This year marked the 40th anniversary of a race never to be forgotten. Elaine Bunting looks back at crews’ experiences of the 1979 Fastnet Race

Back in 1979, Ted Turner’s Tenacious won the Fastnet Race, with a corrected time of 3 days 8 hours. Over the last 30 years the average speed across the 605-mile Fastnet course has increased phenomenally: at the elite end, the fastest Ultime trimarans complete the course in just a third of Tenacious’s time. Yet for the smallest yachts in the race, the race can still take five full days.

Yacht design has changed enormously in 30 years, but even more so communications, navigation and access to weather information. So it begs the question of whether a tragedy on such a wide scale could ever happen again?

Navigating in 1979 was a world away from today. Since today there is never a doubt as to our position, the role of the navigator is more one of tactician and strategist. Back then, nav aids such as Loran and Decca were specifically banned and sat nav, then in its infancy, was also prohibited. The tools for the navigator were a sextant, a radio direction finder (RDF), compass and experience of dead reckoning navigational skills.

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Royal Navy helicopter comes to the aid of Camargue. Eight crew were rescued at 1033 on 14 August 1979. Photo: Getty Images

Communications were poor. VHF or MF radio was not mandatory. The larger yachts mostly carried VHF but only an estimated 25% of the smaller yachts did. Radio sets were heavy, cumbersome and expensive, and also power-hungry on yachts with small capacity batteries.

Professional navigator and columnist Mike Broughton was just 17 when he took part in the 1979 Fastnet, the youngest competitor in the race, along with Yachting World’s former technical editor Matthew Sheahan. Broughton was racing Hullaballoo, a 3/4 Tonner.

“It was all about the shipping forecast in those days. The news came from the radio. There was gossip that a storm was on the way and we knew the Prime Minister [Edward Heath in Morning Cloud] had retired,” he explains.

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“The navigation was quite primitive. We did have RDF, but on the Irish coast it was a reciprocal and if you had a 5-10° error, with no cross-cut you never knew [exactly] where you were. We didn’t even have VHF. We had a French search tug signalling Kilo, ‘I wish to communicate with you’, in Morse code.”

Now yachts not only have EPIRBs, but AIS, often radar, and access to weather through multiple means, not least long periods of 4G mobile phone coverage. Crews carry PLBs and AIS personal locators. YB trackers allow teams to see each other’s positions, tracks and speeds.

Safety gear is checked and of a regulated standard; 40 years ago, only a very few tether lines met any agreed standard, and liferafts without drogues were apt to blow rapidly downwind, or even (as happened) to disintegrate.

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A yacht 150 miles north-west of St Ives under jury rig. Photo: PA Archive

Clothing was poor by modern standards, and leaked as a matter of course. Hypothermia was a real risk. Attitudes to safety gear were also very different; lifejackets and harnesses were not routinely worn. Crews were much less drilled and there were no mandatory qualifications.

While one could argue that, as a society, we may be more risk averse than we were 40 years ago, we are also better informed. Access to better forecasts allows skippers to decide earlier whether or not to press on. The number of retirements seen in any Fastnet Race is to its credit, and not a negative. If a storm of similar ferocity were to affect the race again, it is almost certain many would seek shelter rather than press on.

But could a storm ever cause another Fastnet disaster? Very possibly. The sea state that brewed so violently 30 years ago would probably still see boats rolled and damaged. Even short-term forecasts can be sufficiently inaccurate to lead to unforeseen conditions, duration of peak winds or sea state, just as we saw during the race this year in August.

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A well equipped 1979 yacht, with Sailor VHF radio and RDF

“Boats are better now, organised better, the weather forecasts better,” says Mike Broughton. “But as yachtsmen we are easily belittled by 40-45 knots of wind. And boats get more radical. When you hear of inshore yachts doing it that are thin and lightly built, and so wet that guys didn’t go below, you wonder if it is the same trend as in 1979. But the training and the gear is just so much better.”

The 1979 Fastnet storm

The first indication of a storm to come was at 1505 on Monday 13 August, when the BBC Shipping Forecast broadcast the following warning: ‘Sole, Fastnet, Shannon. South-westerly gale Force 8 imminent.’ By the next broadcast at 1905 that had been upgraded to: ‘Force 8 increasing severe gale Force 9 imminent.’

It was while hand-drawing the 2200 chart around a low pressure of 978mb that forecasters realised the isobars were tightening up to such a degree that it was inevitable a Force 10 would occur in the Fastnet sea area. But the length of the shipping forecast storm warning was not enough to allow the majority of competitors to run for shelter.

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Satellite picture of the storm as it was developing on 1532UTC 13 August 1979

The strongest winds were in a corridor to the south of Ireland, which lay across the race fleet, bringing winds of 60 knots plus. The growth of the sea state was initially puzzling, as it increased ahead of the wind.

Some competitors later reported 6-7m seas and, later, huge, confused cross seas. Although estimating wave heights is very difficult from a yacht, claims of huge waves were substantiated by a report from a Nimrod pilot on 14 August of wave heights of ‘50-60ft’.

Satellite pictures showed a well-defined, active cold front, and this was followed by a trough, shown on the later charts. Most importantly, the change of wind direction behind the trough was in the region of 90°.

The strongest winds arrived as the pressure rapidly rose after the trough. Gusts contained within the leading edge of squalls could have been half as much again as the average wind speed (or perhaps more than that), making reported gusts of 80 knots realistic.

This change in the wind direction was the one overriding factor that generated problems for the boats. In other circumstances, yachts might have run under bare poles or towed warps, but on this occasion crews had no chance and yachts were knocked down repeatedly.

Storms of this intensity, or greater, are not unknown in this area, though they are rare in summer. In October 2017, a record wave height for Irish waters of 26m was recorded at the Kinsale gas platform off the Cork coast. Some of the highest waves in 1979 were also recorded by the Marathon platform in the same gas field.

First published in the October 2019 edition of Yachting World.