Memories of a perilous, treacherous night at sea
The Irish Times – Saturday, August 8, 200
Thirty years after the Fastnet yacht race that claimed 15 lives, survivors and seamen talk about sailing through the horrendous storm, with waves wrecking lifeboats as well as yachts
IT LIES JUST off Cape Clear Island, a jagged collection of shale and quartz that spells danger for unwary sailors. An Charraig Aonair, it’s called in Irish – the solitary rock. Rising from it is the Fastnet Lighthouse, its loom visible for 27 nautical miles in good weather. Except that, on the night of August 14th/15th 1979, sailors on the Fastnet Race were experiencing weather that was the worst they had ever encountered.
That year, 303 boats set out on a 608 nautical mile course from Cowes to Plymouth, via Fastnet, on what many label one of the most demanding yacht races in the world. On board the 30-foot Silver Foam, with her crew of five, was 18-year-old Munster man Dermot O’Flynn.
Thirty years on, in a Dublin hotel, O’Flynn recalls what happened: “We left the Solent on Saturday afternoon, in a light wind. It was a fantastic sight, the largest fleet ever in the race,” and his face lights up at the memory of a rainbow of spinnakers curving across the sky. “But at around 10pm on Monday, the storm hit and it was horrendous.
“With Force 10 winds the noise was deafening. The storm started in the Great Plains of North America, crossed the ocean and when it hit the shallow waters between the Scillies and Fastnet, the wind was against the tidal currents and you got short, irregular waves that were very violent.”
Out on the raging sea that night was another teenager, 18-year-old Matt Sheahan, crewing on his father’s boat Grimalkin. After the boat capsized twice, and having seen his father knocked unconscious and later swept away, his body never to be found, Sheahan and two crew members abandoned Grimalkin, leaving the remaining two crew members on board, unconscious and trapped beneath a tangle of ropes and sails.
Their best hope of survival, Sheahan thought, was to get into their life raft and get help to the stricken Grimalkin.
In his book, Left for Dead, Nick Ward, one of the unconscious men, tells of how he regained consciousness to find himself abandoned on a storm-wracked boat, nursing the remaining crew member who eventually died. Fastnet 1979 was a race during which such terrible things happened.
Had O’Flynn and his crew ever considered not doing the race, I asked. His answer is emphatic: “No. The Fastnet Race is the Everest for sailors and no one knew that that storm was on the way.” The statistics of the 1979 race show the power of the sea: sails ripped, rudders snapped and boats dismasted. Gear, knives and food tins hurtling about below were such a danger that it was safer to stay in the cockpit. Of the 303 boats in the race, 85 completed it, 194 withdrew, 19 were abandoned while five sank. Worst of all, though, was the fact that 15 people lost their lives. Of that 15, nine drowned or died of hypothermia, while six perished because their safety harnesses broke.
Life rafts simply disintegrated in the appalling conditions. Many boats did not have VHF radios partly because some owners, focused on winning the race, feared that radios merely added weight to a boat. Another serious factor was conflicting weather reports. Kevin Lane, former admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, crewing on Moonduster in that fatal race, switched on his radio on the Tuesday morning to get the shipping forecast only to learn of the terrible loss of life. “We didn’t keep radio watch,” he says in Crosshaven. “We were racing, don’t forget, and it was hard going. The 30-foot-high seas meant you could stay on the helm for only 20 minutes at a time. Our one meal in 24 hours was a few tins of
paghetti. I’ve never told the crew this, but some of the spaghetti spilled on to sails lying on the deck and I had to scrape it off and put it back in the tin before handing it round with just one spoon for 11 people. We finished the course, though survival was more important than the race.”
Sailors were not the only people at sea that awful night. “I’d been out earlier,” Diarmuid O’Mahony, retired coxswain of Courtmacsherry Lifeboat says, on a sunny day in west Cork. “I was just in bed 10 minutes when we got the shout [call-out] at 2am. It took us four hours to reach the area. The seas were so high it was almost impossible to see anything.”
Eventually, after nearly 22 hours at sea, they located and towed the Casse Tete V yacht, with 11 people on board, back to the safety of Courtmacsherry. All the lifeboats along the coast were out that night including Baltimore, Ballycotton and Dunmore East and between them they saved 45 sailors.
It was in Dunmore East that O’Flynn’s Silver Foam sought shelter. By then, his parents – holidaying in Donabate – were frantic, having had no news and fearing the worst. “We got in to Dunmore East about four in the morning,” O’Flynn tells me. “Everyone was down at the harbour and had their headlamps on to light us in.” He rang his parents and by 6am was downing a pint of Guinness.
Much has changed since then. Participating boats must qualify and must have VHF radios. “The greatest innovation,” says O’Mahony, “is the personal locator. Some even come clipped to life jackets.” Safety harnesses now bear a 200kg load. The old rule – never step down into a life-raft – still stands. “Abandon your boat only if it’s sinking or on fire. That works 99 per cent of the time, though 1 per cent of the time it doesn’t,” says O’Mahony.
The Courtmacsherry all-weather life boat, powered by two 850hp engines which take it up to 25 knots, has an enclosed wheelhouse and a crew of seven with mechanic Mícheál Hurley out first to get things fired up for a quick getaway.
Over at Crosshaven, care-worker Geraldine Farrell volunteered for the lifeboats, expecting to make the tea. Now she is a sea-going member on the three-crew high-speed lifeboat that does inshore rescue work, their mission to bring help as quickly as possible. Is she ever afraid? “You have to have a bit of fear,” she says. “If you become complacent with water you’re in trouble.” And who are the other volunteers? She ticks them off: “A fisherman, a hairdresser, a barber, a jeweller and there’s a fellow who does windows.”
The Courtmacsherry coxswain, Sean O’Farrell, was formerly a cartographer. “Charts and maps aren’t all that different,” he says as we leave the lifeboat station. When I wish him well, he smiles: “What we say here is: May all your shouts be on flat seas.”