Articles Fastnet Race 1979

De Fastnet 1979 was dramatic

The Aquarii is a Red Admiral from designer Holman and Pye. The Autonomy is one of the first built Red Admiral’s and participated in the Fastnet 1979. A report of their participation and experiences can be found below.

Autonomy: Fastnet 1979

By Matthew and Frances Power.

After two easy and very slow Fastnets, it came as a great shock to those not taking part to learn of the terrible storm that devastated the racing fleet. Twenty-three yachts were either abandoned or sunk and seventeen yachtsmen lost their lives. It was the worst ocean racing disaster there ever been and its effect will be felt for many years to come.

Frances and I were kindly given berths for the race on board Autonomy belonging to Edward Bourne our Honorary Secretary. Autonomy is the first of a 36 ft Red Admiral class designed by Holman & Pye as a fast competitive cruiser racer, built by Buchan Yachts and launched in 1979. She has accommodation for up to seven and a big saloon and separate aft cabin. Autonomy seemed enormous after Pennyroyal and we all lived very comfortable. The rig is the optional three-quarter with runners, a cap shroud and a lower shroud each side. A babystay, a forstay and a hydraulic backstay make up the rest of the rigging. The large wardrobe of headsails for the varying conditions includes three Genoa’s and a storm jib. three spinnakers, a big buoy and a trisail.
We were, however, very lucky to be on such a well built and dependable boat; nothing structural gave way and there was no serious damage to the mast or rudder. both common casualties on other boats.

The storm only caused superficial damage: the boom and guard-rail stanchion were bent during the knockdown: the mast was slightly bent above the crosstrees; and one of the spinnaker booms, its deck fittings, the dan buoy, helmsman’s seat and radar reflector were all lost.
All the navigational instruments were ruined except for the Homer Heron RDF, and all the wiring has had to be replaced. The instruments at the masthead disintegrated and the mast-collar at the deck disappeared. The rigging appeared to be very slack, although -strangely- we found nothing wrong back in port.
Autonomy was fully fitted with the safety equipment required by the RORC, including an eight-man liferaft, two liferings, dan buoy, a Verey pistol and various different flares. There was also a VHF radio set, but it was saturated after the knockdown and was useless afterwards. Since our return it has had to be replaced.
As a crew we all got on together famously considering our various different experiences in sailing. Between us we had all sailed many thousands of miles in racing dinghies, offshore racers and cruising yachts. We were a mixed bunch but it provided plenty of scope for conversation. During the gale there was no panic, everyone went about his or her task as if there was nothing seriously wrong. Morale remained surprisingly high and we all chatted and joked about the smallest things, but later back in port over a glass of Guinness we all admitted how frightened we had been at the time.

Edward, unfortunately, was prevented from coming on the races at the last minute in spite of having painstakingly chosen such a good crew. His place was taken by Simon Skey and it is to his superb seamanship we owe our lives: if it had not been for him we would not be here to write this.

The people of Dunmore East were very hospitable to us and we owe them a debt we can never properly repay; throughout our short stay there we were constantly invited out and helped by many kind people.
After completing numerous small repairs, such as tightening the rigging and clearing up the shambles below, we left for Lymington with many regrets and with every intention to return. Frances account of the race follows.

The Fastnet race of 1979 will always be remembered as a terrible tragedy. For those of us who escaped relatively unscathed, however, it was, in retrospect, a marvellous experience — but not one to be repeated.
For Matthew and me it was a baptism by fire into offshore racing, and I certainly viewed the race with trepidation, convinced that I would never be able to “grind a winch” fast enough or change a headsail in under a minute! I found that being female was definitely to me advantage — you are not shouted at so much when something goes wrong.
There were eight of us in the crew: four were very experienced ocean racers, the rest cruising people. We cruisers toned down the almost hysterical sailing of the racing men, while the racing men jolted the cruisers out of our lethargy. It later became apparent to me that, in our case, this combination produced a very strong crew.

On Saturday, 11th August 1979 the race began. Class III started at 13.50 and with a westerly wind of fifteen knots we had a very exciting beat to the Needles, at with point the Iager boats who had had a later start were bearing down on us at great speed. Throughout Sunday we sailed in thick fog and on Monday, 13th August 1979 at 12.00 we rounded Land’s End very fast in a south-westerly of about twenty-five knots. The 18.35 that evening, ”S4 locally 6, increasing 6-8 from NW later”, was received well and we looked forward to a decent wind. Under 1.5 Triradial spinnaker and full main, Autonomy was going like a train!

After an enormous stew for supper the watch on entertained the watch below with a selection of songs. At about 21.00 the port spinnaker snap-shackle broke and the spinnaker was rehoisted on the starboard halyard; also two slabs were taken in the main. By 22.00 the wind was increasing and we handed the spinnaker and hoisted No.2 jib; even then we had the storm jib up within an hour. At midnight we took a third slab in the main and settled down to our four-hour watch.

The latest forecast was not encouraging, SSW veering W 7/9 locally 10 in Fastnet”. However, the wind was gusting over fifty knots and with a lot of trouble we got the main down (in a strong wind sails certainly have a mind of their own). The seas were already large, with breaking crests; it was rather like being in a roller coaster with the added terrors of a ghost train! I was not looking forward to daylight and actually seeing those enormous waves. The noise of the wind in the rigging was deafening and for those of us on watch at that time talking was impossible. We retreated into our oilskins and took it in turns to sit on the cockpit floor –a very comfortable place as one didn’t have to brace oneself against the continuous rolling. By 03.00 we had had enough and watches were changed to two hours because the incessant buffeting and noise of the wind was physically and mentally exhausting.

By 03.30 we were bailing fast. Occasional seas were breaking over the decks and the cockpit was continually filling up. and the water somehow found its way down below. (We were later to find that was due the cockpit lockers.) The two bilge pumps were unable to cope so buckets were brought into action and passed up through the main hatch, while one person was seen bailing the cockpit with a pint mug!

The barograph was quite spectacular: it had fallen thirty millibars in twenty-six hours. (I hear that on another boat a crewmember suggested putting a matchstick under the barograph arm to keep it high.) At about 04.30, now nearly light, we spotted a yacht close astern and managed to raise them on the VHF. It turned out to be the Dutch yacht Locomotion and after a short chat we wished them luck and signed off. They had been able to get a fix and estimated our position as 50°50’N 7°51′ W. They soon disappeared in the murk. but it was cheering to know that they were not far away.

Bailing continued a very strenuous task and a good way of keeping warm. I found that as long as I was doing something I did not have time to be frightened. By now it was daylight and “dawn revealed a ghastly scene”. The sea and the sky were varying shades of grey and visibility was not good.

At 06.15 the skipper radioed to the Dutch Navy Frigate Hr. Ms. Overijssel and reported that we were taking in water faster than we thought we could manage and gave the position that the Locomotion had given us earlier that morning. We had been pooped twice in the last hour and the water in the cabin was rather deep. During one of the poopings the dan buoy had broken free and was now lashed to the deck; the boom was lashed to the guard rail. The stem was very low in the water and there was at least six inches of water on the cabin sole.

At 07.10 we were knocked down.

Three of us were down below manning the bilge pump, listening to the radio and passing buckets to Julian who was standing in the main hatch. The other four were in the cockpit. Water poured through the main hatch and I remember doing a full backward somersault that ended on the chart table with the skipper on top of me. The cabin was in total chaos. On deck it was even worse. Two of the four crew there had been washed over the stern and were, as they put it, water-skiing; luckily their lifelines held and they were soon back on board. The other two were entangled in the guard-rails. Matthew had crashed into Andrew on route and both had ended up plaited in the rails. Andrew had badly injured his leg but still remarked humorously that he had taken up offshore racing because he was fed up with capsizing dinghies!

We were now so full of water that the two who had gone over the stern had been able to reach the top rail of the pushpit from the water. Bailing -with any vessel we could find- continued at a furious rate. The bilge pump in the cockpit was now broken, but the secondary pump in the cabin was still OK. The water level in the cabin was up to the navigator’s seat, and the cabin itself was cluttered with saucepans, clothes, cutlery, bottles of Scotch and a host of other floating debris.

The VHF had got wet and was now useless. Up in the cockpit anything loose had gone. including the helmsman’s seat and the Dan buoy, which had disappeared in pieces. On deck the spinnaker pole fittings had been ripped out of the deck and the masthead fittings were useless and hung drunkenly. By 07.30 we had the storm jib down and we streamed warps astern. In the heat of the moment one of the warps had been thrown to windward and it jammed in the rudder. However, the boat’s motion was easing, the cockpit drier, and the water in the cabin shallower. With the last dry match the cooker was lit and we all had some soup. At 08.10 I saw a ship and we sent off a red flare. It was not seen. This was not surprising: unless both boats

were on the crest of a wave at the same moment, it was impossible to see anything.

By 08.15 we had completed bailing and started a system of two on watch for two hours each. Except for the watch, we retired to our sodden bunks. Although the sea and wind were not all that cold, we found it difficult to keep warm. My oilskin jacket had ripped and I was soaked to the skin; in fact no one was all that dry. However, wet clothes under oilskins work on the wet-suit principle and are reasonably warming. Sharing bunks was another good way of getting warm and this caused a few ribald comments as I was the only woman on board

Morale was amazingly high and for some unknown reason we were all imitating the accents of Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther films. Even the most inane comment was considered a huge joke and, as the day dragged on, spirits rose despite our situation.
At mid-day I went on watch for two hours a boring, tiring duty. We could not steer and there was nothing to do except keep a look out for ships or planes. Julian and I discussed ways in which we wanted to be rescued. He wanted it to be by a helicopter, because he had never been in one; I wanted to be picked up by a ship full of handsome Frenchmen.
At about 13.00 a plane flew very low across our bows and we fired a Verey flare. The plane made no sign that it had seen us and flew off. However, we felt better for having seen it and found out later that it had in fact spotted us.
The afternoon dragged on. The skipper had managed to get a sun sight at noon –not an easy task considering the weather; this put us at about 51°20.8’N. The wind was moderating all the time but the sea was not. During the afternoon we ate some muesli with hot milk and about ten spoons of sugar each, not a very appetizing dish, but this with Mars bars and bananas was all that we could manage in our predicament. The Mars bars were tremendous –we ate forty-eight in three and a half days. Bananas were also good, as they were easy to eat. We even used the skins to make a floral” arrangement in a mug in an effort to brighten up the cabin!
By 18.15 the wind had moderated enough for us to hoist one third of the storm jib in an effort to give a positive direction, hopefully towards Dunmore East at the entrance to Waterford harbour. Dunmore East seemed to be where we were heading. By this time the skipper was navigating on a very wet chart using a plastic knife and fork, all the other instruments having mysteriously disappeared!
At about 18.30 a shout went up from the cockpit “They’re here.” The Dunmore East lifeboat was steaming towards us great speed; even so we sent up some Verey flares to make damn sure they saw us. They told us that we were some thirty miles SSW of Dunmore East and they would escort us in.
After about twenty minutes they offered us a tow because speed under storm jib was slow and we were unable to steer; this was an offer we gladly accepted. We hadn’t risked hoisting any more sail, as the rigging was very slack. Three other yachts also appeared and with the most beautiful sunset to port we all headed for Dunmore East.

We couldn’t believe the welcome we received on our arrival in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Within an hour of mooring we had all had hot showers and were safely ensconced in the Yacht Club, sandwiches in one hand, Guinness in the other. The generosity of the inhabitants of this small town seemed endless and, for the next few nights, we were all guests of various families. One resident of Dunmore East commented: “We haven’t had so much fun since the Bell Rock disaster”. All I can say is thank God, the St. Patrick lifeboat, the Irish and, most of all, Autonomy, that we got there at all.

Autonomy Fastnet Race 1979


by Edward Bourne

Autonomy was launched on Friday, 17th February 1979. As my wife Penny launched Autonomy critics of modern yacht design will have delighted in the similarity in shape of my wife and my yacht: Penny was within weeks of producing baby Thomas.

Throughout the spring and early summer we carried out modifications tp Autonomy; being the first of her class. there were as many problems to solve as there would be with a one-off design. However, it is to the credit of the designers, Holman & Pye, the builders. and the marketing company that the difficulties were persistently and cheerfully ironed out. Interestingly enough, it was at this early stage that we had 350 lb. of lead taken off the keel because Autonomy was felt to be over-ballasted. Matthew Power is quite right in saying that this was a mistake.

In July we spent three delightful weeks sailing from Salcombe down to Vigo, then on to Oporto and returning via the Rias to Ireland for the Joint Meet. We used this time to spot and rectify a few more teething troubles.

When choosing the design I did not have racing in mind. It has always been my view that there is no particular merit in going slowly for the sake of it, and I feel that for all the harm the IOR rule is reputed to have done to yacht design, it is true that speed and also the standard of accommodation have been improved by the trends of yacht design over the last ten years (excluding the extremes). Autonomy was conceived simply as a boat in which one could cruise comfortably to areas which would be inaccessible on a three-week holiday in a slower boat. The choice of rig deserves some comment here. In racing circles the current trend away from mast-head rig is regarded as radical; but to those brought up with cruising designs it is simply a common-sense way of reducing the area of sails which has to be handled. The effect of the three-quarter rig is that one must be prepared to reef the mainsail sooner and more frequently; but any task is considerably less arduous than it would be otherwise. The racing fraternity regard Autonomy as very heavily built, but it is probably truer to say that she is of a modern design with the normal scantlings and displacement of a conventional-cruising yacht. This is certainly one of the main reasons why she survived the Fastnet relatively undamaged.

The lessons. which 1 have learnt. are primarily concerned with over-sophistication. From the central heating to the instruments and from the hydraulics to the hot water system, the hostile environment of the heavy weather will always win. If Autonomy had been fitted out more simply and with fewer gadgets, the repairs necessary after her knockdown would have been relatively trivial. As it was, the operation of replacing what the Americans in Ireland so charmingly and picturesquely described as “mast-head broccoli” — with all its associated wiring and installation- has been a long and complicated one which is only now nearing completion as I write. Apart from the mast, which was slightly bent, and the other damage referred to by Matthew and Frances, the other problem were all internal and involved damage to the varnish-work. upholstery and above all the electric’s. A point of some interest here is the batteries. These were of the new Freedom type and amazingly survived submersion, but many owners will probably now give thought to better protection of the alternator, or carrying a spare, and means of coping with power and a lost mast-head aerial. The two most important changes which 1 shall make to Autonomy will be to the cockpit lockers, which although capable of being locked shut. nonetheless failed to prevent water getting below, and the main bilgepump, which was of a hopelessly flimsy design. To be fair, one of the crew was actually pumping when he was swept overboard and took with him the handle and some of the pump.

In all, I feel that there are some aspect of design — notably sail area to displacement ratio- which make Autonomy lively, or perhaps one should say hard work, to sail, but there is absolutely no evidence that either her beam (I I ft.3in. on an overall length of 36ft.2in.) or her fin keel in any way contributed to her being knocked down. This is clearly a debate which will rage for a while to come and it is not my intention, other than making the above observations, to attempt to draw any conclusions. I feel that also beyond dispute is the fact that as Matthew and Frances have indicated, the strength of the yacht’s construction greatly benefited crew morale and minimised damage.

I cannot finish this postscript without paying tribute to the seamanship of all on board. As soon as I heard that Autonomy had been in trouble and had arrived in Ireland, I made arrangements to fly out and bring her back. When I arrived I found the entire crew in high spirits and dedicated to putting matters right. By the time I arrived in Dunmore East, Autonomy already looked as if she had suffered nothing worse than a normal gale. It was greatly to the credit of the crew that all of them, except for those with urgently beckoning offices, wanted to sail back to England in the boat.

The Publisher: 1979 Fastnet Race

by Simon Skey

So here is my memory of a night to remember.

I was skipper on a 36ft Holman Pye Design “Red Admiral”. It was a relatively new design, and there was some question as to whether we had enough ballast as the boat was unusually tender – especially upwind.

The following is taken verbatim from the log – (not all hours shown):

Monday August 13th

  • 0600 – 4 miles west of The Lizard. Raining. Thick fog. No wind. Very, very wet.
  • 1200 – SW 22 knots, wet and windy.
  • 1500 – SW 32 knots, #3 and 3 slabs (in the main) –Yacht still broaching at times on fine reach.
  • 2100 – S 15 knots, #2 and 2 slabs in main.
  • 2300 – SW 30 knots, #2 down. Storm jib up.
  • 2400 – SSW 35 knots, 3rd slab in main.

Tuesday August 14th

  • 0100 – Wind gusting >50 knots. Main down – storm jib only.
  • 0200 – W 40 to 50 knots. Very rough indeed. Barometer  and starting to rise. WRONG. Glass still falling. Lots of water in cabin sole. Cannot get it away.
  • 0400 – W >50 knots.

Log ends.

By 2400 on Monday night/Tuesday morning we were barreling along, heading for the Fastnet on a NW course. As the wind veered to the west we gradually headed northwards till at 0400 on Tuesday morning we were heading almost due north at a location just to the north east of the Labardie bank. As the log indicates we were getting a lot of water down below and were very concerned as to where it was coming from. We checked the hull and all the through hull fittings as best we could and determined that the water seemed to be coming from aft. We later surmised that although the cockpit drains were working fine, they could not handle the large volumes of water coming into the cockpit. Thus the water level in the cockpit was above the lower level of the cockpit lockers and water was leaking through these into the boat. As you can see from the log entry we could not get it away. At this stage I sent a Pan message (I think it may have been a Securite message – I cannot quite remember) to the Overijssel (Sp?) which was the mother ship for the race, saying that we were fine but had water coming on board from where we did not know but we seemed to be keeping it at bay by bailing.

After some deliberation we decided to slow down and see if that reduced the water ingress. It seemed to work and so by 0700 we were under bare poles running NNE streaming warps with plenty of sea-room. So we were pumping like mad till the pump broke and then we were a bucket brigade with buckets being passed up the hatch to the deck crew. Unfortunately just as we were beginning to make headway with the water and thinking that once the wind died a bit we would harden up and head off to the rock, we were hit by an enormous wave and rolled over. Not entirely over, but far enough for the centre cockpit to be submerged and a torrent of sea water to pour down the open hatch. Of course in those days the radio was always at the foot of the companionway by the nav station and so it was deluged and rendered inoperable. Later we tried to dry it out in the oven but to no effect.

At this stage I think we got lucky as there was no second wave and we rolled back up again. As I went up the companionway steps I realized to my horror that my two crew who had been in the cockpit were not there. In fact they were in the process of climbing back up the stern steps saying “no, after you!” It seemed that our tactic of doubling up the safety harnesses had worked. This had the effect of reducing the distance they were thrown and hence the load on the safety harness. Neither they nor anyone else on my crew were injured.

At this stage the boat was in a pretty good shambles. The top of the mast was bent. The warps we had streaming were wrapped around the rudder, and the mess down below was indescribable.

We were knocked down approx 51 15N and 7 45W. Thereafter we ran under bare poles in a NW direction while we sorted out the mess, double-bunked the crew and generally took stock.

The weather improved all day so much so that I was able to take a midmorning, noon and afternoon sun sight and by 1730 had a position about 35 miles to the SSW of Dunmore east. We still had plenty of sea-room up the St George’ Channel and so I wasn’t too worried. However the boat was a terrible mess and I was going to have to explain to the owner how I had ruined his boat. I was not looking forward to that conversation! At this stage we had absolutely no idea of the extent of the storm or the general damage to the fleet. We were an island unto ourselves and were trying to work out what we had done wrong to be in this situation.

At about 18:30 we spotted the Dunmore East lifeboat crashing through the waves towards us. We all immediately burst into tears!! I guess we had not realized quite how stressful the previous 24 hours had been. We accepted the tow into Dunmore East where we arrived in the wee hours of the morning. We were met by the most hospitable and friendly people ever and were promptly taken up to the local pub where we were treated with amazing hospitality. By about 7 or 8 am I realized I had to phone the owner and explain what had happened.

Of course we had no idea of the severity of the overall situation. We had not had a radio and thought that our situation was probably caused by our own inadequacies rather than anything else. I mean you don’t do a Fastnet unless you are prepared for the roughest of conditions. I grew up on the Solent and for years, as a boy, I would see yachts limping down the Solent after a Fastnet storm. So I knew that Fastnet and Storm were synonymous. We only started to get an idea of the overall situation while we were in Dunmore East

So the owner was having his breakfast in London and reading with horror the story of the race and tucked away in a corner of the press was a note that our yacht had reported taking on water at 0400 and not being heard from since was believed to have sunk!!! He was fielding phone calls from anxious friends and relatives of the crew and generally speaking having a horrible time. Then my call came in…… was quite the most amazing phone call I have ever made – him thinking we were gone and me apologizing for the state of his boat! You can imagine.

To sum up, my main memory of the race was the incredible crew I had, who never complained and worked like madmen to keep us going and alive. I was, and still am, immensely proud of their efforts. The other memory is of the noise. Somehow the noise of the howling and shrieking wind to me is way more frightening than the crashing and bashing of the waves and the yacht. It made even simple communications incredibly difficult.

To this day I am not sure of the mistakes I made. I did not consider the design of the cockpit lockers hazardous and had sailed on this boat for about 3 months before the race – cruising round Portugal and Ireland. I am pretty sure that is where the water was coming from and presume that we got rolled over because we were lower in the water than we should have been. I think we made a mistake with the warps. Maybe they were not long enough or big enough, but the fact that they wrapped around the rudder after the knock down was quite debilitating.

So today I still have a copy of the chart we used and the log – and marvel at how we survived. I have still to finish a Fastnet and maybe one day the opportunity will arise. Who knows?

Thanks for the opportunity to write this out.

Simon Skey