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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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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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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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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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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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Discussion Starter #6 (Edited)
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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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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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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Discussion Starter #10
No, Thank you John for all that you have done to help publicize and present these important issues.

Jeff
 

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Wow, John...it's great to have you here on SN. I had no idea!

FNF10 is definitely one of the best. Great work.

Another similar book I'm looking for is the "1994 Pacific Storm Survey" by Kim Taylor. Can't seem to find it here in the US (only via NZ). But from what I understand, it's a very thorough comparison of more modern boats in insanely bad conditions, all using various HW techniques.

Have you read it?
 

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I remember the reports about that race. What came out of it most for me though is "The best way to enter a life raft is to step UP into it." Lots of lives were lost in that race, yet only 3? boats actually sunk. Many abandoned boats were found later, their crew having drowned trying to get in or stay in a life raft. It appears that panic was a major factor.

Since then I've always said I wanted to own a boat with seat belts down below. If things get really bad I want to strap in and wish for my mommy, and let the boat take care of herself.

My Etap 26 seems like a step in the right direction, as it has 100% foam flotation. So staying on board is the first priority. Short lanyards, and hefty pad eye right in the cockpit sole help with that.

Gary H. Lucas
 

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Here is an example of one on the boats.....

that followed the race.



A tri called "Bucks Fizz". Four people lost from her (If memory serves). That's me standing on the hull looking up, on body recovery duty two days after the storm. Photo taken form the Irish Naval vessel L.E. Deirdre.
 

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Wow - gtod...God bless you man. I continue to be amazed at the people on this site.

Your signature quote suddenly means a lot more. And I love it that you are still at that sea.
 

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Thanks. I don't know that one, but there are others that you may be familiar with others that tease out lessons learned to one degree or another. Tony Farrington's fine book on the great 1994 Queen's Birthday Storm, RESCUE IN THE PACIFIC, is one. Another is Rob Mundle's FATAL STORM (now with an introduction by me) on the 1998 Sydney-Hobart. Victor Shane's DRAG DEVICE DATA BASE is a collection of instructional storm stories. And there's Steve Dashew's very good DEFENSIVE SEAMANSHIP. -- John R.

Wow, John...it's great to have you here on SN. I had no idea!

FNF10 is definitely one of the best. Great work.

Another similar book I'm looking for is the "1994 Pacific Storm Survey" by Kim Taylor. Can't seem to find it here in the US (only via NZ). But from what I understand, it's a very thorough comparison of more modern boats in insanely bad conditions, all using various HW techniques.

Have you read it?
 

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My father, Cyril J Breza, drowned on the relatively protected waters of the Chesapeake Bay
the day after the Fastnet Race. Yes the storm kept going & whipped across the Atlantic
& showed up quickly on that calm summer day. Because the draft of the bay is shallow
wind waves can churn up immensely. Sail Safe Mates !
 

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Thank you MarkAngelo for reviving this thread that I did not even know existed...and seems to have somehow gotten lost in the mix as it is very,very, short thus far...compared to many threads in here, and especially considering how fundamental to Sailnet and sailing the topic of this thread is...
Afterall, this is of course a discussion of arguably the seminal event in sailing of at least the last 50 years or more...."the '79 Fastnet"....and it's not just the almost inconcievable deaths of 15 brave sailors...but the death of the IOR rules...and it's boats...and yet it could be argued that it was simply a truly freak storm...a Force 12...the third lowest barometric reading in the N Atlantic in a century....no matter how many boats (303 is alot btw), and how small many were (many of the lost were 30-ish in length), it seems to me IMHO that the over-arching armchair analytic theme should be more like or along the lines of..."How to survive in 30-footers in a storm of the century"...It was afterall, seemingly to me , and my HO again, primarily, and in essence, a simply hellacious meteorological event...especially when it occurred within the matrix of the sea and a 300+ sailboat race fleet....And that it indeed revealed the inherent flaws of many IOR boats...but to me this race revealed more about safety measures a crew should follow in a Force 12 than anything about the inherent sea-keeping abilties of IOR boats...though I agree they had serious flaws...to me the conversation should be really always be about staying with or hangin onto the boat and getting inside her at the right time and not allowing water ingress into the cabin..and waiting it out...either with a drogue system or just sloshing about...pounded to a pulp...puking and praying...but strapped in...inside the boat....and especially if your in a 30-ish IOR boat.that's how I see this whole thing...but I've never read the report and likely never will...Take it for what it is...and from a guy who has no real blue-water experience...but before you post just put it in your pipe and smoke it for a minute...think about it...and if I am full of crap I hope I am ready to give a vigorous debate and rebuttal...but respectfully, I thought Jeff's 2009 summary was not what the story of what this ill-fated race was about at all...

for example:

"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".

okay.. I am not trying to pick on jeff for something he wrote Three years ago...well...yes I am...but Jeff does take alot of heat as is natural..and he does a great job whether you agree with him or not...and he can stand the heat in the kitchen ..but well..here we go...

Okay...well safety and hardware has progressed...safety more than hardware though.. Not with the Chinese SS crap they make today...Not IMHO....And storm tactics?..The Kiwis or Aussies (I forget which, forgive me) designed a $2,000 (USD) drogue system yes...but the trend has really been about speed and tech...and that speed and weather tech info via your own onboard systems or related via a team onshore will get you out of the "bad" corner of the storm. Otherwise there's a trend more or less reverted back to what the old-school sailors did...get their ass back into the cabin, bar the companionway hatch and any other hatch and strap into a bunk like a Caterpillar who wants to be a butterfly some day ...and hang onto your ass...under bare poles....
Motion comfort though? Ultimate and dynamic stabiltiy?? ...Maybe in 15 knots but not in 115 kts...and has the response really been that good by designers and builders...? Maybe at first there was some safe boats...'80 or '81 ...Cherubini and/or Bob Perry come to mind....but not since Bruce Farr came on the scene...or whoever came up with low freeboard fat ass artillery shell-shaped boats, with another lead artillery shell of a keel ...this time of lead...hung 10 feet below... that surf rather than sail...pound like mad...but yeah..are faster than the speed of light...the speed of light...hmm...and oh yeah...and there's one other piece of wisdom that seems over-riding from the committee....don't be in a late 70's IOR boat....! I can't argue that one really...

God rest the soul's of the Fastnet '79....and don't forget that "the more that things change the more they stay the same"....You won't catch me in one of these new-fangled twin-rudder condo-crates....just sayin'....

Now you's goes to seas in what you's want to goes to seas in though...and hopefully... there's to be some semblance of a respectful, healthy debate from the gallery....
 

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Okay...well safety and hardware has progressed...safety more than hardware though...and storm tactics? Not with the Chinese SS crap they make today...Not IMHO....they have designed a $1500.00 drogue system yes...but the trend has more or less reverted back to what the old-school sailors did...get their ass back into the cabin, bar the companionway hatch and any other hatch and strap into a bunk like a Caterpillar who wants to be a butterfly some day ...and hang onto your ass...under bare poles....Motion comfort though? Ultimate and dynamic stabiltiy...maybe in 15 knots but not in 115 kts...and has the response really been that good by designers and builders...? Not since Bruce Farr came on the scene...or whoever came up with low freeboard fat ass artillery shell-shaped boats that surf rather than sail...pound like mad...but yeah..are faster than the speed of light...the speed of light...hmm...and oh yeah...and don't be in a late 70's IOR boat....and God rest the soul's of the Fastnet '79....and don't forget that "the more that things change the more they stay the same"....You won't catch me in one of these new-fangled twin-rudder condo-crates....just sayin'....

Now hopefully... there's to be some semblance of a respectful, healthy debate from the gallery....
Where's the "don't like" button? This thread isn't about debate, it's about reflections and lessons learned. Start a new thread and 'debate', then we can talk about what you don't know about Bruce Farr in the appropriate place.
 

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Please say something or go start your own thread...if you just wanted to say you don't like what i said..you said it...no need to search for a button...i'd rather you would have more to say my friend...but if that's it...please move on...but I'd rather you said something...or presented something...other than what you were able to...afterall, most decent rebuttals involve either very succinct sentences..or if not quite so snappy then at least more than two sentences...now come back and defend Bruce Farr or what have you...
 

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...

Afterall, this is of course a discussion of arguably the seminal event in sailing of at least the last 50 years or more...."the '79 Fastnet"....and it's not just the almost inconcievable deaths of 15 brave sailors...but the death of the IOR rules...and it's boats........And that it indeed revealed the inherent flaws of many IOR boats......

Take it for what it is...and from a guy who has no real blue-water experience......

Motion comfort though? Ultimate and dynamic stabiltiy?? ........but not since Bruce Farr came on the scene...or whoever came up with low freeboard fat ass artillery shell-shaped boats, with another lead artillery shell of a keel ...this time of lead...hung 10 feet below... ....
Do you mean that today Farr designed performance boats are not much better and safer than 30 years old performance boats, namely IOR boats? If you think that you are obviously wrong.

Not only designers learned how to make faster and more seaworthy boats as the ORC rules were modified to demand that boats comply with much more demanding criteria than the one that was needed for the 1979 race namely rules that have to do with minimum stability criteria.

Farr is just one of the best naval architects from the last half of the XX century and one that continues to sit among the best. Saying that he makes unseaworthy boats or have contributed to a trend that resulted in unseaworthy boats is just ….well, I prefer to say that it do not makes any sense;).

Regards

Paulo
 
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