Dedicated to the Task of Survival - 1979 Fastnet Race
This week is the 40th Anniversary of the 1979 Fastnet Race, we would like to remember the 19 sailors that lost their lives during the infamous storm that prompted the UK’s largest peacetime rescue operation.
On Saturday August 11, 1979, the 28th biannual Fastnet Race started in Cowes with 303 participating sailing yachts. As the event got under way, a low was forming over the Atlantic and moving towards Ireland. It deepened quickly and when it met up with the Race Fleet in the Irish sea, it brought winds of Force 10-11 and waves of up to a reported 60 feet in height.
At least 75 boats capsized and five were sunk. Nineteen sailors died as their boats were battered by ferocious winds and huge waves that smashed masts and washed sailors overboard. It is thanks to the Fleet Air Arm crews, RNLI, volunteer vessels, the Dutch Navy and the Irish Naval Service that more lives were not lost.
Andy Cassell was taking part in his fifth Fastnet race in 1979 and to follow is his account of his experience of that race.
‘The J30 ‘Juggernaut’ carried a crew of 6 and we were used to racing together. We had had a reasonably successful Cowes week in her and hoped to round it off with a good Fastnet Race. There was myself, Tim the navigator, Phil, Co-navigator and cook, Colin, Naval helicopter pilot, Peter, a regular crew member, who had sailed on all sorts of boats with me and Jonathon who was the son of the MD of Westerly Yachts and taking part in his first Fastnet.
The night before the start of the Fastnet the weather seemed very quiet and the forecast was not particularly good though not especially alarming. Jonathon’s father held a barbeque which we all attended and one or two of us expressed a sense of foreboding, a feeling of disquiet. It was rather eerie, not something I had ever experienced on the four previous Fastnet Races.
On the day of the race we got to the boat early to check her over before the lunch time start and off we went. By nightfall we had reached St Alban’s head with good visibility and we made it to Portland Bill around midnight in the company of a large fleet of other boats. We were all trying to make headway against the flood tide the whole fleet was inshore hugging the rocks trying to gain some ground against the 3-4 knots of tide. The scene must have been quite spectacular from the shore, the mass of sails, the sea of red and green lights.
By Sunday the wind had dropped and a fog had crept up reducing visibility to no more than 50 or 60 yards. We drifted on making little headway.
As the fog lifted at dawn on Monday we could see that we were still in company with a large part of the fleet sailing under light spinnakers to make the best of no more than 2 knots of wind. As we rounded Land’s End the wind began to increase and we set a course for the Fastnet Rock on a reach under the Spinnaker and full Mainsail planing at 9 to 10 knots.
As evening approached the wind had risen to force 6 or 7. The 1800hrs weather forecast brought warnings of gale force winds locally gusting to Storm Force 10 in in the Fastnet sea area. The feeling of unease we had experienced at the snug barbeque back in Cowes was upon us again.
By this time we were planing at 12 knots and the spinnaker was becoming something of a handful. We broached several times.
Within an hour the wind speed had increased further still and the waves had grown steeper and higher covering the sea with spume blown from the tops of waves. We had taken down the spinnaker, put a reef in the mainsail and set the No 2 Genoa. The boat and crew prepared for a rough passage with Jonathon, the least experienced crew member no longer allowed on deck. Phil, anticipating the long haul ahead of us managed to prepare a pressure cooker full of stew.
Sails were gradually further reduced, first to storm jib and fully reefed mainsail, then storm jib alone and finally by 1100 on Monday to bare poles. The gooseneck on the boom broke and we had to remove the mainsail completely but this proved to be a blessing in disguise, such was the force of the wind and the waves that even a mainsail stowed on the boom would have caused more resistance and increased chances of knockdown.
As we reduced to bare poles the wind indicator was showing speeds of over 55knots across the deck. We dedicated ourselves to the task of survival.
In such situations there is little time for reflection but I had to consider the folly and selfishness of taking part in this type of race when I had a 6 month old daughter, Zoe. It had already been a fairly eventful spring and summer, not only had I just become a father but I had survived a near fatal accident when I rolled my car over on Brading down, catastrophe seemed to be following me.
My dinghy sailing experience proved valuable as we tried every angle of sailing to find the best way for the boat (and us) to survive. Phil suggested that we head into the wind and stream warps but our warps were not long enough or heavy enough to slow ‘Juggernaut’ down and I feared that the force of the water as the boat went astern would tear off the rudder.
We then tried running dead down wind but in a boat with the J30’s ability to plane this proved nearly fatal. We shot off at an alarming rate like a surf board out of control and I shouted that if we continued like this we would go down the front of a wave and disappear forever.
Beam reaching was nearly as disastrous as we had the mast in the water several times with the force of the waves on the side of the boat and the force of the wind in the rigging.
We then decided to sail the boat with waves on the quarter and steer it like a dinghy, this was also extremely difficult. It was like riding a wild roller coaster ride surrounded by the most incredible noise of roaring and hissing.
On the Tuesday night I was down below trying to get some sleep on some sail bags on the floor when at about 0200 the boat was knocked down. Below deck was reduced to a chaotic mess of cushions, food and broken glass. Tim and Phil had been wearing life lines but had been swept off the deck. The boat rolled through an angle pf some 110 to 120 degrees and recovered. I reached the deck to find Tim and Phil being hauled back on board. As Phil came over the rail he was singing ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’.
I remained on deck to steer the boat and drove the boat on until daylight. At times the entire boat was under water but we were not knocked down as severely as that first time. Even though it was midsummer it was very cold.
Dawn broke with the wind still at gale force and the boat still ploughing through huge seas but the sky was beginning to clear. As the storm lessened I was fascinated by the Storm Petrels, they flew along the tops of the waves and as you plunged down into a trough they would look across to you as if to say ‘you’re mad!’
There was a wonderful contrast now between the cloudless sky and the boiling sea with 50-60 knots of wind still blowing over the deck and the boat occasionally immersed by water.
The engine was not working, probably due to water in the diesel tank, so the batteries had also gone flat which meant we had lost power for our instruments and lights. Before losing power we had heard some fairly horrific distress stories over the radio and had taken the decision not to ask for help as we felt we were capable of riding the storm out. Colin, the helicopter pilot, had been involved in testing life rafts in strong winds and had seen some of the rafts actually take off. His experiences reinforced our feeling that we had to stay with the boat until it actually sank, only taking to a life raft in that most extreme situation.
As the weather eased on that Tuesday morning, Tim and Jonathon tried again to locate the problem with the engine and make it operational. Despite their heroic efforts in a very smelly bilge, they had no success but, by mid-afternoon the wind had dropped sufficiently to hoist sail.
When the wind had abated to a force 7 we put up the storm jib and headed back to Cornwall, when the Dunmore East Lifeboat appeared and asked us where we were going. We told them we had decided to go back to Lands End because we weren’t sure where we were and they told us we were mad (rather more strongly than that) recommended we went to Dunmore East in County Waterford and offered us a tow. We declined the tow but turned around and headed for Ireland.
Spirits high at the prospect of alcohol and dry beds, we hoisted a No 2 Genoa and jury rigged the mainsail using a spinnaker pole as a boom. We sailed into Dunmore at about 0200 to be greeted by applause from local villagers as we sailed up to the quay. We were invited to stay with the harbour master and sample the hospitality of the yacht club. It was only when we joined the lifeboat crew in the yacht club for hot drinks, soup and sandwiches that we learnt the scale of the disaster that had befallen the Fastnet Race.’