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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sailing in the deadliest storm of 1979

"The sea showed that it can be a deadly enemy and that those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in full knowledge that they may encounter dangers of the highest order."

The above quote was the conclusion of an inquiry report on the 1979 Fastnet yachting race disaster as reported by Tony Peterson in The Independent today. That case was still "the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing" with these results:
By the time the 1979 Fastnet had officially finished, 15 people had died, five yachts had sunk, 24 crews had abandoned ship and 136 sailors had been rescued.
and
Only 85 boats out of 303 managed to complete the race that year.
Mr. Peterson himself a sailor in that race was on one of the boats that survived. Because he was there, this remembrance article is more of a personal tribute than merely an ordinary newspaper reporting. It was wonderfully written with real feeling. Here's his account on what happened 30 years ago:

The 1979 Fastnet began in fine weather. But within the space of 48 hours it had turned into every sailor's worst imaginable nightmare. The race was hit by a violent Force 10 storm that swept across the North Atlantic and into the southern Irish Sea, catching forecasters almost completely unawares.

For almost 24 hours, the estimated 2,700 men and women crewing the fleet were pounded by monster waves whipped by screaming 60-knot winds. Dozens of boats capsized or lost their rudders. Crews who escaped to what they assumed was the safety of an inflatable life-raft were horrified to discover that their floating shelters simply disintegrated under the force of the waves. Lifeboats, rescue helicopters, merchant ships and the navies of at least three countries were involved in a desperate struggle to save them.

The storm wrought its vengeance in an era which was still without the modern navigational aids that today's sailing legends such as Dame Ellen MacArthur and Samantha Davies take for granted. Thirty years ago, sailors had no recourse to GPS receivers which can pinpoint a yacht's position with a degree of accuracy which allows for an error of a mere 15 feet. Neither could they rely on satellite phones, or sophisticated computerised weather-forecasting techniques, or DSC radios which can relay a yacht's position to a rescue-service command centre at the press of a button.

In many ways, sailing in the late 1970s had barely moved on from the days of Cook and Nelson. Wealthy skippers could afford the expensive Decca receivers used by professional fishermen to find out where they were. But most 1979 Fastnet boats relied on "dead reckoning" – which is simply a calculation based on speed, drift and tide strength – to roughly estimate their position. Their efforts were backed up by inaccurate radio signal bearings transmitted by lighthouses or old-fashioned chronometers and sextants.

Here are more personal accounts:
On the Friday night before the start, the six of us aboard Xara sat on deck and watched the sky bursting with the spectacular firework display that is put on towards the end of each Cowes Week. The weather forecast was good when we slipped across the start line opposite the Royal Yacht Squadron, the following Saturday afternoon. There were breaks in the cloud and the Solent waters had been turned into a mild yet steady chop by a light south-westerly breeze as we tacked out into the channel.

As Saturday merged into Sunday we started to run into patches of mist that hung above the water in great clouds. The gaps between the boats opened up as they continued zig-zagging against the wind down the coast towards Land's End. Then, by dawn on Monday, the wind had died away altogether. We were left rolling on the swell of a mirror-like, deep grey and greasy-looking sea, surrounded by other yachts. Like us they were trying to catch the slightest breath of wind with large, brightly coloured spinnaker sails which hung from mastheads and swished lifelessly into the rigging with each roll of the boat. We did not realise it, but this was simply the "lull before the storm".

Gradually, and out of a rain-sodden sky, the wind began to pick up from the south-west and we began to heel over (or tilt) to the steady breeze that started to carry us north-westwards towards the furthest point of the race – across 150 miles of open sea to "The Rock" as the Fastnet Lighthouse is referred to. Like everyone else, we had picked up the early afternoon shipping forecast on Radio 4. It predicted wind strengths in our area would be between Force 4 and 5 on the Beaufort Scale (ie, a moderate to fresh breeze) increasing to Force 6 or 7 later (moderate to fresh gale). The early evening forecast talked about Force 4 wind strengths increasing to 6, locally Force 8 (fresh gale). The forecasters had been warning about the possibility of gale Force 8 winds on the Monday night – so their prediction was not unexpected. There was no mention, however, of the violent storm that we were blindly sailing into.

Coming on deck from my bunk at around nine o'clock that evening, I was to take the wheel of the yacht, now heeling sharply to strong and occasionally violent gusts and beginning to buck wildly over white-capped waves that sent great lumps of water hurtling across the deck and smacking into the sails. I grabbed the large stainless-steel ship's wheel, and within the space of about 10 minutes, I had worked myself into a mucky sweat inside my oilskin jacket. The wind was increasing unremittingly and I found myself fighting furiously to keep control of the boat which was now forcing its way up into the wind, sails shaking and cracking like gunshots, no matter which way I turned the wheel. "I can't hang on to her, like this!" I remember shouting to the owner. We called below deck for reinforcements. Two came up and we began reefing (or shortening) the mainsail. But the wind was still getting up, it was now getting dark and it was fast becoming clear that this was something far more threatening than the comparatively ordinary Force 8 gale that was forecast to occur locally.

Official photographs which show what the wind does to the sea in all of the Beaufort Scale's wind strengths – from 0 (flat calm) to 12 (hurricane) – are taken from the bridge of a large merchant ship. But the perspective is completely different from the deck of a small boat of between 30 and 50 feet in length. Even photographs or video footage of rough weather at sea actually taken from small boats tends somehow to flatten the waves and give an impression that the weather was not that bad – so experiencing a very rough sea from a small boat for the first time can come as a shock.

Aboard Xara, the shock effect was beginning to grip all of us. It was now pitch black, apart from the loom of the red and green navigation lights which momentarily illuminated the boiling whitecaps. Red compass and instrument-panel lighting gave the crew members' faces a disturbingly Satanic hue. The wind had now started to howl and occasionally scream through the rigging. At the same time it was whipping tennis-ball-sized lumps of luminous green phosphorescence off the tops of the waves which flew across the boat like miniature comets, shooting through the rigging and smacking into the heavily reefed sails.

We had to reduce sail further. The aim was to put up a "stay sail" – a much smaller jib (the triangular foresail on the front of a yacht). We turned the boat downwind and dragged the new sail up from the cabin below, but because we had never practised it before, all attempts to pull the sail up ended in failure. The wind was already so strong that the sheets (or ropes) holding the sail to the boat had become hopelessly entangled like a ball of string toyed with by a cat.

Now we were beginning to see red SOS flares shooting up like Bonfire Night rockets into the sky for a few feet before being whipped horizontal by the wind. It was clear that a lot of other yachts were in trouble, but we could do nothing to help them. We stripped the boat of all sail. I was allowed off watch and fell into an uneasy slumber in a bunk located near the stern of the yacht. I was awoken with a start sometime later by being thrown hard on to the side of the boat. We had been rolled hard over by a big breaker, the top of the mast almost striking the water. Books, blankets, charts, cutlery, glasses, cups and a whole lot more shot on to the already soaking and vomit-spattered cabin floor and slithered back and forward in a heap with each roll. I began to panic and a rush of adrenaline surged through my body leaving me with a headache that stayed with me for hours afterwards.

A grey and threatening dawn lit up the absolute fury of a full-blown storm at sea. From the cockpit of the yacht, the spectacle was almost unbelievable, like something out of a film. It was awesome, frightening and strangely sublime. The biggest thing on earth was wild and angry. The waves towered above us, the size of blocks of flats, streaked with hundred-yard slashes of white spume and topped by boiling masses of breaking foam. We could see a 200-foot-long Irish warship in the distance which kept disappearing completely behind the waves. By now, all the life belts had been washed off the yacht. The wind-speed indicator was off the dial at around 60 knots. Xara wasn't carrying any sail but was going forward at a speed of six knots because of the wind resistance created by the bare mast. We were trying to point into the waves but were crossing them at an angle of about 60 degrees off the wind. In the troughs of the waves the howl of the wind in the rigging dropped to a low moan. The noise increased to scream pitch as we careered to the top of a sea where a boiling crest would smack the yacht like a fist and send it yawing over on to its side. We took turns to sit at the wheel and guide the yacht over these monsters, tethered by lifelines to the boat. The process repeated itself for 10 hours before the wind began to abate, allowing us to put up a tiny storm jib and make for the Irish coast. There we sheltered overnight before going on to complete the race. In all, the storm had lasted a total of 22 hours.

Here's a picture of crews on Camargue being rescued by helicopter:
And here's the dismasted yacht, Ariadne:
Thanks to Mr. Peterson and The Independent for this great documentation of an important historical event: "Hell and high water: The Fastnet disaster."

The Fastnet race of 2009 is due to start again August 5, 2009. God speed and all the best to all!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was in that storm as it crossed the Noht Atlantic. It was a real S.O.B. I was running the scallop vessel Donna Lynn out of Gloucester, Mass and my rcollection is it blew 70 to 100 mph for two and 1/2 days. I think the seas were 30 to 50 foot. I actually think they were twice that but i'm trying not to exagerate. I was on the Norh East part of Georgia's Bank. I remember they gave out storm warnings and I was halfway through my trip and decided to stay. All the New Bedord fleet went in. I remember it was me and two Canadians that were stuck. It drifted 50 miles. my vessel would lay stern too and surf down the waves out of gear. That was the only way that was bearable. I would turn around and head into it but they were rolling at the top. Anyway it was a storm to remember.
Greg Stadlin
Charlottesville, Va

Anonymous said...

typing with out my glasses sorry about the spelling