Broadside to a big breaker, the 32-foot Gunslinger begins to roll in a typical Fastnet capsize.
Few hopes are more universal than the one that a tragedy will have a positive outcome, no matter how small. I am never surprised, therefore, when people ask whether something good came out of the 1979 Fastnet Race in which 15 sailors died, five boats sank, and at least 75 boats flipped upside down. I sailed in the race and wrote a book about it, Fastnet, Force 10
. Recently, while attempting to answer that good question in a new introduction to the book, I reflected on what the storm eventually taught us of seamanship, boats, gear, and attitudes about heavy weather, and what it taught me of life. I say "eventually" because, back in August 1979, little was yet known about what reliable lessons to take from the killer gale that smashed through the 303-boat fleet off the English and Irish coasts. For most of us, it was hard enough just to escape the depressing shock of the disaster. After all, an event that was "only a sailboat race" had left 15 people dead, hundreds in mourning, and thousands terrified.
Not long after the 1979 Fastnet, some smart, dedicated people began to study sailboats and sailors. While we still must remember that the sea can always throw something new at us, 20 years later we do have a better understanding of many issues raised by the Fastnet.
With her rudder snapped off, the violent wave action throws crew members out of the cockpit to the end of their tethers.
Take storm tactics, for example. Richard Everitt's drawing of one of the many broaching boats in the Fastnet storm, shown here, illustrates what can happen when a boat runs too fast, rounds up sharply, and puts her beam under a big breaker, as a lot of boats did that night. How this can be avoided has been the subject of intense research in the use of different types of sea anchors to stop the bow dead into the waves or of drogues towed astern to slow the boat when running before the wind. If there is a fault in this debate, it is that the factions sometimes say that one tactic or piece of gear is always
right, regardless of the boat and the conditions. There is nothing always
about a storm at sea except its danger.
As for personal safety gear, it is difficult to overstate how much it has been improved over the past 20 years. Safety harnesses are stronger, inflatable life jackets are easier to wear and more reliable, and crew-overboard rescue devices are more effective. Life rafts have been improved with the addition of ballast bags, although as the 1998 Sydney-Hobart experience showed, life rafts still must be handled with care and respect for their vulnerability as a vessel of last resort. And sailors today know much more about safety gear and skills, thanks to safety-at-sea seminars and other educational programs.
Gunslinger continued inverting until the force of another large wave righted her.
The Fastnet disaster forced sailors to doubt many modern boats. In the '70s, the International Offshore Rule (IOR) helped produce a new breed of racing and racing-cruising boat that was little more than a big, wide dinghy with a stability range as low as 90 degrees (meaning it would capsize completely when heeled only that far). The waves in the Fastnet storm were big enough to knock down a few 50-footers, and they smashed over a great many smaller boats that then capsized and stayed upside down until other steep waves slapped their keels and levered them back upright. Good work led to the new International Measurement Rule (IMS), which turned out boats that, while fast, resist capsize to beyond 120 degrees. The 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race had conditions at least as bad as the 1979 Fastnet's, but in that 115-boat fleet, only three percent of the boats were reported to have rolled upside down and 18 percent put their masts in the water—against 24 percent and 33 percent in the Fastnet storm.
John Rousmaniere steers down the face of a wave during the 1979 Fastnet Race storm as the wind drops from 60-knots.
While I was reflecting on these and other seamanship lessons learned, I realized that hardly a week has passed in the past 20 years when I have not thought about that frigid, soaking night when white water roared down on us from every direction as we beat out to Fastnet Rock. As we rounded it, our calm skipper, Eric Swenson, spied a little cruising boat and wondered out loud why such a small vessel would voluntarily come out in such weather. And our hearty navigator, Johnny Coote (sadly, no longer with us), poked his head through a hatch, waved a portable radio, and announced, "Men are dying out here."
Equally indelible is the memory of entering Plymouth harbor, after the race's finish, where a pier was crowded with solemn women and men—wives and husbands, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, and many friends—staring mournfully out to the English Channel. Plymouth has been a naval port for centuries, and so this pier must have served many hundreds of times as a widow's walk. But I wonder if ever in its history it had supported so many people whose hearts were aching for the more than 2,000 yachtsmen scattered across the waters somewhere out there. Several years later I received a letter from a young Englishman who may have been on that pier. He said that his father had died in the race—he knew not how or why until he came across Fastnet, Force 10. Now that he understood, he believed it was time to sail his own Fastnet and finish the race that his father had not completed. I sympathized; I was on a journey of my own as a student in divinity school. Worried that he might be a little reckless, I suggested that there are other ways to honor the dead. I never again heard from him, but I do believe that he joined the line of landsmen inevitably rushing down the hills to the sea regardless of storm and calm.
I have often been asked if I ever sailed in another Fastnet Race. In 1989 I was in Cowes for some small-boat racing and, after attending a memorial service for the 15 victims, searched half-heartedly for a boat needing crew for that year's Fastnet. None of the opportunities seemed quite right—the boats were too small, the crews inexperienced—and I turned them down. Surprisingly relieved, I instead helped some friends deliver their boat to Scotland. I suppose I had done my Fastnet.
Credit: Drawings by Richard Everitt and photo by Nick Noyes, in John Rousmaniere, Fastnet, Force 10, revised edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).