Hundreds are expected to gather in Holy Trinity Church, Cowes, behind the Royal Yacht Squadron on Wednesday August 5th at 17.30hrs to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Fastnet Race tragedy of 1979. The names of the fifteen sailors who lost their lives will be read out during the ceremony. The tragedy resulted in one of the biggest peacetime co-ordinated search and rescue operations taking place.
The 605 mile race started on August 11th, 1979. By August 13th winds were reported at force 6 with gusts of force 7. Forecasters were predicting winds of force 8. The leading boat Jim Kilroy’s Kialoa was on course to break the Fastnet record set eight years earlier but was overtaken at the Fastnet by Sir Peter Blakes Condor of Bermuda who gained around 90 minutes on the leader. However, the headlines the following day were not to be about time gains or losses.
Over August 13th – 14th 25 of the 306 yachts taking part were sunk or disabled due to high winds and mountainous seas. The Daily Telegraph of 15th August1979 described the situation where Royal Navy ships, RAF Nimrod jets, helicopters, lifeboats, a Dutch Warship, the Irish Naval Service led by the L.E. Deirdre, and other craft picked up 125 yachtsmen whose boats had been caught in the force 11 violent storm gusts midway between Land’s End and the Fastnet. The effort also included tugs, trawlers, and tankers. Rescue efforts began after 6.30 a.m. on 14th August once the winds had dropped to severe gale force 9. The biggest and fastest boats, were back in safer waters before the storm hit slower boats which had either to turn and try to run, or go into survival mode.
After the event the shape of offshore yacht racing worldwide was changed, and new special regulations were introduced which limited the number of yachts competing in the Fastnet race to 300. It became mandatory for all yachts to be equipped with a VHF radio and qualifications for competing were also brought in. In 1983 restrictions on electronic navigational aids were also lifted. The race is still considered a supreme challenge for racing yachtsmen or women and is regarded as one of the toughest contests in the sport.
This year’s Fastnet race will commence on August 9th and all boats will be fitted with OC trackers and we will be able to watch the race as it unfolds. There are a number of Irish competitors including Darren Nicholson in Black Jack (Pocock 38), Fergus Ryan in Caper (Seafarer 48), Cian McCarthy (Class 4) Anthony M. Tennyson in Galileo (First 47,7), Mark Dicker in Whisper (Southern Wind 78) and an entry in the double handed class, Michael Murphy and Alex Voye.