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
Landing at RNAS Culdrose, we hobbled across the apron and were transported to the Naval hospital. My recollection of our arrival is a blur. Confused, anxious and disorientated, on the one hand I was relieved to be ashore, on the other, numbed by the shock of the previous few hours and the worry and distress at having left my father and two crewmembers behind.
I do remember trying to find someone to ask whether another helicopter had gone back to the boat and whether they had found the crew.
I still hadn’t given up hope, but I started to feel sick inside as the prospect of having to phone home to break the news to my mother, brother and sister began to occupy my thoughts.
I had already started to hear dramatic stories on the ward of boats going down with all hands and, while these were unconfirmed (and fortunately, as it turned out later, untrue), it was becoming clear that this was a major disaster.
I needed to tell my mother that three of us were safe, but three were not. How could I tell her what had happened to Dad? Should I continue to keep her hopes up, or was it better to face the likelihood that he had drowned? I couldn’t think how I would tell her either way.
Nick Ward and Gerry Winks were not recovered from the boat until later that evening and even then were only stumbled across by the rescue services, despite my repeated requests to get help to them. What had happened as a result of the Nimrod fly by, my comments in the helicopter and my efforts once ashore?
Once again, it would be easy to start pointing fingers, but in my opinion, very wrong. Such an extraordinary event relied on an extraordinary response and people were forced to make decisions as they went along, many of them heroic. Sometimes there simply are no guidelines and goodwill and instinct take over.
When I did discover that Nick had been recovered alive, I was relieved and delighted. Thank God. Suddenly the effort spent nagging people about going back to the boat seemed worth it after a day in which I had spent plenty of time doubting myself questioning and whether others knew more than they were prepared to tell me. Yet the good news came with bad. Gerry was dead and there was no report of my father. His body was never found.
Although in my heart I knew he had gone, for the next few years I couldn’t help thinking that maybe, somehow, he had survived. Whenever I saw a story in the national newspapers, no matter how small, regarding a body that had been found, my heart raced. Was it him? Or perhaps by some miracle he had survived? Thirty years later I’m just about over it, but it doesn’t stop me wondering what might have been.
Life after ’79
Returning to our flat in Hamble was tough. Our life was in turmoil and continued that way for many months. Aside from the distress and practical implications following the loss of two crewmembers from our boat, my father was one of the founding partners and the financial director of a large London- based company. Because his body had not yet been found, a death certificate could not be issued and the family’s assets and estate was frozen. The company had suddenly been thrown into a difficult situation too.
Our minds were in many places and again I found myself responding to situations rather than controlling them. While we had never anticipated anything like this, the turmoil and distress wasn’t surprising.
What was alarming, though, was the broadside we took when John Rousmaniere’s book Fastnet Force 10 was published the following year. Included in the various stories of the storm was a detailed account of our assessment during those critical five minutes on 14 August, the actions that followed and the suggestion that the three of us were wrong to leave the boat – all of which was written and published without the author ever asking me, Dave or Mike.
I felt betrayed. I also felt confused. If nothing else, one of the pictures in the book taken from the helicopter shortly before Nick was airlifted off the deck shows Gerry in precisely the same position as I remembered leaving him.
As part of the process that followed the loss of two lives from Grimalkin, Mike Doyle and I had to attend and give evidence at the inquest into the death of Gerry held in Truro on 17 October 1979. The purpose was also to provide evidence so that a death certificate could be issued for my father.
The pathologist’s evidence as to the cause of Gerry’s death had been given when the inquest was opened on 16 August and death was due to drowning. The Coroner added that his drowning had been quick. In his view, Gerry had been dead at the time the boat was abandoned.
The helicopter observer, Petty Officer Glover, who lowered winchman Peter Harrison down onto the deck to recover Nick and Gerry also gave evidence. He said that Harrison had found Gerry tangled in various sheets and cables and was aboard the boat for about five minutes to untangle his body.
Moving Gerry and Nick seemed impossible to us at the time. Now it seemed that a fit and healthy helicopter crewman had a similar problem.
In the heat of the moment we believed the two crew were dead. Thankfully one of them wasn’t and was recovered. According to the findings at the inquest, it appeared that the other one was.
Even back in 1979 it was clear that the issue as to whether or not Gerry was dead when we left would be contentious. Nick has his recollections, I have mine. What I did know for sure and what hasn’t changed since is that, at the time, everyone did what they felt was correct given the circumstances – whether on board the deck of our boat, in the pilot seat of a helicopter, in the admissions department of the Culdrose sick bay or in the search and rescue co-ordination centre. The ’79 Fastnet was an extraordinary storm, which led to an unprecedented sailing disaster.
I still have the greatest sympathy for Nick’s terrifying ordeal, coming to on board the boat with four of his crewmates missing.
I cannot begin to imagine how I would have coped. Yet it saddens me that, terrifying though his ordeal was, little regard has been paid to the sensitivities of what others might have been going through and how they have coped since. To analyse people’s response is one thing, to criticise their best efforts in the circumstances quite another.
In recounting my experiences in this race, on TV or in the press, I have always tried to consider the feelings of others, particularly those who were involved and their families. Upholding their dignity, respecting their judgement and the stress that such actions may have caused them since was always in my mind. Not everyone was able to get back in the saddle. I did, I was lucky, others less so.
But sadly, after 30 years, I feel that our story, in particular, has become one-sided to the point that, if I don’t speak out, what has been published so far will become fact by default. Not only do I feel saddened about the description of what happened aboard the boat, but the suggestion that I shunned Nick following his safe return also upsets me. The suggestion of a pact among the three of us is offensive.
A few days after Nick returned to the Hamble we met and he visited our flat. We went to church. A few weeks later we travelled to Ireland to find the boat and a few weeks after that we went to the liferaft manufacturers RFD in Godalming after they had recovered our raft.
Yes, conversation may have been strained; simply coping with everyday life was hard, let alone rationalising the difficult decision I had had to make. I could have buried my head in the sand, hidden away, but I wanted to show my support and gratitude that he had survived and to face up to what would clearly be a difficult, emotional issue.
I feel disappointed and disheartened that my best efforts at the time are now judged to have been insufficient.
Mike Doyle, who had developed a friendship with Nick during the 1979 season, visited Nick at his home shortly after he was released from hospital. It is unfair to claim, as Nick does, that none of us spoke to him.
But the bottom line was that Nick survived, my father and Gerry didn’t. While it hurts to think of the people who might be affected by this, it hurts even more to think that the biggest decision of my life to date might now be considered, by those who’ve read just one side of the story, to have been a quick and cold-hearted response.
It was anything but.
In truth, 40 years means nothing to me, but 14 August means everything. Whether on the weather rail of race boats or 4,000ft above the English countryside, hopping from thermal to thermal in a gliding championship, 14 August has become for me a big day for reflection, a reminder if nothing else, that keeping a cool head and staying on top of your situation starts with your state of mind. Don’t let the little things slip away from you.
But the days in between each 14 August are pretty important too and there still aren’t many that I don’t have some thought about my father, the race or what I have learnt as a result.
In the 40 years that have passed since that terrible night and for all the distress that it has caused, losing control of the small things is what I fear the most. The more you let things run away from you, the bigger the potential disaster.
Perhaps that’s what this is all about.
For reasons that barely seem logical today, on returning to Hamble I was determined to find and recover Grimalkin, convinced that she was still afloat somewhere. Yet my search for our boat, conducted with the kind help of the secretary of the Royal Air Force Yacht Club, drew blank after blank, with coastguards reporting that she had been sunk – until we received a phone call saying that she was sitting in a Customs compound in New Ross, Southern Ireland.
A hastily organised visit to Ireland was rewarded with finding her looking in a very sorry state after she had been salvaged by a commercial vessel. Determined to have her repaired and recommissioned, I had the boat shipped back to the UK and rebuilt by her original builders Camper & Nicholsons.
I took delivery of her in spring 1980 and with family and friends sailed her back to her berth on the Hamble. For the next four years I raced and cruised her with friends.
About the author
Matt returned to offshore racing four weeks after the Fastnet in a JOG race to Le Havre aboard the prototype to Grimalkin, Silver Jubilee. He got a part-time job running the boat and the campaign while the owner commuted between Bahrain and Hamble.
In 1981 Silver Jubilee was sold and her owner’s new project was a Half Ton Cup campaign in a new Rob Humphreys design called Zephyros. They competed in the 1981 Fastnet, winning the Clarion Cup for the best-placed British entry on handicap.
Later that season Matt started a course in Yacht Design at Southampton Institute. After qualifying he joined Proctor Masts as a spar designer before moving on to become technical sales manager for the yacht division.
During this period he sat on the RORC’s Technical Committee, the Special Regulations committee and the main committee. In 1985 he competed in another Fastnet Race, this time aboard Robert Bottomley’s SJ35 Fearnought, a breezy race that saw 50 knots on the way back and a spell under bare poles.
In 1992 he joined Yachting World as Technical Editor, a role he held until 2016. Aside from the many miles that he has clocked up since, he has campaigned ceaselessly for improved stability for offshore yachts and to ensure that the data be made publicly available.
Article first published in the August 2009 edition of Yachting World.