The Fastnet Disaster: 40 years on
One of yachting’s greatest challenges, the Fastnet Race is always daring, and always demanding, but in 1979 it was the scene of the greatest disaster in ocean racing history.
During the night of Monday 13 August and Tuesday 14 August, storm force winds gusting to hurricane force, struck the south western approaches while the international Fastnet Race fleet of 303 yachts took place.
The race was strung out across the 150 mile stretch of the south Irish Sea between Land's End and the Fastnet Rock, off the south of Ireland. The race had started from Cowes on Saturday August 11; the finish would be at Plymouth.
Although the majority of the yachts weathered the storm and came safe to harbour unaided, 85 of them in fact finishing the race, it was soon known that some were in serious trouble and grave anxiety was felt about the safety of the whole fleet.
Thirteen RNLI lifeboats took part in the massive search and rescue operation, which took place over the next 36 hours, towing in or escorting at least 20 yachts and landing survivors. There was no GPS, no terrestrial navigation, and with many vessels with no radio communications, it meant locating those in trouble was extremely difficult.
Alan Barnes MBE was a navigator on the Falmouth lifeboat crew, which launched on the Tuesday evening and spent an astonishing 38 hours at sea, he said:
‘When we launched we didn’t know what we were going out to or how long we would be out at sea. The conditions were horrendous but all you had to do was concentrate on your job. You would see a glimmer of light each time you went up a wave and then it would be gone, it was almost impossible to see anything.’
Sadly, five boats were ‘lost, believed sunk’,15 sailors drowned and three of the brave rescuers also lost their lives. It is certain that, without the selfless determination of these courageous rescuers it could have been much worse.
At the height of the storm Baltimore lifeboat was at sea for about 24 hours, Courtmacsherry lifeboat for around 22 hours and St Mary’s lifeboat for nearly 21 hours. As well as Falmouth and Sennen Cove lifeboats, Ballycotton, Dunmore East, Lizard, Padstow, St Ives, Angle, Clovelly and Penlee lifeboats also took part in the rescue mission.
Hedley Hutchings was part of the Sennen Cove lifeboat crew who joined the rescue effort on the morning of August 14 and were at sea for almost 12 hours. He recalled:
‘In all the time we were out at sea, we only found one vessel. It’s one of the hardest things to be searching for that length of time and have no way of locating anyone. It sticks in your memory.’
Hedley’s wife Veronica Hutchings had to wait at home not knowing if she would see her husband again. She said:
‘There was no way of us finding out what was happening, when or if they would return. It was such a relief to see him back, he was black and blue where he had been battered around the lifeboat but he was safe and he was home.’
Today, crews have to qualify to take part in ocean races and must have VHF radios, their yachts given more stability and crews are advised to remain with their boat. Huge advances in technology, from GPS to personal locator beacons, have also made an enormous difference to sailor’s safety.
Current St Mary’s Coxswain, Pete Hicks, said: ‘I was at primary school when it happened and I remember the crews were out for hours and hours. But that race changed yacht racing and made it safer.
‘The bravery and skill shown from all the lifeboat crew during this rescue effort is remarkable. To launch in such conditions not knowing what they would face or where to locate those in trouble is the definition of bravery.
‘For those who battled bravely against the elements, for those waiting at home for word of their loved ones, and for those involved in this historic rescue, it remains a painful memory. But that must not and will not be forgotten.’
Fast-forward 40 years and the RNLI volunteers are continuing to help Fastnet sailors in difficulty.
St Mary’s RNLI lifeboat was launched on Wednesday 7 August under the command of coxswain Pete Hicks after a competitor of the 2019 Rolex Fastnet race suffered engine problems. The yacht with five people on board had become be-calmed and there was concern they were drifting close to a rocky area called The Crim.
The lifeboat was launched and secured a tow to the yacht, bringing it back to the safety of St Mary’s Harbour. Conditions were considerably different from that night 40 years ago, with no wind, clear skies and flat calm sea.
Notes to editor:
Please find a selection of photos attached. They show:
· Alan Barnes, Falmouth RNLI coxswain at the time
· The Falmouth RNLI crew which responded
· St Mary’s RNLI Watson class lifeboat on scene assisting the Fastnet yachts
Interviews are available with Alan Barnes. Contact Emma/Ollie below to arrange
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Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.