Broadside to a big breaker, the 32-foot Gunslinger begins to roll in a typical Fastnet capsize.
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.
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.
John Rousmaniere steers down the face of a wave during the 1979 Fastnet Race storm as the wind drops from 60-knots.
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).
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