In 1979 Matthew Sheahan, aged 17, was racing his father’s yacht Grimalkin in the Fastnet Race. After being rolled, pitchpoled, battered and half drowned, and believing the rest of the crew to be dead, he and two others had to make a crucial decision
The final blow
Looking back at conditions during the night and listening to the accounts of others, including those of our surviving crew, has helped me to understand how some sailors saw the storm and their reasons for wanting to abandon their boats.
Aboard Grimalkin during the night we had discussed whether we should abandon ship and considered the issue of whether we should send out a Mayday. Neither debate drew a consensus. My father was reluctant. He certainly did not want to abandon the boat and neither did he feel at that moment that a Mayday was warranted.
Leaving the boat had never cropped up in our discussions during our preparations for the race other than to check that the liferaft was in date. But when it came to sending out a distress call, he knew precisely what was involved.
Being a methodical man who left nothing to chance, he had run through the procedure several times at home. I still have the four hand-written pages of A4 he used as revision notes. He knew what a Mayday was for and despite our uncomfortable plight, questioned whether at this point there was imminent risk to life.
But as we continued to take a hammering through the night and into the dawn it was becoming clearer that several of our crew were in a seriously bad way. In particular, Gerry Winks, a sailing friend of several years from our former club at Queen Mary reservoir, was suffering badly from hypothermia and struggling to stay conscious. Nick Ward was struggling too.
As the pounding continued and with the boat flooded, a rapidly deteriorating crew and another debate as to our predicament, we decided it was time to call for some help and at around 0600 my father and I went below to send out a Mayday.
Racing yachts of the day were never designed with knockdowns in mind, let alone full 360° rolls. Few are today. Had they been, general stowage would have been in secure lockers rather than open stowage under pipecot-type bunks.
As we were repeatedly hurled around the ocean, food, equipment, internal ballast and even joinery started to fly around the cabin, making the accommodation a seriously dangerous place to be.
Six years later I would experience similar conditions in the 1985 Fastnet aboard a three-quarter tonner and witness the skipper spending his off-watch nailing down locker lids with screws, or ‘Manchester nails’ as he liked to call them. According to him, we were taking no risks. If we didn’t need it, or it couldn’t be fastened down and it presented a risk, it was over the side.
But in 1979 the lesson was only just being learnt and we were about to have a practical demonstration that I believe contributed to my father’s death.
Chaos below decks
As I stood by the chart table listening to my father make contact with the yacht Morningtown, which was relaying our message to Land’s End Radio, I heard an awful deep rumble outside, another wave was bearing down directly upwind of us.
A quick glance through the port hand coachroof window revealed a monster breaking wave, careering towards us. I remember bracing myself before the noise and chaos erupted below decks as we were rolled yet again through 360°.
As the boat came upright, the water, gear and general debris rained down onto the cabin sole. My father lay slumped over the chart table, unconscious and bleeding from the head. He had been hit by a tin of food and had a bad gash on his head and a deep skull fracture. We had to get out of the cabin.
I grabbed the first aid kit and called for help to drag him up on deck where we tried to attend to his wound. I was sitting in the cockpit cradling my father’s head as he mumbled incoherently and he winced as I sprayed plastic skin onto the gash. It was the last definite response I got from him.
From here on, time stretches and compresses as the combination of hypothermia, stress, anxiety and deep-rooted fear distorted proceedings. The VHF antenna had broken in the last 360° roll rendering the radio useless. I remember a Nimrod making two swooping passes overhead as it dropped green flares. I remember that we fired what few flares we had after several had been swept away as a wave washed across the deck.
We could make none of them operate properly and they either skimmed along the tops of the waves, or buried themselves in the water just yards from us. I suspect we were not firing them off correctly rather than any fault with the flares and mention this only to highlight our mental plight at the time. Our ability to save ourselves was becoming dangerously compromised.
Desperate to display our distress we hoisted a square over a circle, but looking back, clearly a battle flag and a lifebelt were not the best items to hoist up the mast. The increased windage, to say nothing of the foolishness of hoisting a lifebelt were clear indications of a crew in mental meltdown. We were becoming incapable of thinking rationally and were physically spent.
Slumped in the cockpit, holding onto my barely conscious father, I remember hearing the familiar roar of yet another aquatic avalanche behind my head. We were hit hard in the back as if shunted from behind on the motorway. Then nothing.
Nothing, until I found myself trapped under the upturned side deck of the boat.