Fastnet Force 10

22 Sep

Just one of the awful images from the ’79 Fastnet Race

It has been 36 years since I raced the disastrous ’79 Fastnet. For those that don’t recall what happened an intense low pressure system passed over the fleet decimating a large portion of it. The event was part of the Admiral’s Cup and attracted not only the best sailors in the world, but also many, many amateurs whose only offshore experience was the biennial race. It was a combination of a number of inexperienced sailors, shallow water in the Irish Sea, and an un-forecasted low that led to the death of 18 sailors. In fact the official post mortem states that 15 of them were yachtsmen and three were rescuers and that in addition to the fatalities five boats sank and at least 75 boats flipped completely upside down. A tragedy by any measure.

There were four other people that died that fateful night. There is no mention of them in the official recounting of the event because they were racing unofficially. I was just a nipper at the time, the foredeck hand on a brand new Swan 55. I remember feeling so excited as we left the coast of England for a long fetch across the Irish Sea. The boat was heavy and powerful… and painfully slow. We were lumbering along when I noticed a tiny spec on the horizon behind. The spec seemed to be catching up to us at a rather quick pace. As the spec grew closer I saw that it was a trimaran, about 30 or maybe 35 feet in length. The boat was flying and the crew were “buzzing” the fleet. They were literally sailing up to the huge, expensive monohulls and flying past them. Then it was our turn. The trimaran altered course and came our way. I can still see it so clearly. There were four crew on board, two men and two women. They were young and the girls especially, were very beautiful. One had long blond hair and the other long brown hair and they were laughing and waving as the blew by us at about 15 knots (we were managing 7 or 8 in our multi-million dollar yacht). In an instant they were gone.

The sun set and the breeze started to build. I went off watch at 8-o-clock for what I presumed would be four hours in my cabin (yes there were cabins back then). I was just 21 years old so when I felt the boat start to pound and waves crash over the deck I was loving it. Life was an adventure and I was squarely in the middle of it, just where I wanted to be. There was a call that came down to us shortly before midnight telling us that there was a change of watch and to bring our life harnesses. I scrambled into my foulies, grabbed the harness from under my bunk, and made my way on deck. What greeted me was an unreal sight. The seas were huge and the ocean whipped white from the spindrift that blew off cresting waves. I looked down at the anemometer and saw that it was reading 60 knots. Sixty was as high as it went and my crew mate told me it had been solidly pegged on 60 for the past hour. We were in a full-on gale and I was loving it. Around us we would occasionally see the navigation lights from some of the other competitors. Visibility was down to almost zero.

Then we started to sink. Water in the bilge was sloshing above the floorboards and all the bilge pumps were operating at full capacity. By this time we had rounded the Fastnet Rock and were making our way back to England pounding into a short and very steep seaway. The loads on the boat and rigging were unbelievable and after removing the floorboards and baling and pumping by hand we were able to see what had happened. The hull had spilt longitudinally and each time a wave hit the hull it opened up and water poured in. The only solution was to turn around and head for Ireland where the point of sail would reduce the strain on the hull and the leak would lessen. 

As we approached the Irish coast we noticed numerous helicopters flying about and shortly after noticed an armada of rescue vessel heading out into the Irish Sea. It started to dawn on us that something serious had happened during the night. Indeed something serious had happened. Many sailors, including the crew of the trimaran died during the course of that night and the following day. Bits of the trimaran were later found washed ashore; it appeared as if the boat had just disintegrated. I don’t know for sure if they found the bodies but I presume that they did. I still recall how young and how full of life they were; oblivious to what lay ahead.

We tied up in Ireland at the Royal Cork Yacht Club and I discovered how sweet Guinness tastes after a harrowing experience. Unbeknownst to me the local newspaper back in my hometown in South Africa reported “Local Sailor Lost and Presumed Dead in Sailboat Disaster.”  My Dad read the paper and knew that they were talking about me. I, meanwhile, continued to enjoy numerous Guinness’s and then decided that since it was going to be a while before the boat was fixed that I would take a little holiday and enjoy the sights and hospitality of Ireland. It was more than two weeks later when we finally got back to England that I thought to call home. 

Fastnet Rock – a turning mark in the race

My Dad had been frantically trying to get news from the race organizers by calling and sending telegrams – yes telegrams. This was in the days long before computers and the race officials had no clear records of who was on what boat. There was such mayhem and so many deaths that I am not sure they had any clue where half the fleet was. Needless to say my Dad (and rest of my family) were happy that I was still alive, but perhaps a little concerned when I signed up the next day for a race from England to Australia. It was a race to celebrate the discovery of Western Australia by the ship Parmelia. Yes for that 21 year old “kid” life was sure a big adventure and I was only getting started.

This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog


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