Books I Love: A Voyage for Madmen

While all the books I've talked about this week played an important part in shaping 20 year-old me into grown-up me, I'm finishing with one that I read a few years later than all of them, called A Voyage for Madmen. It's just as important as all the others, but for a different reason that sets it apart from the rest. They all helped expand my world, but this book helped me figure out who I was, and what was important to me.

In 1968, nine men entered a contest to sail around the world, alone, without stopping. The contest was sponsored by The Sunday Times, and the rules were pretty simple: leave from London between June and October, sail around the three great capes, and don't put into port until you get back. The first man to return to London won a trophy, and the sailor with the fastest time won £5000.

On one level, the story is an incredible adventure about nine men who took on a task that must have seemed almost impossible. Remember, there were no GPS devices in 1968, and no satellite navigation of any kind. They had to rely on charts, barometers, limited radio, and their wits to survive. Only one of them actually completed the race.

The book was exciting, but it spoke to me on an entirely different level than just adventure. If you've read Just A Geek, you know of my struggles with Prove to Everyone, my struggles to support my family, and my struggles to just figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. I heavily identified with the insurmountable odds the sailors in this story faced, but none more than this man called Donald Crowhurst, whose story was so tragic you couldn't make it up.

Donald Crowhurst had experienced some small success with an electronics business, but as he got older, it was harder and harder for him to remain successful, or even relevant. This resonated with me like you wouldn't believe when I was around 27 or 28. He entered the race, completely unprepared, because he hoped the publicity and cash prize would save his business. He didn't do it because it was meaningful to him. He didn't do it because it was something he couldn't live without. He didn't do it for the adventure, for the challenge, or for the love of the ocean. He did it because he felt like he had to do it, and that it was his last and only chance to have a life worth living. When it became clear that he couldn't do it, he sailed off course to the South Atlantic and started faking his position through radio reports. He eventually lost his mind, and committed suicide. He never saw his wife again. I was never suicidal, but I read Crowhurst's story as a cautionary tale that I could relate to very, very intimately. In fact, in 2002, I mentioned him when I wrote about what I thought was a career-ending decision to accept a forgettable infomercial gig in Just A Geek:

Accepting it would mean some security for me and my family. It was also a really cool computer-oriented product (which I'll get to later, don't worry). It's not like I would be hawking “The Ab-Master 5000” or “Miracle Stain Transmogrifier X!"

It would also mean, to me at least, the end of any chance I had of ever being a really major actor again. That elusive chance to do a film as good as, or better than, Stand By Me, or a TV series as widely-watched as TNG would finally fall away.

I thought of all these things, walking Ferris through my neighborhood.

It was a long walk.

I thought of Donald Crowhurst.

I thought about why actors – and by actors I mean working, struggling actors like myself, not Big Time Celebrities like I was 15 years ago – suffer the indignities of auditions and the whims of Hollywood.

I remembered something I said to a group of drama students just before their graduation, paraphrasing Patrick Stewart: “If you want to be a professional actor, you have to love the acting, the performing, the thrill of creating a character and giving it life. You have to love all of that more than you hate how unfair the industry is, more than the constant rejection – and it is constant – hurts. You must have a passion within you that makes it worthwhile to struggle for years while pretty boys and pretty girls take your parts away from you again and again and again."

I listened to my words, echoing off the linoleum floor of that high school auditorium and realized that those words, spoken long ago, were as much for me as they were for them.

I listened to my words and I realized: I don't have that passion any more. It simply isn't there.

I am no longer willing to miss a family vacation, or a birthday, or a recital, for an audition.

I am no longer willing to humiliate myself for some casting director who refuses to accept the fact that I'm pretty good with comedy.

I am no longer willing to ignore what I'm best at and what I love the most, because I've spent the bulk of my life trying to succeed at something else.

I walked back to my house, picked up the phone and accepted the offer.

It was tumultuous, scary, exhilarating, depressing, thrilling, joyful.

I would spend the next three weeks wondering if I'd made the right decision. I would question and doubt it over and over again.

Was it the right decision? I don't know.

Things have certainly changed for me, though. I have only had three auditions in the last three months. A year ago that would have killed me, but I'm really not bothered by it now.

I've made my family my top priority and decided to focus on what I love: downloading porn.

Just kidding.

I've decided to focus on what I really love, what is fulfilling, maybe even what I am meant to do, in the great cosmic sense: I am writing.

Since I wrote that, I've grown up even more, and realized that I could be an actor and a writer, but my resolve to put my family ahead of everything, instead of putting Make It As An Actor No Matter What ahead of everything remains. (And, as it turns out, I enjoy this writing thing, which is kind of nice.)

There's another man in the story, named Bernard Moitessier. He was a famous French sailor, who seemed poised to win the race, when he decided to just … keep on sailing. His was a spiritual and philosophical journey, driven by the love of the journey. It was inspiring and reassuring to me. Following his story, and reading his book The Long Way helped me remember that if we're entirely focused on the destination, we rarely enjoy the journey. It took me a few years, but once I was able to let go of my destination (Proving to Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake) I was able to enjoy my journey: my wife, my kids, my writing, my family, my life. And you know what ended up happening? I didn't get lots of acting work, but I got the right kind of acting work. Whether it was VO or on-camera, it was stuff that was fun, that was challenging, and that was entirely worth my time.

Every book I've talked about this week changed my life, and though I didn't expect any of them would when I started reading them, none was more surprising than this one.

Now, I don't want anyone to get me wrong. You don't need to be in your mid-twenties, struggling like crazy to support your wife and kids while you watch your once-promising acting career continue to slip away to get something meaningful out of this book; it works very well as an adventure story about some truly unique men who did something most of us will never do. There are truly heroic feats in this tale, and it's an easy and thoroughly enjoyable read.

But if you've ever wanted to test your wits against the world, or if you've ever struggled against the tide, I think you'll be glad you took A Voyage for Madmen.

17 thoughts on “Books I Love: A Voyage for Madmen”

  1. I caught something on TV about this a few months back. Crowhurst…man, he was…yikes. Did the book focus on Crowhurst, or did it cover all of them equally?
    I also recommend The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. Normally I also recommend a box of tissues, but with this book I think you need surgical staples. It really ripped me apart.

  2. In your post you spoke of a resonance with Crowhurst. I think most of us that read your blog equally resonate with you on the “need” to put family first and the tough decisions it take to force the ‘destination’ out of focus and concentrate on what important. The things I do in life now are for the sake of doing them, not because it is expected or required. In it there is a kind of peace.
    Wonderful post, thank you Will

  3. I *love* this book! I can definitely understand your identification with Crowhurst. For me it was totally Moitessier because I could easily see myself doing the same thing (although for different reasons).
    Good stuff, Wil!

  4. I love that book! I read it after devouring “Godforsaken Sea,” which is also about the Vendee Globe. For some reason I realyl identify with these people alone on the ocean. It’s a great, great book. Thanks for sharing Wil!

  5. SUCH an amazing book! Oh, and The Sparrow? SOB! Love it! Can’t recommend it highly enough. I hosted an event at my book store with her and she was just the nicest woman ever.
    Aside from the great books, what’s really interested me about this week is that they helped inspire you to make changes in your life and that you actually made changes that worked. I think so few of us really have the moxie to do that, you know? So we just remain unhappy and confused and angry that their lives didn’t turn out the way we wanted, no matter how much we tried to make changes.

  6. You know, I think Crowhurst’s story would resonate with a lot of us who had early major success that then (inevitably?) plateaued/fell away, whatever the field. The contest sounds fascinating, and I’m requesting both Voyage for Madmen and The Long Way on Interlibrary Loan as I type. Thanks for the great review!

  7. I don’t think it focused on everyone equally, but it told everyone’s story with equal passion and research, if that makes sense.

  8. There’s a tremendous documentary about Crowhurst called Deep Water that’s well worth checking out if you’re interested in the story.
    Many years ago, I ran across a copy of The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst at the old Acres Of Books in Long Beach and the story has stuck with me since.

  9. Wil,
    I just added this to my list of books to read based on your recommendation.
    3 books that hooked me in a way I think similar to how this book compelled you:
    1. Godforsaken Sea – Derek Lundy – about the Vendee Globe’s most disastrous year – excellent, hold-your-breath writing of the challenges of this arduous race – and the gut-driven urges driving those who do it
    2. Into Thin Air – John Krakauer – about summitting Mount Everest – again, another disaster story, but one also with triumphs.
    3. High Exposure – David Breashears – written by another Everest mountaineer (and the guy who filmed the IMAX doc the year of the big disaster). A keen analysis of what impels him and others like him to take on such big challenges.
    I love these books. I love how in a very clear way, the subjects and/or the authors concretize what drives them, how climbing a mountain or sailing an unforgiving ocean somehow makes them be better versions of themselves, because of self-knowledge, because of internal mastery. Sure wish I had the same knowledge of what I want in life.

  10. If cross world sailing interests you at all and the effort it takes, you should also check out the Ocean Rowers (http://www.oceanrowing.com/) and in particular Don Allum (http://www.oceanrowing.com/logs/don_allum.htm) who is somewhat immortalized in Marillion’s song Ocean Cloud.
    Amazing what both a need and a want to do this sort of thing can accomplish in the worst of situations. And I think that relates directly to you Just a Geek quote.

  11. I love the quote – and I think coming to terms with what it says – not specifically as regards acting – is a big part of the growing-up process: learning to prioritize. I had spent my whole life, for a long time, working as hard as I could, as much as I could, simply in search of “security”: a job that would pay me enough that I wouldn’t have to be constantly scrounging; a paper trail that would “keep my options open” in terms of work and school records. Then one day I woke up and wondered what I was doing it all for – that, the way I was going, I was never going to reach an endpoint, and meantime, the life-time I had was passing without my feeling good about how I was spending it. I really had to think about the costs of the career path I’d started down and weigh them against the benefits. I think it can be a really hard thing to learn to do, to weight your own values and preferences sufficiently against received wisdom. But I think it’s really crucial. And good for you, that you were able to do it!

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