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40 years since the tragic loss of life during the Fastnet Race

Memories of a perilous, treacherous night at sea

The Irish Times – Saturday, August 8, 200

MARY RUSSELL

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.”

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Nothing new about armed maritime escorts

 

There’s nothing new about armed ships escorting British traders to their maritime destinations.( Royal Navy to accompany  UK-flagged ships in strait of Hormuz 26/07/2019) It happened a great deal during Napoleonic times. In the Irish port of Cork, there were often up to 70 ships in harbour waiting both for fair winds and for the trans-Atlantic naval escort to be organised. However, it was Walter Raleigh, favourite pirate-sailor of Queen Elizabeth I, who put his finger on it, writing: “Whoever commands the sea commands the trade; whoever commands the trade  commands the riches  of the world and consequently the world itself.”

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Visiting the birthplace of Syria’s much loved philosopher poet.

Yesterday, the @guardian carried a report by Martin Chulov about the latest bombing in Syria. It took place in the famous town of Maarat al Numan, not far from Aleppo. The town had been home to one of Syria’s much-loved philosophers, al Ma’arri. And so I took a  local bus there to find out more. This was before the war in Syria had become so terrible. Here’s the story:

I get off the bus at the top of the town and start assembling my meagre vocabulary in order to get to al Ma’arri’s tomb.

Abu ‘ala al Ma’arri or, to give him his full and glorious name, Abu ‘ala Ahmad ibn abd Allah ibn Suliman al Tanookhy al Ma’arri, was a writer I think I might well have got on with. He had a quirky, iconoclast take on life – a refreshing antidote to the strict, humourless way in which religion in Islamic countries today is sometimes both presented and perceived. He was also a vegetarian and an atheist – and therefore a very rare bird indeed in these parts.

Al Ma’arri was born in Ma’arrat al Numan, in 973CE and spent the greater part of his 84 years here. An illness left him blind from the age of five and he was forced to develop other compensatory skills including that of an exceptional memory which allowed him to study at Antioch, Aleppo and Tripoli – three of the great centres of learning at that time. His literary career was helped by the fact that he had a small private income.

In his 30s, he travelled to Baghdad where he established himself as a writer with very individual views and where he was much in demand at literary get-togethers. Those same views, however, worked against him when he decided that rather than sullying his art by selling his work he would simply recite it or offer it for discussion. Such high ideals, however, required a patron and unable to find one, and his own private income not being enough to survive on, he ran up against hard times and two years after arriving in Baghdad left it again to return to Ma’rrat al Numan. By then, he was 37 and on the way to adopting a lifestyle that was to characterise him for the rest of his long life.

From then on, he withdrew into himself, renouncing the excesses and vagaries of contemporary life. His own was governed by three things: his blindness, his writing and his solitude.

If this had been all I had to go on, I might have written off al Ma’arri as an eccentric recluse. However, his views marked him out as a very rare writer indeed for he spoke loud and clear of possibilities other than the orthodox.

The idea that there was only one true religion was one he rejected out of hand and, writing some seventy years before the First Crusade, was remarkably prescient: “Religions have only resulted in bigotry and bloodshed with sect fighting sect and fanatics forcing their beliefs onto people at the point of a sword. All religions are contrary to reason and sanity.”

Read more about the town in my book My Home is Your Home

 

 

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Blackwells Book shop presents some good talks.

Blackwells in Oxford are offering some interesting talks on various subjects – and which are all free!

I went to one last week about travel writing or, to be precise, how to be a travel writer .  The speaker was promoting his book which was a howto on that very subject: how to write about travel and, possibly, make some money while you’re at it.  All good practical stuff  on how to write a travel blog, how to write a newspaper travel feature, how to write a travel book. It was inevitable that, having written a book about women travellers and explorers ( The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt) I should be disappointed though not surprised to find female travel writers, including Ireland’s own, Dervla Murphy, were rarely mentioned in the discourse and this in Oxford, Gertrude Bell’s own university town. Sara Wheeler appeared briefly in a photo shown at the beginning of the talk  but  that was it.  What we did hear were the entertaining anecdotes and quotes about Redmond O Hanlon, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Rory MacClean and many more – all of them excellent travel writers.

But where oh where were the dictinctive  female voices of travel writers like Ella Maillart, Alexandra David Neel, Christina Dodwell, Ann Davison, Mary Kingsley,  Hester Stanhope and the sublime Jane Digby.

When my book Blessings  of a Good Thick Skirt was published in 1986, it filled a gap for there was hardly anything then published neither about women travellers and explorers nor by them.  Now, 33 years on, the ratio of male to female  travel writers is pretty much the same as it was then.

Perhaps this is a sign of changing times with fewer women setting off on a quest in their mid years. If this is so then that is as it is. Meanwhile, we can feast on a treasure trove of travel writing  from those who have gone before and who are still travelling, giving us travel writing which will energise and inspire. Pick up that book and get going.

 

The Travel Writer’s Way by  Jonathan Lorie is published  by Bradt.

 

 

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Crossing the road

First fix is in the coffee shop.  Regular cappo. Newspaper headlines not too bad. England won the cricket. No cartoons of politicians’ various arses. So far so good. Then work calls so time for the first challenge:  getting back across the busy road again. No lights at the pedestrian crossing so we are dependent on good offices of car drivers. Some glide along carefree as a lark at dawn, ignoring waiting pedestrians. Despite the fact that lights at next crossing are red, six cars press on. Then one, seeing the red lights ahead, stops and waves me across to the mid-road island. Great. Better still, the bus as the second and final section also waves me across. I feel myself carried forward on a surge of drivers’ goodwill  and think if I were to rise up on my toes and flap the sleeves of my jacket I might even fly the rest of the way home.

Then again, that might just be the effects of the caffeine.

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It was an unusually sunny spring day and perfect for my plans: a two and a half hour train journey from Oxford across the border into Wales with the journey ending  in Cardiff,  a city I knew precious little about. Not that that mattered. My mission was simple:  to the find the statue of Wales’s most famous son. And everyone would know where that was, wouldn’t they? The Welsh are famous for being famous. After all, there’s Dylan Thomas, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church. There’s even the Prince of Wales himself.

There was no tourist office at the rail station so I asked at the first window: “ Could you tell me where I’ll find the statue of your most famous son, please.” When the  woman shook her head I moved on quickly. No point in adding to her embarrassment. The next ticket clerk shook her head apologetically. “ Don’t know about a statue but there’s a lot about him at the hospital.” And rightly since Nye Bevan was the founder of the National Health Service, Britain’s greatest humanitarian achievement ever made and all the  remarkable as it was introduced while Europe was still recovering from WW2.

As a champion of the poor and committed to nationalisation, Nye Bevan was disliked by the Conservative Party. During the war, he had pushed for support for the Soviet Union in its fight with Germany which is why Churchill called him “a squalid nuisance.”

The election following WW2 brought the Labour Party to power allowing Nye Bevan, on July 5  1948,  to introduce the National Health Service.

It’s a short walk from the rail station to Cardiff Castle – an architectural confection built by the Bute family from Scotland who made their money from Welsh coal – and there  I found a tour bus which took me round the city where we saw the new housing developments at the docks which consisted mainly of service companies now that there is no coal to export.

The tour guide had lots to say about the way in which the city had benefited from the Bute family. They donated various buildings and sums of money to Wales and in particular to the city of Cardiff, Not so much though about the way in which succeeding Bute family had prospered as coal magnates. Right now, in 2019, we are on the 7th Marques of Bute though the third one was the one most financially active,  making him one of the richest men  in Europe.

Strangely, although the Marques of Bute was mentioned three times, the guide never once referred to Nye Bevan and the institution that has made him famous.

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12 July, 2019 · 3:07 pm

Bayt Baytuk

Arab Hospitality: The art of giving and receiving

Where – P21 Gallery 21/27 Chalton St NW1 1JD

When – Saturday June 29 at 4 pm till 5 pm.Everyone welcome and especially to join in the discussion.

I’ll be  talking about the great hospitality I have enjoyed when travelling through some Arab countries including Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Western Sahara.

In some cultures, we have lost the art of receiving gracefully. In Souk Saruja, in Damascus, for intance, I bought a bag of olives  and being in a hurry, asked the stall holder to give them to me quickly.  However, noticng the oil was leaking from the bag,  he took it back from me and put  that bag inside another bag. Then he tied not one knot but two in the bag. The delay was almost unbearable.  Another delay.  But as he handed the olives to me he smiled and I realised how ungracious it was to be in such a rush to get what I wanted when he was going about his job in such a mannerly fashion.

In Palestine, I was invited to lunch during my lunch break. (I was a volunteer teacher in Hebron.)

Lunch went on quite a while  and each time I got up to go the hostesses begged me to stay and have some more, while I in turn begged to be allowed to leave and get back to my class. But without success.  Then, when I was becoming  anxious and slightly annoyed another teacher (from Hebron) stood up, shook his little coffee cup a few times and left. So that, I learned, was all you had to do.Simple – once you knew.

There are lots more of these small cultural behaviour clues so if you can please come along on Saturday to Gallery P21 and share them with us.

 

Mary Russell

http://www.maryrussell.info

 

Till then….

 

 

 

 

 

 

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