Fastnet ’79 – a personal story

2 Aug



The Fastnet Race starts tomorrow. They have a record fleet including 20 IMOCA 60’s and the event continues to be one of the most prestigious ocean races in the world. It has been forty years since the disastrous race in 1979 where 19 people lost their lives and much has changed since then. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was racing aboard a brand new Swan 55, a Sparkman and Stephens design named Battlecry. I was just a nipper working the pointy end. I came on deck for the midnight until four watch and as I climbed out the companionway I noticed that  the wind anemometer was pegged at 60 knots. 60 was as high as those old anemometer’s went.  I tapped it but my crew mate told me it had been pegged at 60 for the past hour. I looked around. The entire ocean was whipped white with cresting waves and the spray going horizontal. We were in the middle of a terrible storm but I was thrilled. When you are 21 everything seems like so much fun and I was loving it until the off-watch announced that we were sinking. Water was above the floorboards and the automatic bilge pump was on full blast. After bailing with a bucket and manning the manual pumps we discovered that the structural ring frames had cracked and every time a wave hit the boat they opened up and water poured in. It was time to abandon. We set a course for Cork on the south coast of Ireland.

 As we approached land we noticed dozens of helicopters and emergency rescue boats heading our way and it was after talking with them on the VHF radio that we started to get a grip on what had happened during the night.  Fifteen sailors had died, five boats had sunk and at least 75 boats had been flipped upside down. Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid what became the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involved some 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Naval Service’s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, and helicopters. Our sinking boat seemed small stuff compared to what other were dealing with. We made it safely to Cork and tied up at the Royal Cork Yacht Club. The full extent of the unfolding disaster was starting to become apparent when we talked to other boats that had sought refuge. 


We hauled Battlecry and the surveyors from Nautor came. They told us that it would be a month before we would be back in the water. I talked to the crew of a Swan 42 and they told me that they could give me a ride back to England but they would not be leaving for a week. I had to get back to join another crew for a race from England to Australia. Meanwhile back at my family home in South Africa the local newspaper blared the headline; Local Boy Missing and Presumed Dead in Fastnet Storm. That local boy was me and the first my parents had heard of the storm. They knew that I was participating in the race. My Dad frantically called as many people as he could who were involved with the race, but everyone was in a panic and the race organizers did not have good crew records. They could not confirm if I was alive or dead because they had no clue where half the crews were. Other boats had sought refuge in other parts of Ireland as well as along the English coast. The fleet was scattered far and wide. While all of this was playing out I thought that I might as well make the most of my time in Ireland and took off sightseeing for a week. It was more than two weeks after the Fastnet storm that I finally got back to England and thought to call my parents to tell him about my big adventure. You can only imagine his relief when he picked up the phone and I was on the other end. I am a parent and can relate but back then I was a self centered dumbass kid who never gave it a thought to let anyone know I where I was.

Another Sparkman and Stephens boat won the race that year. On corrected time Tenacious skippered by Ted Turner – yes that Ted Turner – was declared the overall winner. The line honors winner was Condor of Bermuda skippered by the late Sir Peter Blake. The early leader was Kialoa skippered by Jim Kilroy but he had broken some ribs and there was damage to the yacht’s mast and so they elected to not use a spinnaker toward the end of the race. As an ice cream topping Condor of Bermuda broke the Fastnet record by nearly eight hours.


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This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog

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