Fastnet disaster 40 years on: 'We were lucky, many who left their boats lost their lives'
The 1979 Fastnet yacht race claimed the lives of 19 people as crews battled a raging storm. Forty years on, Lorna Siggins speaks to survivors
Sally O'Leary had a sense that something was up when the piece of beef she was roasting flew across the cabin. She had barely opened the oven door in the galley of Yeoman XX1, a 14-metre yacht competing in the 1979 Fastnet Race, when the hull broached violently.
The roast somersaulted out, landing "right in the middle of the Irish Sea on the Admiralty chart for the course..."
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
"I remember our navigator Peter Nicholson saying 'Sal, I think we will put that back in the oven for now", and sure enough, we didn't get to eat that beef til several days later."
The intervening 48 hours from the evening of August 13, 1979 were ones that O'Leary and many of the competitors in that leg of the Admiral's Cup series won't forget as a summer storm tore across the Atlantic from Newfoundland.
At the time, there were almost 3,000 recreational sailors at sea, scattered between the Isles of Scilly and the Fastnet lighthouse off south-west Cork - some competing and many following the 605-nautical mile course starting from the Isle of Wight and finishing in Plymouth.
There were no satellite navigation systems, no mobile phones, no real-time weather forecasting, minimal safety equipment on some spectator yachts - and not every vessel had a VHF radio.
O'Leary, now living in Cork, was one of the few female participants, competing with her father, Robin Aisher, an Olympic medal winner and previous member of the British Admiral's Cup team.
"We were about five miles south-east of the Fastnet at about midnight when the mainsail split high up on the mast," O'Leary recalls. "We stitched it, put it back up and it ripped again.
"At that point, Dad decided it was too dangerous to round the rock without suitable sails, so we turned back for Plymouth with bare poles [no sails up], two people gripping the tiller on deck due to the force of the seas, and the rest of us down below [deck]."
Even now, 40 years later, she can remember the constant traffic on the radio, with reports of crews in distress and the clipped tones of Royal Navy and RAF helicopter pilots, RNLI coxswains, nearby ships and Valentia coast guard radio operators, all handling a full-scale maritime emergency.
"We would hear the names of boats we knew well - Golden Apple, Silver Apple - having to abandon ship. It was only when we got back to Plymouth that we learned of the scale of the disaster, and that so many had lost their lives," she says.
The official death toll of 15 would rise to 19, with all names recorded on a memorial stone on Cape Clear island, Co Cork. Two of those who died, David Sheahan and Gerald Winks, were originally from Ireland. Their crew mate Nick Ward on the half-tonner Grimalkin was so traumatised that it took him 27 years to record his account of being "left for dead" with Winks on their dismasted boat in the middle of the Irish Sea.
As Ward wrote, Grimalkin had picked up the French forecast which had first warned of a change in conditions during the race, with winds of between force 8 and 10 forecast. As the official inquiry would confirm later, the British meteorological office had issued its first two gale warnings just too late for inclusion in shipping forecasts.
Neil Kenefick was on board the 13 metre (44ft) Golden Apple, one of those fleet leaders and one of three yachts on the Irish Admiral's Cup team. Its owner, the late marine minister and Cork businessman Hugh Coveney (see panel) and designer Ron Holland were among the 10 crew, along with skipper Harold Cudmore and Rodney Patterson, an Olympic medallist.
A gamble with disaster
"We were making great speed... We were within five nautical miles of rounding the Fastnet and a sudden wind change came through in our favour, shifting from south-west to north-west," Kenefick recalls.
"We rounded Fastnet Rock, sailing through a sea of foam, and the loom of the light spinning around in a ball of spray, a sight I will never forget," Kenefick says.
As his crew mate Ron Holland has recounted in his autobiography, steering Golden Apple had "become a gamble with disaster... you'd to treat the boat as though she were a 15-ton surfboard. You'd to angle her down the wave so she didn't bury her nose in the bottom of the trough, or she might somersault stern over bow."
This somersault, known as pitchpoling, was what every yacht at sea now feared. Golden Apple had a carbon fibre rudder - a new material at the time, strong but light. It fractured, and four hours later it broke. A "jury" or temporary rudder "broke like a matchstick", Kenefick says, and after long discussion, a "pan-pan" alert was issued over the VHF.
"A British Royal Navy helicopter flew over us and advised that if we were going to leave, we should do so now. We were just off Bishop Rock [off the Isles of Scilly]. The yacht was out of control with no rudder, on a lee shore, and the helicopter couldn't hover over it at the risk of hitting the mast. So we launched the life-raft," he says.
"The yacht was falling over on top of the raft, so the helicopter pilot, Jerry Grayson - who would later win an award for three days of rescues - threw his chopper sideways to blow it off.
"We were lucky, as many of those who left their boats, and got into life-rafts lost their lives, whereas those who stayed with their boat had a better chance of being rescued," Kenefick says.
"Like a coffin," is how Cork-born sailor Kevin Burke, now living in Howth, Co Dublin remember the first night of the storm, as hatches were battened down on Rapparee, a nine-metre (30ft) Shamrock, also designed by Ron Holland.
"We were one of 18 Irish boats which had entered, and we were right bang in the middle of it," Burke says.
"We capsized twice, and I remember one of the crew going overboard and somehow we got him back in, but there was an element of "every man for himself" because this was survival," he says.
"When we rolled back up again after the first capsize, the cabin was awash with teabags, coffee, Mars Bars... and we were looking at each other, and wondering if we would all see each other in the morning.
"We had a handheld Motorola radio, an RAF helicopter flew over... the pilot told us there was nothing he could do for us right then as he had a body to pick up... that was when we realised how serious it all was.
"There was no bravado, no heroics, but at one point I dragged myself up to the cooker, tied myself to it, and peeled and cooked potatoes. I mashed the potatoes, mixed in a tin of corned beef... but all I did was make everyone else feel much sicker than they were."
As the 50-knot winds began to abate ever so slightly that dawn, Rapparee's skipper Brian Kelly got a brief sunsight through his sextant which gave a position, and they made it to Dunmore East, Co Waterford. By then, the rescue effort with every available craft was under way. Among the yachts towed to safety was Morning Cloud, owned and skippered by former British prime minister Edward Heath.
"People say what is a bad sea - you can't draw a picture of a big sea. There are no words," says Burke, who is organising a reunion for all of those Irish Fastnet 79 survivors in Howth Yacht Club this October.
Last night, on the eve of this year's Fastnet Race start, the names of the fatalities were read out at an anniversary service hosted by the Royal Ocean Racing Club in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Among those invited over were Commissioners of Irish Lights attendant keeper Gerald Butler, who was on the Fastnet that night with Reggie Sugrue and Louis Cronin.
Butler, author of The Lightkeeper, says that the day had begun with a thick fog which cleared in an "unusual sort of way", and a flat calm sea with a "cat's paw" wind, which was constantly shifting direction.
When a woman named Mrs Good rang the lighthouse to check if her boat could come out to the rock to view the approaching yacht race, he advised against it. He also alerted the RNLI Baltimore lifeboat when a press boat appeared to vanish en route into Cape Clear for shelter. It was later located in Long Island sound.
Storm force 10
"By midnight, it was storm force 10 and we started sounding the foghorn. We were listening constantly on the distress frequency, and trying to record the numbers on sails from the balcony by shining an Aldis lamp, used for Morse code with ships. We would then radio that information into Mizen Head who would pass it on to the race organisers.
"The sea was rising to within five metres of the lighthouse balcony at times. We had the doors and windows all barricaded.
"The Fastnet was built to flex within a metre off centre, and we would experience that fairly frequently in winter... but this was a summer storm.
"When it was over, the telephone rang again and it was Mrs Good, to say thank you for the warning."
For Sally O'Leary, the real heroes were the rescuers, including Kieran Cotter, who is now RNLI Baltimore lifeboat coxswain but was then a crew member with coxswain Christy Collins. Along with Baltimore, lifeboat crews from Ballycotton, Courtmacsherry and Dunmore East spent 75 hours at sea.
"We were called out after that first call from the Fastnet for a press boat which managed to shelter in the Long Island sound," Cotter says. "We were on Cape Clear when we heard about a yacht named Regardless, owned by Cork businessman Ken Rohan, which had broken its rudder four miles south-east of Fastnet. The Naval Service patrol ship LÉ Deirdre managed to locate it, and we took it in tow, but the tow broke five times.
"After we got it to Baltimore, we got a call for a yacht named Marionette," Cotter says. "We left at 9am and it was mid-afternoon before we found it. I met up with one of the crew recently for the first time in 40 years..."
LÉ Deirdre also played a major role in the rescue, along with the Dutch frigate escorting the race, the RNLI, RAF helicopters and other vessels in the area, including the Irish Continental Line ferry, St Killian.
LÉ Deirdre's commander John Kavanagh had returned to his cabin on that Monday night of August 13 to find that the barograph trace measuring atmospheric pressure had taken a dramatic dive.
"Just looking for masts was like looking for twigs against the horizon," Kavanagh recalled in an interview some years ago.
The official inquiry led to stricter entry conditions governing yacht design and safety, and technology has revolutionised offshore sailing.
Sally O'Leary, who has done many round-Ireland races since, and whose husband Anthony and three sons have won many awards, visited the Fastnet light last year. By sheer coincidence, the keeper who was out there for work on the light conversion was none other than Gerald Butler...
Tánaiste remembers father's dramatic rescue in Fastnet 79
Tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney was a seven-year-old boy sitting in car with his older brother Patrick (9) when he remembers watching his mother's reactions as news came over the radio.
His father Hugh (above) was at sea, competing in the 1979 Fastnet yacht race as part of a leading Irish Admiral's Cup team.
"So we were hearing on the radio that the storm was more ferocious than had been predicted. With no mobile phones, there was no way of understanding what was happening on individual boats," he says.
"I can remember the strain on my mother as she was trying to get information. The rescue my dad's boat was involved in was particularly dramatic... it was a very traumatic 24 hours. "My father talked a little bit, but it was a very tragic race so there was never any attempt by him to 'big up' the drama, because so many lost their lives, and clearly people were very traumatised by what happened.
"Ironically, my dad drowned [off Robert's Cove, Co Cork] when we were in the middle of the Pacific in March 1998, and that is not lost on people," Coveney says, recalling how he and four of his siblings were "halfway round the world" on a fundraising circumnavigation for the Chernobyl Children's Trust at the time.
The intense co-operation by Britain and Ireland during the Fastnet rescue is not lost on the minister now handling Ireland's Brexit response.
"Fastnet '79 really was an extraordinary event... it became an important milestone for maritime safety... and a moment in time which changed the face of both leisure and competitive sailing," he adds.