Sailing tragedy remembered at Cowes Week

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A consoling commemoration of death and survival will form the backdrop to Cowes Week, which starts next weekend, to mark the 30th anniversary of an ocean racing tragedy when storm force winds whipped the Irish Sea into a minefield of disaster for the 303 yachts in the Fastnet Race.

Fifteen lost their lives; one of the biggest co-ordinated search and rescue operations since the war was launched; it changed the shape of offshore yacht racing worldwide, including the design of the boats which dare to do it.

There were over 70 helicopter sorties, five Nimrods scanned the turbulent waters below, a French air force search plane joined in, three British and one Dutch warships, 10 lifeboats, two tugs, two patrol vessels, and seven fishing boats went to the aid of the struggling. Just 85 completed the course.

The biggest and fastest, among them CNN founder Ted Turner's Tenacious, were back in safer waters before the storm hit slower boats which had either to turn and try to run, or go into survival mode, one man at a time on deck with double life lines, the rest huddled below as the yacht crashed and slid its way over steep, confused seas.

Fastnet '79 became a reference point still discussed in hushed terms by those that witnessed it, and a life-changing, sometimes scarring sometimes cathartic, trauma for those that experienced it.

Hundreds are expected to gather in Holy Trinity Church on the Wednesday of Cowes Week. The names of all 15 will be read out, plus four more who were lost in the same area, following the race on a multihull. All 15 lost in the race were men; one of the four others was a woman, Olivia Davidson. It will be a reunion of a brotherhood, and, as well as offering thanks for salvation, there may be an underlying hint of defiance.

Among them will be a New Zealand-born yacht designer and long-time resident of Cork called Ron Holland. His tale, capped by some typically impish humour, had a happy ending. He joins others who lost fathers, brothers, sons and friends and still feel the pain.

Holland was on a 43-foot member of the Irish Admiral's Cup team. He had designed the boat, Golden Apple of the Sun, for owner Hugh Coveney, who was also on board with eight other crew.

"We had no inkling of what was to come when we left the Solent and went down the English Channel," he says. "As we approached the rock, conditions became marginal and we were soon down to a small headsail and a reefed down mainsail. It was blowing pretty hard.

"I will never forget that rounding. I was driving and the conditions had turned the lighthouse light into what looked like a huge, spiralling wagon wheel in the dense air. It was quite spectacular. The sea was being whipped into foam, so that, instead of leaving a white wake in black water, we were leaving a black wake trailing behind us.

"The sea was becoming progressively steep and nasty. I went down to my bunk and could not sleep. I was thinking 'this is madness, if we hit anything we are dead'. I didn't want to be a sissy, but I climbed out of the bunk, went to the hatchway and shouted to Harry Cudmore, who was on the helm, that we had to get rid of the mainsail completely. He gave the order: 'right lads, get the mainsail down.'"

The big decisions were made for Coveney and Holland when the rudder broke and the boat wallowing helplessly. Co-incidentally a rescue helicopter appeared overhead and told the crew that this could be their only chance to be lifted off. It was still emotionally difficult to abandon the yacht, but the liferaft, which proved unexpectedly hard to control, was launched and Coveney was the last man off.

The boat was later recovered by a fishing vessel out of Penzance to find a note written directly on the hatchway which said: "Gone to lunch; back later." It was only when the crew was landed at RAF Culdrose that they knew the extent of the disaster. "Only then did we realise how dangerous the whole thing was," said Holland. "After a lifetime of sailing it is still the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to me."

Life goes on for the Fastnet Race, the daddy of all the classic ocean races.

In an age of risk aversion and laughable initiatives in the name of health and safety, the freedom to partake and compete in boats both small and large at sea continues. It is still for the adventurous, but not naïve adventurers.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), which was founded out of this race and which has run it ever since, established a committee of inquiry which came up with a series of recommendations. The regulations for the Fastnet Race have been changed in terms of qualification of the crews, standards of equipment, huge advances in telecommunications, and the fitting on every boat of a tracking device. Normally the ping is every 30 minutes but the frequency can be increased by the 24-hour management team – three professionals supported by numerous volunteers from the Plymouth-based Royal Western Yacht Club.

"Make no mistake about it, this is a serious race for experienced offshore sailors, but it offers different levels of challenge to differing levels of competitor," says Eddie Warden Owen, chief executive of the RORC. "After '79, we took steps internally to address what had been an extreme set of circumstances and we have been developing the race management ever since. What has been important is that we have done so without the need for outside control or any legislation. So we can still offer the freedom which any voyage or race at sea has always offered, combined with a modern management and supervision system which reduces, though it can never eliminate, risk."

Now the Rolex Fastnet Race, which dates back to 1925, when it was won by an old-fashioned 56-foot pilot cutter called Jolie Brise, will start for the 43rd  time on Sunday 9 August.

The entry list for the 608-mile bash down the Channel and round that desolate, lighthouse-mounted bit of rock off the south-west of Ireland, has been full at 300 since February. There have been upwards of 50 on the waiting list. And up to 10 Open 60s hope to race as a separate class. In addition to the Brits, 15 other countries will be represented, In 1925 there were seven starters off Ryde and just four finishers,

Not all of those who start will finish. Not all of those completing the course will have been racing, but all will have been winning. After all, who dares wins, and the start line is where you put your life when you cross it. For the top racing crews, the two to three-day marathon will be an exercise in sleep deprivation, endurance, boat handling skill, weather analysis, and tactical skill.

The big boats which grab the limelight because they are first back into a public glare, transferred this year to Plymouth's Barbican tourist trap, may not also walk away with the Fastnet Trophy. That goes to the yacht with the best time adjusted by a handicap system which takes account of size, power and weight.

The worst ocean racing disaster since was in the Sydney to Hobart Race of 1998 when, after the Boxing Day start, the fleet ran into the Bass Straits at their most vicious. Among the six who perished was Britain's Glyn Charles. And there have been deaths in the Whitbread/Volvo races, the most recent being Hans Horrovoets in 2006.

Jolie Brise won the race in six days 14hr 45min and the current record of 1d 20hr 40min was set in 2007, after a 24 hour delay for severe weather, by Mike Slade's 100-foot Leopard. He is due back on the start line this year.

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