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
I could see the name of the boat on the side, a bold written script in royal blue, but upside-down. I could see the keel and the rudder pointing skywards – a familiar and frustrating sight when sailing my National 12, but this was clearly wrong.
As I swung in and out from under the gunwale and struggled to break free I could feel something between my legs which I realised was a head – Nick Ward’s, I recognised the blue collar on his jacket.
I grabbed his head and tried to pull him out, but he was jammed. There was no motion from him either, no thrashing of arms, no twisting of the head.
Quickly I realised that I too was in serious trouble. I hadn’t managed to get clear of the boat and couldn’t breathe or indeed get my head above the water.
Only occasionally was I able to take gasps of air as the boat rose and fell over the waves that continued to sweep through.
With my life harness line running under the upper guardwire before it went back to the cockpit, the line simply wasn’t long enough to get my head clear.
I was being pinned down. Our safety lines only had hooks on one end and were spliced to the harness, making it impossible to release. A blessing in some ways – had I been able to release the line at my end, I suspect there would have been nothing to hold onto and I would have been swept away.
As a child I had been late to learn to swim and lacked the level of confidence you might expect of someone who lived for sailing. Consequently, a fear of drowning was at the top of my list of phobias. Yet when faced with this outcome for real, as I struggled in vain to free myself, I was amazed to discover that irritation, anger and bitterness rather than blind panic and abject terror were the overwhelming emotions.
The calmness of the situation struck me as a huge relief, yet being forced to say goodbye at 17 years old, when the world was just starting to open up, seemed fiercely unjust.
To drown when we had survived so much during the night also seemed so unfair.
Whether the several gasps of air that I did manage to grasp accelerated the hallucinations I do not know, but I saw my family, friends, car and drum kit all neatly lined up on green rolling hills atop chalk white cliffs less than a mile away, which was both comforting and cruel.
Yet while my mind played tricks, my body appeared to be continuing its struggle to survive. The only way to get my head above water was to take off my inflated lifejacket in order to remove the separate safety harness underneath. Somehow I managed this, looping one arm through the discarded lifejacket for support. As I surfaced I spun around to see Dave Wheeler pop up alongside me at the aft quarter.
Until that moment I had assumed I was the only one to be thrown clear. I was elated to see him. As I shouted to him that we should climb on the upturned hull, gunwale started to rise above the water’s surface. Suddenly the entire deck opened up in front of me and a broken mast allowed Grimalkin to right in an instant. Indeed, so fast did she come up that I was launched into the boat, hauled by the harness line that I had not fully removed.
I landed on top of Gerry and Nick. They looked desperate. At 17 I had only seen one person die, a weekend sailor at Queen Mary who had had a heart attack on the pontoon after stepping out of his dinghy on a breezy day. But that was at a distance; this was face to face. Both my crewmates were motionless in the bottom of the cockpit, which was swilling with water. Nick’s face and lips were blue, Gerry had a facial injury.
As I scrambled to my feet I was looking upwind and saw a body face down in the water 50ft or so upwind. I knew instantly who it was. I knew too that he had drowned. Fit men don’t lie face down in the water, the arms outstretched unless they’re doing front crawl. My father was blind in one eye, wore glasses and could only swim breaststroke. As kids we teased him that he couldn’t go underwater like us and while he tried to laugh it off, it was clear he couldn’t.
A snap second later I turned around to help Dave Wheeler back aboard and together we stumbled across the cockpit to the high side to see a pair of hands gripping the pulpit stanchion. It was Mike Doyle, clinging to the back of the boat. Together we just about managed to haul Mike back aboard.
I stood up, looked to windward and watched us drift further away from my father, as we were pushed by the wind and the waves. I was numb, exhausted, in shock and bewildered. My brain was in neutral, my body freewheeling, I felt like an empty shell. Only the yelling behind me snapped me out of my trance.
“Come on, we’ve got to get off the boat, she’s sinking!” screamed Mike. “The rig’s down and will go through the hull. Come on, come on, she’s sinking!”
As he yelled at us he was scrambling towards the aft leeward quarter. The liferaft was already afloat, removed from under the cockpit floor some time earlier and prepared in case we had to deploy it in a hurry. After the boat had inverted, the raft dropped into the sea. All Mike needed to do was to pull the ripcord. As he did so the liferaft inflated, but in the 50-60 knot winds it started flaying around behind the boat. My God, he was serious, he was climbing in. Dave was following too.
My instinct was to stay on the boat. My father and I had frequently repeated the quip we had heard about stepping up to the liferaft from the masthead. But this was for real and it felt so wrong.
I was standing in the middle of the cockpit, my drowned father to windward, two motionless bodies at my feet, a seriously disabled, dismasted boat and the only two people who were conscious in a liferaft holding onto the pulpit and asking me whether I was coming or staying. I don’t know if the naivety of being just 17 helped or hindered in such a situation.