Finding triumph in disaster – Fastnet ’79

Cowes Week may be the highlight of the British sailing calendar, but it’s a significantly different event every second year, when it culminates in the launch of the world-famous biennial Fastnet Race.

Famous names to have sailed across the Solent start line over the years have included former Prime Minister Ted Heath, American media mogul Ted Turner and Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon. The race’s 600 nautical mile route takes competitors into the English Channel, across the Celtic Sea, round Fastnet Rock then back to Plymouth via the Scilly Isles. It usually takes the winning crew two to three days to complete the course.

The 1979 race was expected to attract about the same level of attention as all the others that had preceded it – a loyal following from the yachting fraternity at the launch, some mild curiosity from the rest of the Isle of Wight, and barely a byline from anywhere else. Instead it went on to become the most notorious disaster in British yachting history.

By noon on Monday 13th August the leading yachts had rounded the Fastnet Rock and were on their way back. The shipping forecast predicted south-westerly winds at force 4 to 5, increasing to force 6 or 7 for a time. By late afternoon that had been revised to a warning of gale force 8 winds. Most of the skippers missed that forecast. A later revision for an imminent severe force 9 gale never made it to the BBC studio in time for the evening shipping forecast.

The fleet of 303 yachts and their crews taking part in the Fastnet Race sailed on into the night, unaware of what was coming their way. But even the latest dire warning was wrong. By the middle of the night, many of the helpless racers found themselves stuck in the heart of a raging storm force 10 gale.

Jerry Grayson

In August 1979 Jerry Grayson was not yet thirty, but already nearing the end of his time in the Royal Navy. After he spent the early part of his military career flying helicopters from aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal he transferred to Culdrose airbase in Cornwall and joined the Search and Rescue squadron based there. Day to day his job revolved around picking up people stranded on cliff faces or giving dramatic fly pasts for local fetes that were hard to spot from the air.

Jerry headed to Culdrose for the early shift on Tuesday 14th, arriving at 3.30am to be told of reports coming in of several yachts taking part in the Fastnet Race which had run into trouble around the Scillies. ‘What race?’ Jerry asked. By the end of the following night it’s not a question he would ever need to ask again.

As Jerry and his crew took to the air and flew into the night, the radio went haywire. One helicopter after another was being scrambled from Culdrose, all heading in the same direction. The Coastguard emergency channel was also going berserk, with yacht after yacht issuing emergency Mayday calls and crying for immediate assistance.

Jerry had been expecting to help a few stranded sailors aground in the Scillies. Instead he and his crew were flying into 70mph winds, and were going to airlift people from yachts foundering in the troughs of waves that crested 40ft above.

Jerry and his crew were used to hovering at only 15ft when lifting people to safety.

But they managed it anyway, because they had to. Flying through the night, returning to Culdrose when his helicopter was running on little more than fumes, refuelling, then heading back out to pick up more, Jerry helped save grateful sailors who knew they owed their lives to the risks the Search and Rescue personnel were taking.

Some of the yachts that took part in the race were able to escape the worst of the storm and retire in time to avoid the disaster. Of the remainder, caught in the worst of it, 75 capsized, and several were lost altogether. Jerry was one of 4,000 people involved that night in what became the biggest rescue effort since Dunkirk, and the largest peacetime rescue in our history. Eighteen people died, of which three weren’t competitors – they were rescuers. For his gallantry, Jerry was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Rescue Pilot

Jerry has written all about his varied experiences in the job in his book, Rescue Pilot, which is now available in paperback (ISBN 978-1-4729-1794-2). It has an RRP of £8.99 but you can buy it with a special 10% discount direct from the Bloomsbury website here.

Last year Jerry also took part in this BBC Radio Four special reuniting people involved in the Fastnet disaster. There he met Nick Ward (pictured below, with Jerry, left), the last sailor to be picked up alive during the storm after being abandoned by his crewmates (a story he related in our book Left for Dead, also available at a special discount from the Bloomsbury website here).

Jerry and Nick Ward

The loss of the Lancastria – Britain’s worst maritime disaster

17th June 1940. The Nazis had occupied Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was over. The last of the Little Ships had long returned to England. As far as many in Britain were concerned, the evacuation was over, and the British Army survived largely intact to fight another day.

However, over 200,000 British personnel remained in France, stuck in an ever-shrinking pocket of unoccupied Europe as the German military closed in. There was a rush for St Nazaire, where ships waited off the coast, with small boats ferrying people out of the shallows of the Loire estuary. Operation Ariel was not just about evacuating the remaining troops, but also civilian staff and their families. This was even more urgent than the retreat from Dunkirk. Once Operation Ariel was over, any British people who remained in Europe would be stuck there until the end of the war.

One of the ships waiting at St Nazaire was the liner RMS Lancastria, which could have gone on to be remembered for bringing up to 9,000 evacuees back to Britain. Instead she went on to suffer the deadliest disaster in British maritime history, which would hardly be remembered at all.

The Lancastria (image: Royal Pioneer Corps website)

By late evening on 16th June, the queue to get on to a ship at St Nazaire was 5 miles long. The Lancastria reached the Loire estuary at 4am the next morning, but had to anchor miles offshore rather than risk running aground by getting any closer. Royal Navy officers told her captain, Rudolph Sharp, to take as many people as he could fit. All he could do was sit and wait whilst the evacuees were brought out to his ship. The first arrived at 7am. Sharp expected 3,000 in total, which was already over the legal limit of 2,200.

The Lancastria‘s stewards lost count after 6,000 came aboard. By the time Sharp decided to refuse any more at 2pm, estimates for the number aboard range from a minimum of 7,500 to in excess of 9,000 souls. The last to board couldn’t even get below decks. They would have to spend the journey squeezed onto the open deck. Lifejackets had long since run out too.

The first German bombers had appeared at about 1.50pm but Sharp was more worried about submarines. He was planning to leave in convoy at 4pm, but at 3.48pm several Luftwaffe Junkers attacked the ship. Three bombs landed direct hits in holds 2, 3 and 4. Some 800 RAF personnel were crowded into hold 2 and most were killed instantly.

The bomb that hit hold 4 tore a hole in the hull beneath the waterline. Sharp made it to the bridge and saw a rush of white water bursting up through the middle of the ship. The Lancastria was going down by the head and listing further to starboard. Sharp gave the order to abandon ship.

The Lancastria going down by the head (image: Lancastria Association of Scotland)

Unfortunately his order would struggle to circulate on a vessel overcrowded to perhaps more than four times capacity. Thousands were trapped below decks in chaos as the lights flickered on and off. Passages had been destroyed by the explosions, and were now filled with smoke or boiling-hot steam from burst pipes, and exits were blocked by fire.

The ship was listing so badly to starboard that people jumping from the port side had a potentially lethal fall of 70ft to the water. Meanwhile on the starboard side people could step off into the sea. The crowds pouring on to the top deck had made the ship top heavy.

Yet deep down in the bowels of the ship, there was a very orderly evacuation taking place. A Catholic priest, Father Charles McMenemy, who had been in France to serve as chaplain to the troops, led men through ankle-deep waters at the bottom of the ship until they found a way out through the side, only a few feet above the waterline.

That was one of the rare stories of survival from those trapped below decks. As the ship slipped deeper into the water, there was a crush on the wooden staircase. It collapsed from the weight of too many people trying to climb it at the same time. There wasn’t enough to time for those stuck at the bottom to find another way out, and the passages were too crowded anyway. The water was rising so rapidly now that none of those people had any hope for survival.

The Lancastria took only 20 minutes to sink, in which time only two lifeboats were launched successfully. When the ship rolled over, many climbed onto her capsized hull. Some found dry cigarettes and smoked them whilst there was still time. Others joined in songs, including There’ll Always Be an England. When the ship finally sank, thousands were left floating in the water. Other ships taking part in Operation Ariel were already overladen, but more than 2,500 people from the Lancastria were saved.

The Lancastria after capsizing (image: BBC)

The first five weeks of his premiership came to define Winston Churchill’s entire career. Three of the four speeches for which he is most famous were delivered in little over a month. Churchill knew that many in Britain doubted the country’s ability to resist a Nazi invasion. All of Europe already lay at Hitler’s feet. However, Churchill knew that a lack of self-belief now would only help ensure defeat.

So Dunkirk was recast, mythologised immediately into a great success that ensured Britain had the means to fight on. The fact that so many more British personnel remained stuck on the continent afterwards was not publicised, and the loss of the Lancastria would have been a new and wholly demoralising end to the victorious Dunkirk story. If the upper estimates of the number of fatalities are accurate, then the military personnel lost aboard the Lancastria represented about a third of all British casualties since the declaration of war the previous September. The government issued a D-Notice, an official request to the press not to cover a story if it was in the national interest not to do so. At the time, all of the newspapers obliged.

The British government accepts that 1,700 died – 200 more than died when the Titanic sank. This number includes all those who can unequivocally be proved to have been lost when the ship sank. Meanwhile the memorial at St Nazaire commemorates 4,000. The actual figure could be several thousand higher than that precisely because nobody is sure just how many people went uncounted when they boarded. The British government’s files on the disaster were sealed for 100 years, so the extent of their knowledge won’t be revealed until 2040. Only then will we perhaps know the true scale of Britain’s worst maritime disaster.

You can read more about the Lancastria and other deadly maritime disasters – many of them similarly little known – in our book, Final Voyage: The World’s Worst Maritime Disasters (ISBN 978-1-4081-5894-4, RRP £8.99). If you buy it direct from the Bloomsbury website you will get a 10% discount:

How the all-seeing airship saved the Royal Navy in the First World War

Bloomsbury Publishing recently acquired Conway, the leading publisher of maritime and military history. Sitting beside Adlard Coles Nautical, Conway makes Bloomsbury the foremost publisher of books related to maritime subjects, from practical sailing handbooks to guides to warships past and present. To celebrate the arrival of our new sister imprint, we feature this blog from Conway author John Swinfield.

In the age of the unmanned drone, the role of its pioneer predecessor is easily overlooked. The early airship had a crucial, largely unheralded role in the First World War. Its task was that of Navy escort, reconnaissance craft and U-boat spotter – functions it performed with élan.

The growth in the Great War airship service was rapid. In 1914 the Admiralty had seven airships, with one in disrepair. It might have been marginally more; records are incomplete. By 1918 it had 225 airships. As the numbers of airships grew, so did the hours spent on patrol. In 1914–15 they sailed for 3,000 hours. In 1917, with German U-boats causing mayhem, the figure leaped to 22,000 hours. In 1918 it was 56,000 hours.

Unfettered U-boat warfare, which led to maritime carnage, threatened to starve Britain into submission, choking off its sea lanes and vital supplies. The Great War strategy had parallels with the U-boat menace in the Second World War, when, again, German submarines brought Britain perilously close to the edge of calamity.

Airship SSZ 37 guards a British warship (Photo: Imperial War Museum/Wikipedia)

In the First World War, as in the Second, it is acknowledged that the Admiralty’s eventual institution of the convoy system would become key to thwarting the U-boat danger. Less appreciated, however, is that in the First World War, it was the aerial guard provided by airships which discouraged U-boats from getting within striking distance of a target.

It was usual for U-boats to immediately dive on seeing an airship. As with the submarine, the airship induced a terror in excess of its capability; nobody knows how many U-boat attacks were deterred by the presence of an airship, but it’s likely to have been considerable.

There are examples of airships bombing U-boats, some with success; in the main, though, their bombing was woefully inaccurate. In acting as the eyes of the surface navy, however, they were highly effective. They could stay aloft for hours; their range exceeded aeroplanes of the time; they were swifter than surface ships, and far more so than submarines. Doughty crews, often blue with cold in their open gondolas, could see to the furthest horizon, far in excess of anything possible by a surface reconnaissance craft. Aviation was still in its infancy, with breakdowns being commonplace; but airships, when judged by the standards of the time, proved relatively reliable.

Early submarines sometimes lay just under the surface, their dive capacity being limited. This left a tell-tale impression on the surface, especially when viewed by an airship close to or directly overhead. They were further hampered by being slow to dive, which again made them vulnerable to sharp-eyed spotters in a dirigible.

Early submarines were frail and, as with aeroplanes, prone to breakdown. Repairs had sometimes to be conducted on the surface, making the craft highly vulnerable to both surface and aerial bombardment. A crippled submarine stationary on the surface was a sitting duck. It usually had very limited deck armoury and was ripe for attack from the air by an airship. In the main, rather than trying to bomb them, it was likely that the airship would direct a warship to the location, which would then administer the coup de grace.

Emphasis was given to airships by Jacky Fisher, the volatile reforming admiral who kicked Britain’s fossilised Victorian navy into an effective force. Fisher’s creation of the big-gun Dreadnought battleship, which spelled virtual obsolescence for most competitor types, was far from his sole contribution. He was an enthusiastic supporter of what I have termed the ‘new arsenal’, to the resentment of his more crusty peers, those not in Fisher’s famous ‘fish-pond’, a coterie of progressive (it is alleged) naval thinkers.

Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher

Fisher overcame his initial suspicions of the submarine, something widely felt in the Navy. His doubts were quelled by one of his favourite officers, the cerebral, cautious, sometimes controversial, Reginald Bacon. Bacon would become the first leader of Britain’s fledgling submarine service and, subsequently, the first captain of Fisher’s much-vaunted Dreadnought.

Fisher became an eager backer of mines, torpedoes, submarines and airships: the ‘new arsenal’. Once persuaded of their merit, he would throw himself into their promotion with a characteristic, messianic gusto. His endorsement was cardinal. Fisher was one of the few influential voices in support of the airship. As with the submarine, the military airship was subject to a sustained level of derision and disdain, much of it emanating from naval grandees.

Fisher initially saw the submarine as an addendum to the Fleet; an oddly eccentric bolt-on to be deployed primarily for home defence and harbour protection. Later, he recognised it as a weapon at its most deadly when it was unleashed, stealthily tracking its prey in distant waters, unfettered by Navy chaperones.

As the conflict dragged on, draining government coffers as wars do, the Navy needed new reconnaissance craft to help counter the worsening U-boat threat. But the money was running out. It couldn’t afford them.

Airships were a plausible alternative. Inexpensive and quick to build, they were cheap to fuel, run and crew. Sometimes, though, a small army of ground handlers were needed. This was especially so as ships grew bigger. In trying to tether airships which had become wayward through capricious winds, all types of hold-fasts were tried – from elephants (so it’s said, but I’ve never found much proof) to obsolete military tanks. Such was the phenomenal lifting capacity of an airship.

The First World War saw a frenetic period of development. A diversity of new airship types were built, each successively more capable. A total of 41 airship bases and smaller mooring-out sites were constructed across Britain. Airships sailed on near non-stop missions, covering two million miles in the First World War, sailing for almost 90,000 hours.

While the submarine grew into one of the world’s most potent weapons, the airship is scorched into the pages of maritime and aviation history. Those which came to grief were the leviathans which came later: Britain’s ill-fated R101, and the German Hindenburg, whose fiery pyre effectively finished world airship production. First World War airships, with a different role to the intercontinental behemoths which followed them, were undoubtedly far more primitive, but markedly effective.

A century on and the European and US airship industry is stirring once more. Myriad manned and unmanned craft are being developed. Today’s creations bristle with innovative electronics. Their designers are following in illustrious footsteps.

John Swinfield is the author of Airship: Design, Development & Disaster, first published by Conway in 2013. You can buy it through all good high street and online retailers, or direct from us here:

Remembering Fastnet – 35 years on

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.

Image from Daily Mail

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.

Image from Daily Echo

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.

Reappraising the mutiny on board HMS Bounty

In late December 1787, HMS Bounty set sail for Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, a 33-year-old career sailor who had voyaged to the far reaches of the Pacific with Captain Cook and served with distinction during several sea battles against the Dutch in the American War of Independence. Today he is known only for what happened aboard the Bounty – in April 1789 roughly half of the crew mutinied against Bligh, cast him adrift and sailed away with the ship.

Most of what we know about the mutiny comes from Bligh’s own account, in which he gives notably less space to the possible grievances that may have led to the mutiny than he does the adventure he had afterwards. After all, he and his loyal crew were cast adrift in a 23ft (7m) open launch, thousands of miles from the nearest colonial outpost, with insufficient supplies to last. Due to Bligh’s seamanship, however, he and his loyal crew sailed over 3,500 nautical miles to Timor, and almost all of them lived long enough to see England again.

The mutiny on board HMS Bounty

Meanwhile the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and then some of them continued on to Pitcairn, where they scuttled the ship. Many of their descendants continue to live on the island to this day.

Even at the time, however, William Bligh’s account raised questions and doubts. The leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, was no press-ganged pauper turned pirate. Indeed, his brother Edward was a lawyer, and following the court martial of half the mutineers (and the executions of three of them), plus the complete legal exoneration of Bligh, Edward Christian began his own investigation.

He talked to acquitted mutineers and even some of the crewmen who had remained loyal to Bligh. He published a diplomatically-worded but still highly critical alternative to Bligh’s account, which began a tit for tat back and forth reappraisal of the mutiny played out in public, full of implicit insinuation and apparent contradiction from both sides.

Today Bligh’s account still remains most well known, but read together with Edward Christian’s reports, the fascinating story really comes to life. For this reason in our brand new edition of Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty, we have decided to publish them together, allowing readers to make up their own minds.

An inaugural title in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty features new maps and a special Foreword by world-class yachtsman and racing sailor Pete Goss, in which he describes his own experience of a collapse in captain-crew relations as he explores the grey areas surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty.

Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

A feat of endurance – Shackleton’s greatest hour, 100 years on

Today is 100 years to the day since Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance left Plymouth, bound for the Antarctic. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was supposed to take several months. Instead it would be almost three years before he returned to England.

Shackleton had been part of Robert Falcon Scott’s first but unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole, and after Roald Amundsen managed to do it, Shackleton set his sights on a new goal: crossing the entire Antarctic continent from sea to sea via the pole. He took two ships. The Endurance would carry the expeditionary party to the Weddell Sea. The Aurora would travel to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent and her crew would then work inland, laying supply depots for the expeditionary party from the Endurance.

It all went infamously disastrously wrong. The Endurance became trapped in pack ice and drifted for months. Eventually the ice crushed the ship and all 28 men were stranded on the floe. They survived for some time in shelters made from salvaged material from the Endurance, and by supplementing their rations with penguin meat. Shackleton realised, however, that in the long term their prospects looked grim. So he took several men and set out in an uncovered lifeboat, sailing through freezing temperatures and stormy seas to summon help at South Georgia.

The Endurance trapped in pack ice, shortly before she sank.

The Expedition almost hadn’t happened at all. Britain declared war on Germany only a few days before departure and Shackleton offered to put both ships and their crews at the Admiralty’s disposal. The First Lord thereof (a certain Winston Churchill) responded that that wouldn’t be necessary. When Shackleton reached South Georgia, one of the first questions he asked the whalers was when the war ended. Over two and a half years after he left England, he learnt the war hadn’t been over by Christmas after all.

Shackleton later wrote an authoritative account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, detailing not only what went wrong, but also how all of the Endurance’s crew managed to survive – truly living up to their vessel’s name.

In time for the centenary we have republished South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance as part of our new series of Adlard Coles Maritime Classics. Our edition includes new maps and a Foreword by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, in which he uses his own experiences in the Antarctic to reflect upon Shackleton’s courage and leadership.


Adlard Coles Maritime Classics is a new series celebrating the best of maritime writing, both fiction and non-fiction, containing new Forewords by leading figures. Three other books in the series are published this month:
The Sea Wolf (Jack London; Foreword by Bear Grylls)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne; Foreword by Miranda Krestovnikoff)
Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh; Foreword by Pete Goss)

Next year we will be publishing two more:
Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe; Foreword by Ray Mears)
Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad; Foreword by Bruce Parry)

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?