Every two years since 1925 (with the obvious exception of 1941 to 1945), yachts have set sail from Cowes on a 608-mile (1,126km) race which finishes in Plymouth, but whose course goes via the Irish islet that gives the race its name – Fastnet.
The 28th Fastnet Yacht Race left Cowes on 11th August 1979. It had 306 yachts taking part, and competitors included Sir Peter Blake, the founder of CNN Ted Turner and former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who was still secretly smarting from what his arch rival and successor as Conservative leader had managed to pull off earlier that summer. Out of the 306 yachts that started, however, only 86 finished. The 1979 Fastnet Race was the one that took a sporting event from the back pages to the front.
As the race started, weather forecasts predicted reasonably steady Force 4 or 5 winds, rising to Force 6 or 7 for a while. A large depression had formed over the Atlantic but was expected to miss the southern coast of Ireland by hundreds of miles. By the time it took a sharp and rapid turn towards the Irish coast and forecasts began predicting Force 8 winds, most of the yachts were already too far out to sea to turn back.
Between the 13th and 14th August, winds reached Force 11. Some 25 yachts were sunk (or otherwise disabled) and abandoned, with 75 turned upside down in mountainous seas. Before rescuers were able to reach the stricken yachts, 15 competitors were killed.
Whilst the winds were still blowing at hurricane force, the largest peacetime rescue operation in history was mounted. Some 4,000 people were involved in a collaborative effort including British, Irish and Dutch personnel, naval vessels and aircraft. The US Navy even sent a ship based out of Scotland to assist. The Royal Navy, RAF and RNLI led the way, sailing and flying into perilous conditions. The death toll would have been even higher had they not, but three rescuers died in the process.
Large-scale disasters of this nature consist of hundreds of individual stories of courage and endurance, such as that of Nick Ward. He was still in his early 20s when he joined the crew of the yacht Grimalkin for the race. They rode the storm as long as they could but were turned over by a massive wave. Nick was knocked unconscious and when he came to he found himself alone on Grimalkin with only one dying crewmate. The liferaft was missing. Nick realised what the others had done. He spent a long day unable to do anything but sit in an uncontrollable boat at the mercy of the storm, hoping for rescue before Grimalkin suffered her final fatal knockdown. Nick’s account, Left for Dead, was published in 2007 and went on to win The Times Sports Book of the Year.
Jerry Grayson, a Royal Navy rescue pilot flying Wessex helicopters out of Cornwall, was also still in his early 20s at the time of the 1979 Fastnet. He was used to picking up injured people from the bottom of cliffs, or even airlifting them from the decks of submarines. But he had never heard of Fastnet. He thought he was flying to look for a couple of yachts and maybe a dozen sailors stranded on a beach in the Scilly Isles.
Instead, as he flew into the storm, the radio went crazy. It seemed like every helicopter from their base was also being sent up. Meanwhile one yacht after another was issuing desperate Mayday calls over emergency channels. For normal rescues, Jerry would hover 15ft in the air. That was always going to be difficult that stormy August morning, however, when waves topped 40ft.
Jerry was one of those directly involved in the rescue effort to receive the Air Force Cross for his actions. He will tell his story in Rescue Pilot, to be published next year.
The 1979 Fastnet Race had consequences that continue to be felt today, and not just for the race itself. The RYA and RORC jointly commissioned an inquiry which thoroughly investigated the safety and performance of small craft, their crews and equipment. It was far-reaching, the definitive report on sailing standards for all offshore sailing, not just racing. It led to significant changes – and most would argue, improvements – to yacht design, safety and equipment.