Turtle Bunbury

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The Fastnet Tragedy of 1979

As they listened to the BBC shipping forecast that afternoon, Kevin Burke and his fellow crew on the Rapparee were relieved to hear that the approaching gale would, at worst, be a Force 8 blowing at 34-40 knots. It was a cool Monday evening in August 1979. Two days earlier, the Rapparee had been one of over three hundred racing yachts to set sail from the Isle of Wight on the world-famous Fastnet Race.[i] But tragically, the BBC got it wrong. The freak storm that was about to engulf the competitors in the tempestuous Celtic Sea that dreadful night was moving too quickly for the weathermen to comprehend its force. By Tuesday evening, nineteen people were dead and the Fastnet Race had become synonymous with the greatest yachting tragedy of all time.

For sailors, the biennial Fastnet Race has marked the climax of the summer races ever since August 1925 when the first seven boats completed the 608 mile round trip.[ii] The course begins at Cowes on the Isle of Wight, runs along the south English coast and rounds Land’s End into the Celtic Sea. The boats then charge across a vast expanse of open water, loop around the hat-shaped Fastnet Rock, the southernmost point of Ireland, and turn back for the finishing post in Plymouth.[iii]

Thirty years ago, as the Fastnet yachts made their way down the English Channel, the deadly tempest that would slam into them was spinning across the Atlantic. The storm was born the previous Thursday when a cold Arctic front crashed down on the baking hot grain fields of North America. A depression of unusual strength was formed and began to move east, pouring heavy rains on the city of Minneapolis and whipping up white-capped waves on the Great Lakes. A tree fell in New York’s Central Park and killed a woman. By the time the depression left the east coast of Nova Scotia, it had become a violent storm. It was still gathering momentum with every mile and, midway across the Atlantic, it sucked in a second, much larger Arctic depression.

By Monday morning, most of the unsuspecting competitors had rounded Land’s End and were entering into that exposed stretch of the Celtic Sea south of the Cork and Waterford coastline. For many, it was their first time in these treacherous waters.[iv]

At 12:50pm, the 79-foot Kialoa, became the first boat to turn the Fastnet Rock in a 12-18 mph wind. By the time media mogul Ted Turner's 61-foot Tenacious reached the rock at 6:30pm, the gauge was giving a consistent wind-speed of 40 knots. Turner poked his head out the hatch, eyeballed the frothing sea and remarked: ‘Gee, those are big waves’. Turner would ultimately go on to win the race.

It soon became apparent that the winds were considerably stronger than those forecast by the BBC. In fact, it was a Force 10, verging on Force 11 storm. The difference is that where a Force 8 might break a few twigs on a branch, a Force 11 can uproot an entire tree.

By 10 o’clock at night, the North Atlantic ‘bomb’ was detonating across the Celtic Sea, plunging the entire fleet into a sixteen-hour night from hell. At first, the crews reacted in the customary manner, lashing down tillers, reducing the headsails and battening down the hatches.

But as darkness fell, the ocean had become a churning, rolling nightmare of white foam and giant, frothy green waves. The winds were now gusting at speeds of up to 75-knots, churning up 15-metre high waves. One witness recalled how ‘the whole sea was heaving about with vast stretches of water, the size of football fields, tipped up at an angle as the swell went through’. Another likened it to being at the foot of the cliffs of Dover with this giant white-crested wall looming overhead.

Between the waves, there was the pitch black of night. ‘It accentuates the fear within you when you can’t see anything’, says Kevin Burke. ‘When you see a little green light indicating the top of a mast disappearing into the waves, you can only think ‘Jesus, those poor buggers’.’

Staying afloat was now the sole priority. Over half of the fleet resorted to special storm tactics to protect themselves. Forty-six boats tried to outrun the winds under bare polls.[v] Twenty six attempted to hove–to until the storm had passed, while eighty six lay a-hull, drifting at the sea’s mercy, with no sail and their crews trembling below deck. The boats became isolated from one another. Smaller vessels began to vanish between the tumbling tides, their masts smacking into the tidal surge.

At midnight those still able to listen to their radios heard the British Meteorological Office warning: "The depression has deepened alarmingly in the last 12 hours and the worst is still to come."

The Rapparee was caught out in the open. ‘We were in the absolute worst place we could be’, says Kevin Burke. As the waves came crashing onto the boat, he recalls how ‘the inside of the boat became totally awash and everything started to come loose. That’s when I began to think: ‘Jesus, will we survive this?’ You couldn’t even talk to each other because you couldn’t hear anything over the deafening roar. Everybody was keeping themselves tied in, strapped in, doing their best to survive. You couldn’t go outside. You couldn’t steer the boat. So we lashed the helm, battened down the hatches and headed down below, wondering was it time to sing ‘Nearer, my God to Thee’.

The 40ft Silver Apple was just 40 miles from rounding the Fastnet Rock when skipper Philip Watson gave the order to retire. Aidan McManus, owner of the acclaimed King Sitric restaurant in Howth, was amongst its eight-strong Irish crew. Before the storm struck, he had cooked dinner for everyone. He recalls how, when it became apparent that they had lost the power of steerage, the crew began taking down the sails. ‘That’s when I was washed off the boat’, he says. ‘I had my safety harness on so I was alright and when the boat righted herself, I was bounced back in.’

Aidan was fortunate that his safety harness worked. At least six people died that night because their harnesses failed. Buckles became undone, hooks straightened out, attachment lines broke, safety ropes chafed. When Aidan watched a news report on this malfunction many months later, his mother turned to him and said, ‘What’s wrong with you Aidan, why have you gone so pale?’

Many of the small racing yachts were designed for speed and performance. But stability and seaworthiness are considerably more important when confronting a sea whose scalps include the Spanish Armada. Moreover, says Kevin, many of the sailors were simply out of their depth.

‘There must have been ten Irish boats competing but at least they had some experience of these conditions. A lot of the English sailors lived in the Greater London area and would come down to Southampton at the weekend for a spot of yachting. Then they decided ‘let’s do the Fastnet’. But they were totally ill-prepared for the storm. I can imagine their panic when those mountainous seas set in.’

As wheels, rudders and masts began to crack, so crew-members - already dehydrated, seasick and utterly terrified - found themselves in serious danger of being impaled or crushed by the viciously flexing joinery. They were also being constantly drenched by the ice cold waters and washed overboard. ‘We capsized twice’, says Kevin, ‘and bent our mast and two people went overboard’. They too were fortunate that their harnesses worked.

As skippers scanned the night sky for help, all they could see were other mayday signals and distress flares hurtling into the darkness. During the night, over a hundred boats were knocked over and seventy-seven rolled over. When the boat of American businessman Frank Ferris capsized, he was killed, along with three of his crew.[vi] The drama was turning into a tragedy.

In the panic, twenty-four crews abandoned ship and took to the deceptive sanctuary of their life rafts. They too capsized, while their protective canopies were ripped away by the angry winds, leaving those on board completely exposed to the bitter cold. Seven people died after taking to life rafts, most of them from hypothermia.[vii]

There were inevitably mistakes. The crew of the Grimalkin abandoned their yacht for a life raft, believing two of their colleagues were dead. The two men were alive at the time although one would later recall how his friend died even as the rescue helicopter bore down on them, delivering poignant last words, ‘If you see Margaret (his wife) again, tell her I love her’.

‘We lay a-hull for twenty hours’, recalls Aidan on board the Silver Apple. ‘Our boat had an aluminum hull so it was incredibly noisy. We’d lost sight of all the other boats. The only thing we could see were very big waves, lots of white foam and what we assumed to be a Russian trawler, lit up brightly, which we tried to avoid. We didn’t have the radio technology we have nowadays but we were able to relay messages to an operator at the Kinsale Gas Field. He must have been on duty for 24 hours straight. He was one of the real heroes.’[viii]

Most of the bigger yachts had got around the Fastnet Rock and were homeward bound when the storm struck. Fifty-seven of these were simultaneously competing in the now defunct biennial Admiral’s Cup, the most hotly contested racing series of the day, of which the Fastnet Race formed the final leg.

Three of these yachts were Irish. Indeed, before the storm struck, the Irish were holding first and second position in this unofficial world championship, courtesy of Ken Rohan’s universally admired yacht Regardless and the late Hugh Coveney’s 44-foot Golden Apple of the Sun.[ix] Regardless had already won the first races of the series and had the Admiral’s Cup firmly in her sights when she lost her rudder to the storm. She was rescued by the Baltimore Lifeboats and towed to safety in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The Golden Apple was no luckier. She was confidently surfing back to the Scilly Isles when her rudder also broke.[x] The crew tried to make a quick-fix rudder from the spinnaker poles but these ‘snapped like twigs’, leaving the boat to roll helplessly on the waves until a rescue helicopter sky-hooked them to safety.

We had no idea how bad things were’, says Kevin. ‘When an RAF Lynx hovered over us, we had a handheld radio and we were able to communicate with the pilot. He asked were we okay, had we any physical injuries on board? We said no. We weren’t looking to be rescued but we were looking for comfort. He said sorry, there’s nothing we can do for you, we have to take some bodies from the water. Bodies! We were shocked to think someone had lost their life in the race.’

By Tuesday evening, the storm had abated sufficiently for Brian Kelly, skipper of the Rapparee, to chance a storm-gib. ‘Even getting that up was a challenge because the winds were still running at 40’, says Kevin. They used a sextant to get a bearing and sailed into the safety of Dunmore East. Earlier that day, the Silver Apple managed to motor into Crosshaven.

On land, the survivors learned that fifteen Fastnet competitors had died – twelve Britons, two Americans and one Dutchman – as well as three men and a woman who were following the race in a trimaran.[xi] Of the 303 ships that started the race, only 87 finished. Ted Turner won it.

There is no doubt that many more would have died were it not for the extensive search and rescue operation, a collaboration between the French, British, Dutch and Irish Navies, with the RAF supplying a vital Nimrod and several Whirlwind, Sea King and Lynx helicopters. Eight military ships, five merchant vessels and 13 lifeboats took part in the recue operation, including the Baltimore, Ballycotton and Scilly lifeboats. 138 men and women were plucked from the water to safety. Despite the rescue operation, the Fastnet is remembered as one of the worst yachting disasters of all time.[xii]

On Friday 28th August 2009, Kevin and Aidan were among a dozen survivors of the Fastnet tragedy who gathered off Lambay Island in Dublin Bay to mark the 30th anniversary of the fatal storm. This was the first commemoration of its kind in Ireland and Kevin hopes it will provide ‘some sort of catharsis and reflection’.[xiii]

‘It was a horrendous time for all of us’, he says. ‘Most people who survived that awful night and day have never talked about it. Never. A lot of people I know are really surprised to learn that I was on the Fastnet. But perhaps, thirty years on, its time we did start to talk about it.

FOOTNOTES

[i] On the afternoon of Saturday August 11, a record fleet of 303 yachts, flying the flags of 20 nations, set out from Cowes. As dusk fell, those who watched the boats depart felt an unusual chill in the air, accompanied by an ominous grey fog that blew in from the Channel.

[ii] The race was the brainchild of British author and yachtsman Weston Martyr. It is now run by the Royal Ocean Racing Club who host it biennially, alternating with the Bermuda Race.

[iii] The Fastnet Rock is a hat-shaped rock with its white lighthouse neatly tucked into its side like a plume. Located 6.5km southwest of rocky Cape Clear Island, near Roaringwater Bay, the isolated Fastnet Rock was known in the 19th century as 'The Teardrop of Ireland' as it was the last sight of Ireland seen by generations of emigrants to America. In 1847, over 90 lives were lost when an American packet ship was lost off nearby Crookhaven. Prior to 1979, this was considered an extremely safe race. In 27 races, the only fatalities were a crewman lost overboard in 1931 and a middle-aged sailor who suffered a heart attack in 1977. The 28th Fastnet was to prove devastatingly different.

[iv] Some of the experienced fishermen who watched the fleet pass expressed unease at the gung-ho sailing they witnessed.

[v] One boat that tried to outrun the storm was the fin-keeled 45-ft Marionette of Wight which tried to race on through the storm but 20 miles after rounding Fastnet, her rudder broke at the very same moment that the Atlantic depression reached its lowest reading. The crew desperately scrabbled together a warp of almost 100m length, using three Genoa sheets and two secure anchor lines and managed to get the boat to lie safely hove-to until the storm had passed.

[vi] Amongst these was Britain’s former Prime Minister Ted Heath.

[vii] One man died of hypothermia and another drowned while clinging to the life-raft of the British yacht Trophy, owned by Alan Bartlett, a brother-in-law of comedian Eric Morecambe. When it transpired that only six of the abandoned boats actually sank, questions were raised over the wisdom of the decision to jump. Some felt that the intense cold had caused otherwise experienced seamen to behave irrationally.

[viii] Occasionally they made contact with other vessels and heard reports of empty or coverless life rafts tossing about on the ferocious waves.

[ix] The Golden Apple’s extremely experienced crew included Harry Cudmore (one of the top dinghy sailors of the 1960s, who’d been hired to call the tactical shots), Ron Holland (the boats designer), Rodney Pattisson (Britain’s triple Olympic medalist, as principal helmsman), Des McWilliam and Neil Kennefick. Regardless was a high spec boat, also designed by Holland and built by his brother-in-law, Gary Carlin, in Florida. She was deigned to race at serious speeds and had a full, powerful underbody aft - a useful asset in the Cup races in strong breezes - plus the added advantage of Ron Love and a highly competent crew.

[x] Legend holds that as the Golden Apple rounded the Fastnet Rock at high speed, a man had been strapped to the mast with a flare gun with orders to shoot a hole in the spinnaker sail if the ship appeared to be out of control. The hole would thus have deflated the sail and becalmed the ship. Initially the steering cables jumped off the rudder quadrant which took a couple of hours to repair. They got the boat fixed and carried on but then the rudder broke, with Ron Holland at the helm.

[xi] Three people died during the rescue - one while being rescued by a helicopter and two while trying to climb up a scrambling net thrown over the side of a ship.

The Raparee was still eligible to continue in the race but voted 5-1 against, with Enda O'Coineen electing to push on. ‘In Dunmore East, we were amazed to see all the masts and then we realized that so many others had also had to abandon the race’.

[xii] The Fastnet Tragedy led to many changes in the regulations for ocean races and an increased awareness of the importance of navigational and electronic aids. With today’s technology, all those ships would have had plenty of warning about the approaching storm and would probably have survived intact.

[xiii] Other survivors will include Enda O'Coineen who has since crossed the Atlantic on a rubber raft was also on Raparee . ‘We’ll be like the First World War’, laughs Kevin. ‘We’ll be counting down the years until we get to the last survivor’.

With thanks to Kevin Burke, Aidan McManus, Sarah-Beth Musgrave, Tim Bourke, Collum O'Sullivan, Simon Dick and Regina Lavelle.


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