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.
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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Curmudgeon at Large- and rhinestone in the rough, sailing my Farr 11.6 on the Chesapeake Bay