thought at one time I would have. I wouldn't
now, but if I'd had a boat then I might have started.
I don't think I would have finished.
Could such a race be held today with so many novices
competing in such dangerous conditions?
Nichols: Probably not. Certainly, the history of this
race would suggest that no organizing body would
back such an ill-prepared group. But the London
Sunday Times didn't instigate the race in
1968; rather, they offered prizes to the men who
were already preparing. The race was already underway,
and there was no stopping it.
As you observe in the book, the sea has a
way of nullifying even an experienced sailor's best
efforts, and a sailor's psychological state comes
to bear heavily on his chances of surviving. What
psychological factors distinguished the eventual
winner from his fellow competitors?
Nichols: That's exactly right. The outcome was not
determined by the sea or weather or boats but by
the nature and psychological makeup of each man.
Success and failure depended on who they were. The
winner made it back despite everything imaginable.
He won due to astounding determination, ingenuity,
sheer physical and mental toughness, but most of
all, an almost inhuman lack of self-doubt.
Of the nine competitors, to whom did you
feel closest while writing?
Nichols: Donald Crowhurst. The epic tragedy of the
race. The farthest fall. For the great distance
between his aspiration and his fallibility. I can
relate to imagination-driven failure.
This is your second nonfiction book about
the sea, and your novel, Voyage to the North
Star, was about a sea voyage. What do you find
so appealing about the sea? With a slight twist
of fate, could you write minimalist short stories
or comic novels?
Nichols: I find the sea to be a perfect crucible.
It's a place where people are stripped of all the
pretence they normally use or rely on in life ashore,
and without it, in that spare and elemental place,
they find themselves face to face with who and what
they really are. This happened to me, and it seems
to happen to the people I write about, real or imaginary.
There are so many books I admire
and love to read—Richard Ford's Independence
Day, James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime—but
I seem to be able to write only my own thing my
own way. Although I'm writing some quite different
fiction and nonfiction now, but it still feels unalterably
mine, as in what I'm burdened with and must write....
I could go on at length with this tack....
I'm also writing a bit of journalism—e.g.,
a solo kayaking trip down some swollen rivers in
wintertime France, navigating by Michelin Guide,
which I believe GQ is bringing out next November—which
allows me to use a different voice, and some humor,
and I enjoy this outlet very much and will do more.
You mention in the Acknowledgements that
Jonathan Raban "urged me to dig deeper in certain
areas, advice that had an incalculable effect of
improving the whole book." How, exactly, did
the text change?
Nichols: Raban, who knows parts of this story well,
felt I was skimping a bit in places when he looked
at an early draft, and he was right, and when I
went back to look into some details further, it
made me look everywhere, and I raised the level
of the whole book. He's a great writer, whose work
I have long admired, and he has high standards;
he applied those to me and it was somewhat withering.
He's a bit of an old bugger with it, but in the
end I was glad of it and grateful for his interest.
There's a strong story arc to your book—this
is a race, after all, with a beginning, middle and
an end. But the ending has such touching, profoundly
moving elements that I imagine the final chapters
required a more delicate touch. How moved were you,
personally, by the race's aftermath, and how did
it affect your writing the final pages?
Thanks for the comments and observation.
The ending did require the flexing
of different muscles. I was extremely moved by the
ending—not, after all, something I made up
but the way it really turned out. I find the whole
story an extraordinary human drama and tragedy—it's
not about the sea at all really, in that sense,
but about these nine very different men. While I
was writing and composing the end, finding out how
to put it as sparely as possible, trying to distill
it down to its essential emotion, I became very
But as a writer, it was a wonderful
feeling, kind of like being an actor and having
a great scene on stage that really touches you,
but afterward you feel exhilarated by how well you
feel it worked. If that doesn't sound too immodest.
It was great material to work with.