In the 1970s-80s, Sir Peter Johnson wrote a column in Yachting World. This was his article in the issue immediately after the 1979 Fastnet Race

To start, it was hardly distinguishable from any Round the Island race. Our beat down the Solent among so many Ton Cup series yachts and sailing round the buoys in IOR boats seemed to blur the distinction between inshore and offshore racing – a dangerous confusion.

The first night at Portland Bill witnessed one of the most extraordinary scenes that has been known in ocean racing. Those who decided to take the inshore passage at the Bill reached it against the first of the flood and with the help of the eddy along the east side. As we approached in Innovation, my OOD 34, there were Admiral’s Cup yachts with headsails down, jilling under mainsail. What was going on?

We soon found out as we reached close to the Bill under the flashing lighthouse, only to be pushed out into the race by the nine or ten knot stream from the west side of Portland (it was extra high spring tides that day). The barrier was impenetrable even by the largest yachts and there we sailed about, sometimes trying a rush and then waiting like others under mainsail only, back in the eddy.

Racing in thick fog

When the tide eased, the trapped fleet broke through into West Bay, but some yachts had been off the Bill for over three hours. Yet others who went offshore and plugged the stream in the Channel showed little advantage, as they had to contend with a longer period of foul tide.

On the previous Friday, Radio Solent had given what turned out to be a remarkably accurate long-range forecast for the race. This included fog in the west Channel. Sunday morning saw the beginning of this.

As we approached Start Point the fog could be seen thickly on its western (windward) side. We skirted the rocks in the first of the inshore favourable stream, tacking into the little bays towards Salcombe. The Eddystone was never sighted, only its fog signal used to avoid the rocks.

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Later we swept past the Lizard and the Runnelstone buoy only made a brief appearance between fog banks as we tacked with other boats round in the dark of early Monday morning. It was at around 0430 that the wind became very light and the barometer had dropped 5mb in 12 hours. At daylight there was a heavy swell from the west, but it was the sky that we noticed.

Seldom had I seen such a cloud cover. There was layer upon layer of greasy, rolled-up grey stuff. Talking to those from other yachts later, it does seem that our experiences on Innovation for the rest of Monday duplicated many others. After the light airs of the forenoon, the barometer dropped four more millibars and the wind freshened from the south-west.

By 1330 it was 30-35 knots (Force 7) from the south-west and we were sailing well on a reach under a heavy genoa and one reef in the main. Earlier our light spinnaker had been completely blown out. The 1355 forecast for Fastnet was ‘south-westerly 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7 for a time, veering westerly later’.

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The crew of Innovation with designer Rob Humphreys at the helm

The evening was one of successive reduction of sail, from full size genoa to No 2, then two reefs in the main, then the No 3. When the time came to put in the third reef, we lowered the whole mainsail to do so and then decided to lash it to the coachroof. So we sped on in great style towards the Fastnet Rock under No 3 genoa alone and when that became too much, then under the OO 34 jib, which is also the storm jib.

By 0130 on we had lowered the storm jib and had no sail. The anemometer was ‘on stops’ at 60 knots in both lulls and gusts. The former I estimated at 63 knots and the latter at 75 knots, which is known as hurricane force.

Our feelings then were those of many others to whom I spoke later: rather bemused by conditions, but happy with the behaviour of the boat, expecting such a heavy gale both to blow through quickly, keeping our position as far as possible by some sort of fore-reaching so that when conditions eased we could press on to the Fastnet Rock. But the next few hours changed everything for us and many others.

This is something different

First we began to hear on our VHF that others were in trouble. Morningtown, a communications boat with the race, spoke of men in a liferaft and then of persons in the water. At that moment there was a cry from on deck that our tiller had parted from the rudder head.

I gathered tools and went into the cockpit, where luckily the tiller was still held by the helmsman. The buoyant rudder head bobbed up and down as I hammered the alloy block back over it, then a sea swept the cockpit, filling it and floating me, attached to my harness. The hammer I still grasped, but other tools were gone.

Hardly was that repair as good as we could get it than our main hatch stops sheared off. Worried that someone might be dislodged, complete with main hatch, I actually rebored new holes with a hand drill and drove in heavy self-tapping screws, which became effective stops.

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Sir Peter Johnson aboard Innovation

Still we tried to edge north and I tried to observe the actual drift of the hull for dead reckoning purposes, but in reality we were a-hull and at around 0400 came the first knockdown.

The helmsman was thrown over the side and subsequently recovered by the second man in the cockpit by his harness [this was one of only two British Standards Institute-approved harnesses on the market at that time], one man below deck broke a tooth, another was cut on the arm, a third hit in the face by a flying tin, and I was flung against a half bulkhead and found out later that I had cracked a rib.

Marks of food tins from a locker under the settee berth can since be seen on the underside of the coachroof. The masthead instruments were mangled and thereafter the wind speed and direction could not be read. On the second knockdown, the masthead again entered the water; I remember seeing the beautiful pale green of the deep sea through the starboard windows.

From then on, the helmsman no longer tried to head north, but came from sea and gale to steer about 030°. Yet this was still not the answer, for a third knockdown took place, my 10.4m yacht corkscrewing over and emerging nearly into the wind. After these unnerving experiences, we decided to run straight downwind under the bare pole.

One of the most exceptional aspects of this race is that almost every yacht in the 303-strong fleet suffered knockdowns. Many were much worse than us, for we shipped only a trickle of water and lost a few winch handles. The seas in that wind were coming to pieces like those on a dangerous harbour bar in a gale and so boats were just overwhelmed.

Carving the chart with a knife

Sometimes they shipped vast quantities of water, like Griffin and Trophy. Sometimes they came back up with the rig destroyed. Sometimes batteries came out, tearing away connections, footprints were seen on the underside of coachroofs, navigation gear was smashed and made useless, engines were flooded, men badly injured.

As for keeping track of position, have you tried using a pencil on newspaper that has been six months in a rubbish dump? Ballpoint pens seized up. So I carved the chart with my knife. The barometer had fallen 30mb since Sunday afternoon.

So we ran dead down the huge seas, which built up by the forenoon of Tuesday. Others towed warps, some lay by the head to improvised sea anchors of sailbags, some lay a-hull without touching the helm, and some carried a scrap of sail in the hove-to aspect. Who is to say which was right?

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

For our light displacement, broad-sterned boat we found that if the helmsman watched the sea looking always astern we avoided further serious trouble.

The bottom bearing of our rudder had loosened and this action put less strain on it. There was, of course, plenty of sea room. At times we spoke to other yachts and through one of them related a message to Kinsale A gas rig that all was well with us, for we had begun to hear of tragic happenings to other boats on the ordinary news bulletins.

When intending to transmit on VHF I ran the engine; this avoided flattening the batteries and kept the engine warm and ready to start instantly (other boats entered Plymouth with us later having no power at all). Our electrics worked perfectly in the damp and we praised the electricians and mechanics at the builders.

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Those who finished dry out in Plymouth. Photo: Barry Pickthall / PPL

At 1800 we began to hoist sail and laid a comfortable course for the Longships, some 95 miles away. At 0545 on Wednesday morning, we gave our exact position to Land’s End Coastguard and an hour or so later had a link call through to my wife, asking for replacement equipment to be brought to Plymouth and organising a repair to the rudder. It was a pleasant sail past the Longships and round the Lizard, with some hours motoring in a flat calm before reaching Plymouth.

And what about the Fastnet Rock? Well, it did end up so far to windward that we never went back to it, but in two years’ time with a few minor modifications I will be very happy to race round it in Innovation. I have sailed round it in other boats, so why not this one? She and her crew just had a different sort of experience this time.

300 stories for the telling

Something happened to every boat, yet many stories are quite similar and many lessons for all of us are to be re-learnt. One heard of yachts where stoves fell out and batteries and anchors broke adrift. Even cars have their batteries clamped down and not having them so breaks existing RORC regulations.

We had only a single case of seasickness in a crew of seven, but some crews did suffer and one hears of inadequate clothing. Most of us had a polar suit and newish oilskins, though the efforts of most foulweather manufacturers leaves much to be desired.

We always wore our harnesses, clipping them on to a jackstay in the cockpit before leaving the hatch. Before the race we had adjusted them for each person and marked the adjusted harness with his name on boat tape.

Many crews, including ourselves, would have liked smaller storm jibs: no rule prevents this and designers should specify them more seriously. Some of boats that were knocked down took on a frightening amount of water; as they also lost or broke washboards, it is likely that this water entered by the main hatch area.

We kept all our washboards in with the hatch pulled over, but some skippers left out the top washboard for communication and ventilation. This is now seem to be a mistake, for in a knockdown the lower washboards can – and did, in a number of cases – fall out. One yard had washboards smashed and the builder will make the obvious change.

Two yachts of the same class as mine were lost, both after severe knockdowns. Charioteer, whose mast broke in two after a sixth rollover, had her crew taken off by the superb seamanship of a French trawler. Griffin’s crew were rescued by the French She 36, Lorelei, as their liferaft began to disintegrate. In any boat in future main hatches with their doors or washboards must be able to be fastened from inside and out.

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Alan Tabor’s painting of the rescue of Griffin captures the sheer chaos of the Fastnet disaster

Many were the heroics in those (as I estimate) 16 hours of the severe gale – by warships, trawlers and yachts of a number of nations, and aircraft of the Navy and Air Force as well as lifeboats and coastguards. More impressive on arrival at Plymouth was the dedication and organisation of volunteers on shore with their ever-ringing telephones.

Aboard Innovation we were happy we were one of the lucky crews. We were happy with the excellent strength of our hull and glad of the time consumed on preparation before the race and earlier in the season.

After a day or two of repairs and cleaning up in Plymouth and with a few different crewmembers, as previously planned, including my 13-year-old son, we set a course confidently for Ushant and a subsequent successful short cruise of north-west Brittany – after all, that is what a production cruiser racing boat is intended to be able to do.

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A memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet Race can be found on Cape Clear Island in Cork. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In memory of those lost during the 1979 Fastnet Race

  • Paul Baldwin
  • Robin Bowyer
  • Russell Brown
  • David Crisp
  • Peter Dorey
  • Peter Everson
  • Frank Ferris
  • William Le Fevre
  • John Puxley
  • Robert Robie
  • David Sheahan
  • Charles Steavenson
  • Roger Watts
  • Gerrit-Jan Williahey
  • Gerald Winks