Fastnet your safety belts

This is another tale from my memory bank.  I’m not sure if today’s blog falls into the category of another of my sailor’s yarns or one of my lifetime memories of “What the heck am I doing here?”, I do know that I keep finding myself in the same fixes, whether I am at sea or on the mountain, all of my life.

It was Cowes week, thirty three years ago and I had signed on as navigator on a 37 foot yacht, taking part in the legendary Fastnet race.  The competition was a huge flotilla, there were 303 yachts taking part in the 608 mile jewel of offshore racing from the Solent, along the south coast to Cornwall and out into open sea towards the Fastnet lighthouse, Ireland’s most Southerly point.  Ted Heath’s yacht ‘Morning Cloud was amongst the entrants.   We left the Solent in August 1979 heading on the 600 mile course.  Our 37 foot sloop was one of the smallest taking part.   The wind was blowing hard and we were making good time.

The shipping forecast predicted winds of Force 8, nothing for a seasoned, well trained crew of six hard men like us.  Conditions were near perfect for fast ocean racing and we were all in good spirits.  We then heard a later forecast giving us winds of Force 10 and more, and the seas were getting up.  The sunset was a weird mixture of colours a strange, spectacular ochre sky and we could all feel a strange pressure; the sea was being pressed down.  Fortunately my seaman’s instinct kicked in and I managed the talk the Owner/Skipper into deviating slightly into the Western Approaches to get some sea room.  A storm of an unimaginable force got up, one of such power that it brought to mind a seismic sea that I had been caught in on a cargo boat, when I was a youngster in the seas off Japan.  I thought that I was about to die on that occasion too.

Our radio was going mad with distress calls as vessels were scattered in the storm’s path like so much flotsam.  One after another, boats sank or capsized as the storm raged unabated.  The seas got up so big, they appeared to be like sixty feet high cliffs above our mast.  We were making some six knots under bare poles and rolling violently as the seas broke in all directions.  The noise was deafening like an on-coming steam train . . . . . . . here we go again…….What the #@&* am I doing here? . . . . . We thought that we had weathered the worst as dawn broke, when there was what sounded like an explosion and our steering gear gave way.  I looked over the stern and saw our rudder disappearing in the direction of Finistere.

The radio continued though the night, with hundreds of distress calls.  Fellow competitors were overturned, dismasted, sinking, – crews in life rafts.  We realised that we were going to have to be responsible for our own survival.  After a quick ‘Chinese Parliament’ we turned for the Welsh coast after hoisting a storm jib, picked up our skirts and ran before the wind like a scalded cat.  Steering with the Jib sail, thank God we had made the right decision.  There are no heathens in a lifeboat . . . . . All we had to do was pray and keep pumping the bilges.  We scuttled into Milford Haven where we were thankfully met by the Harbour Master and safely berthed.

Listening to the distress channel we couldn’t believe just how lucky we had been. Apparently during the worst of the storm the barometer plunged to the second lowest reading around the British Isles in 150 years.  The 1979 Fastnet was the worst disaster in offshore racing history, with 15 competitors dying along with six other yachtsmen who were not taking part in the race.  Only 83 boats out of the 303 fleet made it back to the Solent.

Our ‘butcher’s bill for the voyage apart from damage to the yacht was light by comparison.  A broken collarbone, a broken finger and a broken thumb.  I whacked my nose on the hatch combing.  When we had tied up safely, the Owner/Skipper moaned at me for dripping blood from my nose all over his charts.  Our hysterical laughter must have confirmed to the concerned onlookers that the whole crew were completely mad.  I confirmed this to myself when less than a year later I found myself skippering another yacht, clawing ourselves off Le Casquettes Rocks in a Force 9 gale thinking . . . .”What the #@&* am I doing here?”……..  The worst of it is thirty three years on, I still keep doing it.



About Jake

Long retired travel writer, author and freelance journalist. Educated at Wolverton Grammar and Greenwich Naval College. Happily married since 1958, with a married son and daughter, a married granddaughter and an adult grandson. Hobbies rock-climbing, dinghy racing and ocean racing. Still regularly working out in the gym.
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