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  #1  
Old 07-10-2009
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The Fastnet Disaster, 30 years later....

In the past year or so, as the 30th Anniversary of the 1979 Fastnet disaster has been approaching, I find myself thinking about its impact on all of our lives as sailors. I am not the only one. I have included an exerpt from a blog by John Rousmaniere, who wrote the book 'Fastnet Force 10'. His blog included this quote, "Why didn’t you call your book Fastnet, Force 12?” my new friend half-asked, half-demanded. “Maybe it was blowing a mere Force 10 where YOU were, but not where I was.”

I think that it would be hard to understate the changes that have swept through our sport since that fateful race. There is hardly a single aspect of our sailing lives that has not been altered since 1979, even for those who sail boats from 1979 or before. Many of these changes are simply the result of new technologies not necessarily directly linked to the marine industry, but emerging from advances in other fields, and shifts in the political landscape, and social norms. But many, if not most of these changes are the direct or indirect result of the heightened awareness of sailing safety the emerged after 1979. It was as if us sailors all had been lulled into a false sense of security that was shattered in a single race.

In March of that year, I was on a 41 foot IOR boat that death rolled out in the Atlantic. There were several desparate minutes trying to right the boat as she lay on her topsides; downflooding through open hatches, and then as the spin sheets were blown and the preventer eased allowing the boom to cross to leeward, the boat righted herself. We bore off, and trimmed the sails, flicked on the bilge pump to drain the mildly flooded cabin, and sailed off to complete the race. As I looked at the faces of the crew there was no sign of relief or fear at what had happened. Instead, there were comraderly laughter through big toothy grins, and the only concern was if that hurt us with the competition.

This occurred before the Fastnet Disaster. Later that summer a number of the crew were standing around after a race and someone said, "Did you guys hear about that race in England?" This was the days before the internet, and sailing news typically came months later in one of the sailing magazines of the era, so all we knew at that point came from brief new coverage and the grapevine.

But one of the guys in the discussion had been up to Bunky Helfred's yard on Hilton Head, where Tenacious was sent to be rebuilt after the Fastnet and had all the juicy details. By then he had heard the essense of Olin Stephen's quote, “Some modern ocean racers, and the cruising boats derived from them, and dangerous to their crews,”

As we sat there talking someone brought up that knock down and the dozens of death rolls and knock downs that we had all experienced in the race boats of that era. Up to then we figured this was normal for fast boats carrying a racing sail inventory. But as we talked there was a sense to that conversation that the yacht racing and the yacht design world as we knew it was about to change.

In the years since, safety and deck hardware has progressed, storm tactics has become a debated and improved upon thought process, how we equip our boats has changed dramatically, motion comfort, hull and rig structure, ultimate and dynamic stability have been studied tremendously and the type of boats that are produced have responded dramatically.

Race boats of that era were brutal to sail and the race boat technology that made these boats so hard to sail trickled into the coastal cruisers that were common to that era. Today, performance not withstanding, the advances that came out of all of that research has produced modern race boats that are easier and safer to sail with smaller crews. Race boats will always push the envelope and in doing so will move the needle on the "Safety-o-meter" very close to the "are you f-ing kidding me" end of the scale. But even so, we as sailors owe a debt of gratitude to those sailors whose lives were tragically cut short 30 years ago, but whose tragic loss lead to an industry wide rethinking of what a sailboat should be.

Respectfully,
Jeff


John Rousmaniere on the Fastnet 30 years later (exerpt):
"The Fastnet, our destination, is a ship-shaped lighthouse perched on a rock. It’s the outer turning mark in the odd-year 600-mile race that’s been run since 1925 from southern England to near Ireland and back again. Rarely easy, the race, with 303 boats, was hit in 1979 by a surprising, shockingly strong and unstable westerly blow, with gusts in the 60s and shifting constantly, and waves 30 feet and higher.

"Boomerang, the 64-footer, and Toscana, my ride, came out of it with minimal damage. Not so lucky were the 100 or so boats that capsized or nearly so, the 24 boats that were abandoned, the five that sank, and the 15 sailors who died – all this in a sport whose total fatalities, until 1979, could be counted on two hands. For us in Toscana, the outlines of the calamity began to take shape on radio broadcasts as we ran home from the rock. Our navigator, John Coote, stuck his head up the companionway, paused for a few moments, and mournfully intoned words that I had never expected to hear when I first went to sea: “Men are dying out here.”

"We did not feel the full thrust of the tragedy until after we finished at Plymouth, when Toscana approached a wharf crowded with silent, solemn women and men staring blankly out toward the Channel. On shore, I was approached by a man with an arm in a sling. Peter Johnson had sailed his boat and suffered the arm injury and broken ribs during three wild knockdowns, and now he was asking me to write a book about the race for his publishing house. The race was hard, but writing about it was harder. The seaman’s chores and the roll of the vessel are welcome distractions at sea, but on shore all is still, and the uneasiness planted by the sight of those people on the wharf grew with every interview with a survivor.

"Back to hard facts, a proper question to ask is, “What’s the larger importance of the Fastnet storm?” My answer is that this is the watershed event in the long history of pleasure sailing, dating back almost 200 years. I don’t know of any other incident that has been both so catastrophic and so constructive in our sport – or, for that matter, in any sport.

"The post-race review conducted by the Royal Yachting Association and the Royal Ocean Racing Club gathered more solid information about the behavior of boats and sailors in extreme weather than had ever existed through generations of anecdotes and cruise narratives. Building on this enormous data base, the boating industry and several non-profit organizations came up with the Lifesling, new rescue techniques, better safety harnesses, and other valuable innovations. Towing-tank tests of boat stability, heavy-weather steering, and storm tactics were run by the U.S Yacht Racing Union (now the U.S. Sailing Association), the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, and the Wolfson Unit in England. The Cruising Club of America produced a manual on offshore design and gear, Desirable and Undesirable Characteristics of Offshore Yachts, with chapters by Olin and Rod Stephens, Jim McCurdy, Bill Lapworth, Tom Young, and other leading sailors and designers of that era. When Olin wrote, “Some modern ocean racers, and the cruising boats derived from them, and dangerous to their crews,” people paid attention, and rating rules were improved.

"Regulations and gear can’t solve every problem, which is why one of the most important developments in the wake of the 1979 Fastnet was that large numbers of sailors finally began to talk about safety – until then the elephant in the yacht club – at safety at sea seminars and other forums. Talking leads inevitably to stories, stories attract people’s attention, and so, as long as there are veterans of that wild August night telling those stories, lessons will be learned. "
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Old 07-10-2009
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A very good retrospective, Jeff. I would say that while on the design front the lessons of Fastnet have "trickled down" to the realm of the recreational sailor, giving us boats that are fast, fun and yet intrinsically safer than those of the early '80s, say, there are still tendencies in racing to make boats that are simply too weak to compete in the contests for which they are designed to race. The America's Cup and the Vendee Globe, with their appalling attrition rates, come to mind.

While I can understand the rationales involved, in the case of Southern Ocean sail races, I think the Australian, New Zealand and Chilean navies are going to (justifiably, I think) start to charge for rescues from broken boats that shaved too much carbon off in the quest for that extra hundredth of a knot of speed.

Another criticism, I think, is that just as the installation of airbags hasn't improved driving skills, but merely allowed poor drivers to persist in being poor drivers, the older boats made more prudent sailors, because their touchy, easily "irritated" IOR designs would kill them if they weren't skilled. Today's boats allow less experienced sailors to do more without killing them. While this is undoubtedly better for the sailors, I'm not convinced it's better for the sport.
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Old 07-10-2009
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Awesome write up Jeff. Thanks.

That's still one of the best books I've ever read. And I appreciate the perspective you've added in how boat design was affected thereafter - for both racers and cruisers.

Great stuff. Especially for those of us looking for our next boats.
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Old 07-10-2009
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Thanks Jeff, that is a well written retrospective of a defining moment in our sport. I am old enough to recall reading about that race and seeing the Washington Post front page first person article. Just that short report had a profound effect on my sailing. At that time I owned and sailed a 1977 22' Seafarer. From that point on I had a new respect for the wind and power of the sea, even though I sail in the relatively protected waters of The Chesapeake Bay. I read countless articles and books on heavy weather sailing. I have never experienced anything like the 79 Fasnet but its effect is never far from my cautionary mind.
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Old 07-10-2009
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Great write up Jeff. I bought Rousmaniere's book when it first came out and realized how dangerous racing boats and bay boats of the day were if caught in a blow. Knowing that most of my sailing is offshore and it was only a matter of time before I would be caught in a Gulf storm, because of the excellent reporting of the disaster in his book that, when it came time to move to a bigger boat, I spent the extra $$ and bought a, go anywhere in any weather, Bristol.
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Old 07-10-2009
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John: There is a tendancy to think of the IOR as being monlithic when it was a series of rules really. What is interesting about your post is that the Bristol 29.9 was a first generation IOR boat designed to replace the earlier Bristol 30 which was designed to the MORC rule. Although not as extreme as later IOR boats it did have the pinched stern, and small mainsail, big jib rig proportions and many of the handling flukes of the early IOR rule beaters. Of course the IOR boats of the late 1970's were far more extreme.

Jeff
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff_H View Post
John: There is a tendancy to think of the IOR as being monlithic when it was a series of rules really. What is interesting about your post is that the Bristol 29.9 was a first generation IOR boat designed to replace the earlier Bristol 30 which was designed to the MORC rule. Although not as extreme as later IOR boats it did have the pinched stern, and small mainsail, big jib rig proportions and many of the handling flukes of the early IOR rule beaters. Of course the IOR boats of the late 1970's were far more extreme.
Jeff
Hi Jeff, I understand that. My point was that in Rousmaniere's Fastnet Force 10 book, one of his comments was that a lot of the boats out there were not designed for heavy weather. And, although I had been through a monster storm in the Atlantic in the late summer/early fall of 1960 aboard my dad's Hickley B40, laying for Bermuda, I had given little thought to the possibility of getting caught in any big storms in the Gulf. But, after reading his book several times and giving it some serious thought, and it being time to move up, I decided to look for a reasonably fast (not a racer, but also not a Westsail 28) bluewater boat, and the Bristol 29.9 fits the bill quite nicely. Yes, it has the slightly pinched stern and smaller sail plan, but I liked the strength that Herreshoff designed into the boat: From the Almag 35 aluminum port lights (there's were too many boats out there back then with plastic port lights), overlapping hull-to-deck joints, glassed and through-bolted every three inches to the cutaway forefoot, encapsulated lead ballast keel and skeg-hung rudder of the underbody (no bolted-on, fin keel, spade rudders allowed)
And has she met the test? Paloma's sloughed through more bad weather at sea than 98% of the boats on this site. She has held up admirably through two Force 10 storms deep in the Gulf and a half-dozen named storms in ports along the Texas coast over these many intervening years and, after all these years, she's still my little bluewater warrior princess.
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Old 07-13-2009
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Fastnet, etc

From John Rousmaniere: Thanks, Jeff and the others, for your kind words about my book FASTNET, FORCE 10 and my piece that ran in Scuttlebutt on Friday, kicking off other Fastnet stories. A crucially important advance triggered by the disaster is that a conversation like this is occurring. Anybody who's been to a safety at sea seminar (and I strongly encourage it for all who are even half-serious about sailing) knows how bad things can get out there and how important it is to hear about what worked and what didn’t. (Schedules of upcoming safety seminars are run on the US Sailing website: http://offshore.ussailing.org/SAS.htm).

Two things should be noted about the '79 Fastnet. First, a great many vessels in that 303-boat fleet were small, with a number of 30-footers. Almost all the boats that got into very serious trouble would not have qualified for a Newport-Bermuda Race, where the minimum size is about 38 feet.

Second, as my story from a Swan 47 and others from even larger boats all show, every entry was severely challenged. This was an horrific storm -- no normal summer gale or Gulf Stream blow but something like a winter storm. The barometer saw its third lowest reading for a 20th century August.

Still, it must be said that IOR design as it had developed by the late 1970s was not compatible with even normal strong winds. Many of these boats were dinghies in shape, high performance, and lack of stability. Some had a stability range of about 100 degrees, meaning that once they heeled that far, they kept on going until they capsized and even turtled – obviously not a desirable characteristic! Today 115-120 degrees is the rule for a boat heading offshore.

Keep up the conversation! John Rousmaniere
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Old 07-13-2009
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And you keep writing, John...you're one of the few as handy with a pen as a halyard!
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Old 07-13-2009
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No, Thank you John for all that you have done to help publicize and present these important issues.

Jeff
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