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

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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.