Hell and high water: The Fastnet disaster

Fastnet 1979 Thirty years on, one survivor recalls the hell and high water of sailing's deadliest tragedy

cowes week is not renowned for mournful occasions, but halfway through Britain's principal yachting event next month – on Wednesday 5 August – sailors and their families will gather at a yellow brick church overlooking the greenish, sail-studded waters of the Solent to remember the most disastrous episode in the sport's history.

The gathering will take place at Cowes Holy Trinity Church on the Isle of Wight. Its 185-year-old Gothic belfry is located only a few yards above the manicured lawns of Britain's poshest yacht club – the Royal Yacht Squadron's castle-like clubhouse. It is no coincidence that the view offers a magnificent panorama of the spot where the seeds of the tragedy were sown.

Thirty years ago – at the end of Cowes Week 1979 – a shot fired from one of the gleaming brass cannons on the Royal Yacht Squadron's waterfront terrace was the starting signal for more than 300 boats embarking on an ocean race that was hit by what has since been described as "the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing".

The 605-mile Fastnet race is considered one of amateur yachting's greatest challenges. From the start line at Cowes, competing yachts sail down the English Channel to the end of Cornwall before striking out across the Irish Sea towards the lighthouse-topped Fastnet Rock, off the south-west tip of Ireland. Once round the rock and without stopping, the yachts re-cross the Irish sea to finish at Plymouth. The race can take up to a week to complete.

The 1979 Fastnet began in fine weather. But within the space of 48 hours it had turned into every sailor's worst imaginable nightmare. The race was hit by a violent Force 10 storm that swept across the North Atlantic and into the southern Irish Sea, catching forecasters almost completely unawares.

For almost 24 hours, the estimated 2,700 men and women crewing the fleet were pounded by monster waves whipped by screaming 60-knot winds. Dozens of boats capsized or lost their rudders. Crews who escaped to what they assumed was the safety of an inflatable life-raft were horrified to discover that their floating shelters simply disintegrated under the force of the waves. Lifeboats, rescue helicopters, merchant ships and the navies of at least three countries were involved in a desperate struggle to save them.

The storm wrought its vengeance in an era which was still without the modern navigational aids that today's sailing legends such as Dame Ellen MacArthur and Samantha Davies take for granted. Thirty years ago, sailors had no recourse to GPS receivers which can pinpoint a yacht's position with a degree of accuracy which allows for an error of a mere 15 feet. Neither could they rely on satellite phones, or sophisticated computerised weather-forecasting techniques, or DSC radios which can relay a yacht's position to a rescue-service command centre at the press of a button.

In many ways, sailing in the late 1970s had barely moved on from the days of Cook and Nelson. Wealthy skippers could afford the expensive Decca receivers used by professional fishermen to find out where they were. But most 1979 Fastnet boats relied on "dead reckoning" – which is simply a calculation based on speed, drift and tide strength – to roughly estimate their position. Their efforts were backed up by inaccurate radio signal bearings transmitted by lighthouses or old-fashioned chronometers and sextants.

By the time the 1979 Fastnet had officially finished, 15 people had died, five yachts had sunk, 24 crews had abandoned ship and 136 sailors had been rescued. In the garden of Cowes Holy Trinity Church there is now a memorial to the 15 who were lost. It is a simple sculpture made from large stones collected by Irish sailors from the barren, windswept ledges of the goal they were all aiming for – the Fastnet rock. Only 85 boats out of 303 managed to complete the race that year. I was aboard one of the ones that did – and I will always consider myself very lucky to have survived.

I had grown up sailing boats, so ocean racing seemed like a natural step after dinghy sailing and going on cross-channel cruising holidays. The Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) runs sailing races around the coast of Britain every year. The Fastnet is just one of them. I had put my name down on the club's volunteer-crew list three years beforehand and ended up with the skipper of Xara, a 38-foot Swan-class yacht, designed by the legendary Sparkman & Stephens yacht architects and built in Finland by Nautor. Swans still rate as the "Rolls-Royces" of ocean racing.

We had completed several races across the North Sea and to France and back, so when the biennial Fastnet race came around in 1979, it seemed natural that we should take part. On the Friday night before the start, the six of us aboard Xara sat on deck and watched the sky bursting with the spectacular firework display that is put on towards the end of each Cowes Week. The weather forecast was good when we slipped across the start line opposite the Royal Yacht Squadron, the following Saturday afternoon. There were breaks in the cloud and the Solent waters had been turned into a mild yet steady chop by a light south-westerly breeze as we tacked out into the channel.

As Saturday merged into Sunday we started to run into patches of mist that hung above the water in great clouds. The gaps between the boats opened up as they continued zig-zagging against the wind down the coast towards Land's End. Then, by dawn on Monday, the wind had died away altogether. We were left rolling on the swell of a mirror-like, deep grey and greasy-looking sea, surrounded by other yachts. Like us they were trying to catch the slightest breath of wind with large, brightly coloured spinnaker sails which hung from mastheads and swished lifelessly into the rigging with each roll of the boat. We did not realise it, but this was simply the "lull before the storm".

Gradually, and out of a rain-sodden sky, the wind began to pick up from the south-west and we began to heel over (or tilt) to the steady breeze that started to carry us north-westwards towards the furthest point of the race – across 150 miles of open sea to "The Rock" as the Fastnet Lighthouse is referred to. Like everyone else, we had picked up the early afternoon shipping forecast on Radio 4. It predicted wind strengths in our area would be between Force 4 and 5 on the Beaufort Scale (ie, a moderate to fresh breeze) increasing to Force 6 or 7 later (moderate to fresh gale). The early evening forecast talked about Force 4 wind strengths increasing to 6, locally Force 8 (fresh gale). The forecasters had been warning about the possibility of gale Force 8 winds on the Monday night – so their prediction was not unexpected. There was no mention, however, of the violent storm that we were blindly sailing into.

Coming on deck from my bunk at around nine o'clock that evening, I was to take the wheel of the yacht, now heeling sharply to strong and occasionally violent gusts and beginning to buck wildly over white-capped waves that sent great lumps of water hurtling across the deck and smacking into the sails. I grabbed the large stainless-steel ship's wheel, and within the space of about 10 minutes, I had worked myself into a mucky sweat inside my oilskin jacket. The wind was increasing unremittingly and I found myself fighting furiously to keep control of the boat which was now forcing its way up into the wind, sails shaking and cracking like gunshots, no matter which way I turned the wheel. "I can't hang on to her, like this!" I remember shouting to the owner. We called below deck for reinforcements. Two came up and we began reefing (or shortening) the mainsail. But the wind was still getting up, it was now getting dark and it was fast becoming clear that this was something far more threatening than the comparatively ordinary Force 8 gale that was forecast to occur locally.

Official photographs which show what the wind does to the sea in all of the Beaufort Scale's wind strengths – from 0 (flat calm) to 12 (hurricane) – are taken from the bridge of a large merchant ship. But the perspective is completely different from the deck of a small boat of between 30 and 50 feet in length. Even photographs or video footage of rough weather at sea actually taken from small boats tends somehow to flatten the waves and give an impression that the weather was not that bad – so experiencing a very rough sea from a small boat for the first time can come as a shock.

Aboard Xara, the shock effect was beginning to grip all of us. It was now pitch black, apart from the loom of the red and green navigation lights which momentarily illuminated the boiling whitecaps. Red compass and instrument-panel lighting gave the crew members' faces a disturbingly Satanic hue. The wind had now started to howl and occasionally scream through the rigging. At the same time it was whipping tennis-ball-sized lumps of luminous green phosphorescence off the tops of the waves which flew across the boat like miniature comets, shooting through the rigging and smacking into the heavily reefed sails.

We had to reduce sail further. The aim was to put up a "stay sail" – a much smaller jib (the triangular foresail on the front of a yacht). We turned the boat downwind and dragged the new sail up from the cabin below, but because we had never practised it before, all attempts to pull the sail up ended in failure. The wind was already so strong that the sheets (or ropes) holding the sail to the boat had become hopelessly entangled like a ball of string toyed with by a cat.

Now we were beginning to see red SOS flares shooting up like Bonfire Night rockets into the sky for a few feet before being whipped horizontal by the wind. It was clear that a lot of other yachts were in trouble, but we could do nothing to help them. We stripped the boat of all sail. I was allowed off watch and fell into an uneasy slumber in a bunk located near the stern of the yacht. I was awoken with a start sometime later by being thrown hard on to the side of the boat. We had been rolled hard over by a big breaker, the top of the mast almost striking the water. Books, blankets, charts, cutlery, glasses, cups and a whole lot more shot on to the already soaking and vomit-spattered cabin floor and slithered back and forward in a heap with each roll. I began to panic and a rush of adrenaline surged through my body leaving me with a headache that stayed with me for hours afterwards.

A grey and threatening dawn lit up the absolute fury of a full-blown storm at sea. From the cockpit of the yacht, the spectacle was almost unbelievable, like something out of a film. It was awesome, frightening and strangely sublime. The biggest thing on earth was wild and angry. The waves towered above us, the size of blocks of flats, streaked with hundred-yard slashes of white spume and topped by boiling masses of breaking foam. We could see a 200-foot-long Irish warship in the distance which kept disappearing completely behind the waves. By now, all the life belts had been washed off the yacht. The wind-speed indicator was off the dial at around 60 knots. Xara wasn't carrying any sail but was going forward at a speed of six knots because of the wind resistance created by the bare mast. We were trying to point into the waves but were crossing them at an angle of about 60 degrees off the wind. In the troughs of the waves the howl of the wind in the rigging dropped to a low moan. The noise increased to scream pitch as we careered to the top of a sea where a boiling crest would smack the yacht like a fist and send it yawing over on to its side. We took turns to sit at the wheel and guide the yacht over these monsters, tethered by lifelines to the boat. The process repeated itself for 10 hours before the wind began to abate, allowing us to put up a tiny storm jib and make for the Irish coast. There we sheltered overnight before going on to complete the race. In all, the storm had lasted a total of 22 hours.

The mixture of fear and constant anxiety experienced aboard Xara was nothing compared to the horrific and deadly ordeals suffered by many other crews. In his seminal book on the disaster, Fastnet Force 10, the sailor and author John Rousmaniere describes how the storm flipped over supposedly well-equipped, thoroughbred ocean-racing yachts "like bathtub toys". This was no exaggeration.

Grimalkin, a 30-foot fibreglass yacht, was knocked down flat at least seven times by gigantic seas after the crew decided to run the yacht before the storm. The waves hurled the sailors sitting in the cockpit into the sea and to the end of their safety-line harnesses nearly every time a knockdown occurred. The final capsize turned the boat upside-down and dismasted it. The skipper was swept away by a breaker and never seen again. Three of the crew inflated the life raft and abandoned ship leaving two other crew members lying injured and unconscious in the cockpit of the mastless, waterlogged vessel. One of them died, the other regained consciousness and was picked up by a rescue helicopter after bailing the boat by hand for more than eight hours.

The ordeal suffered by the crew of the 37-foot Trophy was in many ways worse. Early on in the Fastnet storm, the yacht was rolled over, dismasted and left wallowing in huge waves with water in the cabin up to the level of the bunks. As another yacht was close at hand, the crew decided to abandon ship and inflated the life raft. But soon after all eight of them had clambered in, the canopy-covered rubber craft was simply flipped over by the crest of a wave. The life raft capsized five times and then began to disintegrate: the upper circular rubber tube detached itself from the lower rubber tube which contained the floor. All eight men battled for some eight hours to keep together in the water, kept afloat by two large rubber rings. One crew member died of exposure before the rest were rescued by helicopter and a Dutch naval vessel.

Only two out of a total of five aboard the American yacht Ariadne survived the race. The yacht's mainsail was ripped in half as the wind began to get up – and after hearing a weather forecast announcing an imminent Force 9 severe gale on Monday night, the skipper decided to retire from the competition. Ariadne raced downwind before the storm towards the Irish coast and the hope of refuge. But like so many other boats, the yacht was capsized by a rogue wave. Some in the crew were injured and they decided to abandon ship and take to their life raft. The next morning a German freighter approached and prepared to rescue them. But just before it came alongside in still-huge seas, the raft capsized. The German ship made three attempts to rescue the five crewmen. One managed to grab hold of the ship's boarding ladder as it passed the raft on the first attempt. He made it aboard. On the second pass, the yacht's skipper lunged for the ladder and missed. He fell into the sea and was never seen again. On the third pass, one crewman got aboard the merchant ship. The man following him also made it on to the ladder, but had forgotten to detach his safety line from the raft. He was dragged back into the sea with the last remaining crewman still on the raft. Both disappeared into the wash of the ship.

There has been plenty of analysis of the 1979 Fastnet disaster over the past three decades. The lessons learnt have been manifold. In the interim, satellites have led not only to major advances in weather forecasting but also to the ability of sailors to receive up-to-date weather information onboard. Today's yachtsmen have a far better chance of seeing a storm coming, and thus of avoiding it.

Ocean-racing safety has also been given a substantial upgrade as a direct result of the 1979 race. The first Fastnet was held in 1925, when only nine boats took part. By 1979, the number competing had multiplied to 303. Greater affluence, a huge increase in the popularity of sailing and the arrival of fibreglass had resulted in a yachting boom. However, many of the sailors who took part in the 1979 race had only had experience of weekend club-racing round buoys before they entered the Fastnet. Nowadays, each race skipper has to have completed several hundred miles at sea – and to have completed a sea survival course – before being allowed to take part.

The RORC has also tightened up its safety requirements for boats, limited the number of competing yachts to 300 and become more mindful of the weather. The start of the 2007 Fastnet was delayed for 25 hours because of strong winds. Janet Grosvenor, the club's racing manager, is convinced that hers was the right decision. Even so, that did not prevent 91 out of 271 yachts from retiring from the race that year. "The Fastnet still has its reputation and of course it has been ramped up because of what happened in 1979," she says.

But there have also been changes to yacht-design rules which aim to make today's vessels more seaworthy and less liable to capsize. In the 1979 race, five boats sank, 100 were knocked over so far that they put their masts in the water, and at least 75 were rolled upside-down, most of them losing their masts in the process. Many boats also had their flimsy rudders snapped off by the gigantic seas.

These boats' lack of seaworthiness has been attributed to the revolution in yacht design that had occurred by 1979: whereas the first Fastnet of 1925 was won by a heavy sailing cutter built at the turn of the last century for professional use as a pilot boat, many of the 1979 Fastnet yacht were little more than what Rousmaniere describes as lightweight "big dinghies". The new rules attempt to make sure that today's boats are more stable and less likely to be knocked down or capsize. Yet anyone who follows today's world-girdling ocean races will be aware similar problems still affect yachts in these competitions.

The 1979 Fastnet prompted an exhaustive inquiry which prompted many of these changes. The final paragraph of the report stated tersely: "The sea showed that it can be a deadly enemy and that those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in full knowledge that they may encounter dangers of the highest order." It may be stating the obvious but that conclusion remains as relevant now as it was 30 years ago.

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