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 right response?
Thirty years on, I still don’t know how I’d react given the same set of circumstances. What I do know is that it’s damned easy to be wise after the event and make decisions that seem clear-cut from a warm secure room on terra firma after hours, weeks or years of deliberation.
My instinct at the time might have told me that staying with the boat was the right thing to do, but the sequence of events that followed can and have been argued to be precisely the right response by many, including sea survival experts.
Mike did what he believed was right at the time, so did Dave and I have always respected that. Nothing has and will change this. The terror of being trapped under the upturned hull is one that even now I can’t bear to imagine. Mike, a strong swimmer, describes the fear he felt and the conviction he had that the boat was going down.
I don’t blame him for one second for wanting to get off that boat as soon as she righted, something he had helped to achieve by climbing the hull. Had my father remained with the boat and conscious, his fear of water and enclosed spaces would have sent him into a blind panic, as indeed it did when the boat was upside-down.
Mike had cut my father free, something I will always be grateful for. He did what he felt was right at the time and I would defend fiercely any criticism of his actions.
A respect for both the men who died and the people who tried to save them is why during the last 30 years I have deliberately avoided certain issues to do with the past few minutes of my father’s and Gerry’s lives. It’s easy to make snap decisions when you’re not there, and sometimes hard to live with them when you were.
All three of us have been criticised for leaving two crewmembers aboard the boat, most recently in Nick Ward’s book Left for Dead, and before that in John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet Force 10 where, in the inaccurate chapters that refer to our plight, the author suggests that: ‘A close look convinced them [myself, Dave and Mike] that if Winks and Ward were not dead, they soon would be.’
I have always found that statement and the intimation that we made a casual and callous assessment deeply offensive. The author and others who have made such one-sided judgements without having asked any of the three of us for our side of the story also forget that we were leaving three people behind. Among them was my father and, while his plight looked desperate, I hadn’t given up.
What I will admit to is simply not having the strength to lift or move two adult bodies, especially as they were caught up in a cat’s cradle of ropes.
Survival is not simply a battle of wills, a set of rights and wrongs that make for a convenient flow chart for success. Saving oneself to fetch help for others is not an unusual strategy. Sometimes it’s simply an instinct. I believe that the chain of events that followed, while far from being a strategy at the time, demonstrate this.
Salvation, confusion, success
When compared with the terrifying hours in a spinning, flooded and unstable liferaft, the stress we had experienced aboard Grimalkin during the night was a walk in the park. This alone would make me think doubly hard in the future about climbing into a liferaft, but it still wouldn’t necessarily make for the right answer.
When we were finally picked up by a Sea King helicopter at around 1030, I was the first to be plucked to safety. On entering the helicopter I was asked which boat I was from. “Grimalkin,” I replied. “Are you sure?” asked one of the crew, shouting over the roar of the engine and rotors. “We’ve had no report of her here.”
“Grimalkin, Grimalkin, she’s upwind from here, you have to go back, there are two people on board and one in the water,” I stressed, as the recovery of Mike and Dave continued below us. “We must go back, we must go back,” I continued, anxious that my message wasn’t getting through.
Lying back against the fuselage of the helicopter were other sailors, the first inkling I’d had that others were in trouble too. A weak smile greeted me from one of the crew from Trophy.
With Mike and Dave now aboard, I continued my plea for the helicopter to go to Grimalkin. I can’t remember who told me, but it was made clear that they didn’t have enough fuel to continue a search and had to head back to shore, but I was not to worry. They would radio ahead the position and inform the rescue services; another helicopter would be back out.
Partially relieved, but still concerned about the plight of the other three, I hadn’t begun to appreciate the havoc the storm had caused. As we flew over, boat after boat, more liferafts than I’d seen at a boat show, waves, spume and chaos lay below.
Recently, I met up with one of the pilots who flew us back to safety, Keith Thompson, who today runs a successful helicopter sales and charter business in Cornwall called Castle Air. He described to me how the rescue plan was developing more quickly than the services could sort out and how rescues were being prioritised.
“We were the second Sea King airborne that day. As we took off, we thought we were rescuing just one boat, but by the time we had reached the Scillies on the way out I had filled up my kneepad note board with the names of boats that we were being asked to search for and was starting to write the names on the windscreen,” he explained.
“We weren’t sure whether we were looking for boats, liferafts or people. People in the water were our priority. Next came liferafts. At one point we lowered our man down onto a liferaft to see if the crew were OK. They said they were, so we said we’d pick them up later.”
This was a staggering indication of the scale of the drama that had unfolded and the unconventional approach that was required in the extraordinary circumstances. The fact that we had been picked up at all suggested that we had been part of this prioritisation. That, and luck.
“We headed back after four hours’ flying to refuel and went straight back out as there was no one to take over,” continued Thompson, whose working day finished after 8 hours and 20 minutes of flying in seriously challenging conditions.